The Duck of Minerva

Are you writing an MA thesis at APSIA-type program? Here are some things to consider

17 November 2021

Many MA programs at so-called professional schools of international affairs require students to complete a thesis. The purpose of this is not always clear-cut for students in terminal and interdisciplinary degree programs. Having supervised dozens of students in this pursuit, I have a few thoughts about how you can tackle some of the thorny practicalities of thesis writing, and make the experience as beneficial for yourself as possible.

Coming up with a good research question and finding people to engage your work are two of the hardest things we do in the academy. And yet, these are the very first steps to getting started on what might already seem like an insurmountable task. Here are a few questions to consider to help find your focus:

What do you want to do after your masters? This question can be intimidating—of course you might not know yet. But reflecting on it can be relevant for your thesis in a few ways. 

If you’re planning to look for employment after graduation, consider the following: first, you could study a topic that is substantively relevant to your dream job. This could help on the job market or when you actually start work. For instance, if you want to work on refugee resettlement, you could study international law pertaining to asylum claims; how different international organizations approach asylum; how a given organization has changed its views over the years… Consider selecting a topic that will allow you to deepen your knowledge base for the future. 

Second, you could choose a question that will allow you to learn more about an organization or a sector where you would like to work—for example, if you want to work for the World Bank, you could study implementation of a specific program, or how their thinking has changed on a topic like the rule of law or sovereign debt. This can help you figure out where you might fit in, and develop a deeper understanding of the institution to serve you in your future work.

Third, you might use your thesis as an opportunity to network—consider studying a subject that will allow you to set up informational interviews with people you would like to meet or work with in the future. 

Finally, you may want to use your thesis—or an excerpt from it—as a writing sample. Think about writing a 10-12 page section that you can revise for this purpose. Relatedly, you could think about writing a blog from your thesis that you can put on your CV, or help develop a public profile.

If you are interested in pursuing a PhD, your thesis may need to adhere to particular methodological and disciplinary standards that go beyond the requirements of your program. Different disciplines ask questions in different ways, and they consider different types of analysis and data compelling evidence. When you apply for a PhD, it is helpful to show that you understand the “rules of the game” for the discipline you’re trying to join, and one way to do this is by demonstrating it through your thesis.  It can also be an opportunity to learn about identifying a puzzle or so-called “gap” in the literature, designing a coherent research project, and conducting independent research (if this is feasible). If doing a PhD is your goal, be sure to talk with your thesis supervisor but also other professors about it (see below). Perhaps most importantly, if you want to pursue a PhD, you’ll need to earn a top mark on your thesis—it can be a good idea to discuss this with your supervisor and check in over the course of the thesis writing process to make sure that you remain on track to meet expectations.

Who do you want to work with? Your thesis supervisor is formally tasked with talking to you about your ideas—this could happen more or less depending on the program and the person—but it’s important to think about for a few reasons. The relationship you build with your supervisor has the potential to connect you to broader academic or professional networks. Your supervisor could also engage with and help develop your ideas. They might be someone you are looking forward to meeting with and talking to. Hopefully their expectations for your thesis are a good match with your own. Supervisors will almost never check every box—we’re people too, after all!—so it’s good to think about what is particularly important to you.

With that in mind, whose classes have you enjoyed in your program? Who do you want to learn more from? Use writing the thesis as an opportunity to deepen and expand your network, reaching out to faculty to discuss your ideas, or to meet professors who you haven’t met yet. Ask about their expectations; ask them who else they think might be a potential supervisor for you. Meet with several faculty members to find a good fit.

If you know who you want to work with, consider their research interests, in terms of substance, regional specialty, method, and/or discipline. You might design your thesis question to link to one of these interests—or it might be the very reason you want to work with them in the first place! Read some of their publications, see if it sparks some new ideas. A lot of programs will also allow you to have an outside reader if you request special permission. This can be a great opportunity to connect to someone with deep expertise in your area.

Also consider that your supervisor will become familiar with you and your work, and may be someone who you later ask to write you a letter of recommendation. Are they connected or known in the area you want to work in? 

If you want to do a PhD, it is usually a good idea to get a supervisor in the same discipline as the degree you want to pursue (e.g. if you want to do a political science PhD, work with a political scientist, not an anthropologist). This matters for two reasons: first, your supervisor will likely push you toward using scholarship and methods that are respected in their discipline—it is what they know, and it is what they value. Second, their letter of support will mean a lot more to others in their same discipline than one coming from outside the discipline—it’s more likely that others will know their work, and they will be seen as having a better ability to assess your ability to pursue that kind of degree. That being said, the most important thing is that your supervisor will support you to do a PhD—so be sure to discuss your goals with them over the course of your thesis.

What do you like? Even if you plan to spend minimal time on your thesis (see below), you’ll inevitably have to think about it a lot. Pick a topic you like to read about and think about. There can also be path dependencies to your work—if you learn about one area, you may be asked to continue researching on it, or writing and talking about it, in the future. It’s great if you build expertise on something you enjoy thinking about. 

Students in the programs I have taught on are often interested in conflict, violence, and other really terrible things that people do to each other. This can be hard stuff to immerse yourself in. There’s no intrinsic value in studying awful stuff for its own sake. If you want to take on one of these topics, think about it carefully, also in terms of how you’ll assess whether it is productive and healthy for you to do so, whether you have support in place if you need it, and if there is an option to refocus your project if you decide it is not for you.

Do you have any comparative advantages? Another potential consideration is whether you have unusual access to any particular kind of data. Do you speak a language that could allow you to draw on material often left out of mainstream anglophone scholarship? Do you know someone or a community of people who are hard for academics to access? These can allow you to make important contributions by drawing on empirical material that has been overlooked or underutilized.

It’s also ok if you see the thesis as a checkbox to complete as a part of your degree. If you just aren’t interested in writing a long research paper, you might want to consider minimizing the additional work you have to do for it, for example, selecting a topic you already know a lot about. Another route to a thesis question can be taking the theoretical framework from one article you’ve read and found compelling, and applying it to a new case that tests broader applicability. 

Finally, we often place great emphasis on novelty for MA theses. But let’s be honest, it is extremely difficult to come up with a totally new idea or a novel take on a question—even established scholars struggle with this. Instead, I emphasize using your thesis as an opportunity to think in depth about an area that you care about, and add your voice to an ongoing conversation.