Writing a Master's Thesis: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
By course coordinator Anders Westholm (Anders.Westholm@statsvet.uu.se)
A master's thesis is expected to take one semester, that is, 20 weeks of full-time work to complete. However, it is important to begin thinking about the thesis long before the first day of that semester. In fact, you should always have the gradually maturing plans for your thesis in mind from day one of your studies within the master’s program. Although not a requirement, it is recommended that students take elective courses that are related to the thesis they are contemplating and start thinking about a research problem suitable for a master’s thesis long before the start of the semester where the thesis is actually written. The course "Reviewing Prior Research" provides an especially good starting point in this regard. Since you must have a good grasp of scientific methods in order to write an acceptable thesis, having passed the course on methods included in the master’s program is a requirement to begin thesis writing.
Provided that you are fairly well prepared when it comes to your choice of research problem, the theoretical approaches and prior findings you would like to relate to, suitable data that you might use and/or collect, conceivable research designs and suitable methods, you will ordinarily have no problem completing an acceptable thesis within the 20 weeks it is expected to take.
The Requirements a Master’s Thesis Is Expected to Meet
It is the quality of the thesis rather than its length that is evaluated. Thesis works seldom become better simply by being made longer. A thesis must be no longer than 20 000 words. A length of 15 000 to 20 000 is common but there is no absolute lower limit, just an upper one. A thesis that exceeds the upper limit cannot be submitted for examination. Nearly everything in your thesis counts toward the 20 000 words, including in-text citations and footnotes. There are only two exceptions: The list of references at the end and any appendices you might want to include for purely documentary purposes, e.g., for documenting data sources, providing detailed technical information or the like.
Note also that we do not require a research assignment larger than what can be handled within the expected time (one semester) and the maximum length (20 000 words). A topic that requires more than that in either regard should be narrowed down. Note that while we cannot forbid you from working longer than one semester on your thesis, a task so large that it requires more than one semester will not be graded more favorably on account of its size.
The thesis is expected to be an independently conducted investigation of a research problem of relevance to political science, broadly conceived. Usually, a master’s thesis investigates an empirical problem of some kind. However, thesis works can also be purely theoretical and/or devoted to political philosophy.
The quality of the thesis is determined by the creativity you show when developing and answering your research question and the extent to which you are able to develop an independent point of view throughout the thesis: the specification of the research question, the way you relate to theory and to previous research, the conceptual and analytical apparatus, the selection and management of data sources, the selection and use of methods, the actual analysis, and the presentation.
The thesis is expected to be well presented in all regards. It should demonstrate sufficient command of scholarly presentation techniques (including but not limited to things like quotations, footnotes, reference lists, and tables and figures) that the seminar discussion can focus on the contents. If you feel uncertain in these regards, take a look at the scholarly literature to see what established researchers do.
Our general advice in this regard is diametrically opposed to what is valid in other scholarly contexts: Be conventional! Do not create your own form of notation or organization. The best technical solutions are such that they do not capture the reader's attention, thereby helping to focus interest on what is essential, namely, on what the thesis has to say substantively speaking. There is an abundance of handbooks about the elements of thesis writing that the student can consult, such as Marika Sanne: Skrivråd för statsvetare (Studentlitteratur); Ann-Marie Ekengren och Jonas Hinnfors: Uppsatshandbok. Hur du lyckas med din uppsats (Studentlitteratur); and Booth, Colomb & Williams: The Craft of Research (recommended for everyone, but particularly for those writing in English).
We do not demand that you follow any precise blueprint when it comes to the way you structure the presentation of your thesis. Although it is usually a good idea to be rather conventional in this regard as well, you should not let them become a straightjacket. Exactly what you need to discuss at some length and what requires less attention varies from one thesis to another. And precisely where in the thesis this discussion takes place – whether under a particular heading near the beginning of the thesis or in the section of the text where it is most relevant – is a pedagogical matter. The absolute overriding issue is the desire for clarity. Try to put yourself in the reader’s position and then try to write so as to serve him or her as well as you can. If you feel that you cannot write so as to serve all readers equally well, try to satisfy an expert reader rather than a non-expert.
A master’s thesis can be written in either Swedish or English. The choice of language does not influence the grading. But make sure that the text eventually satisfies reasonable standards when it comes to purely linguistic quality. We do not expect you to show novelist skills, but what you say should be linguistically clear and correct.
A thesis must have only one author since you are graded individually. This obviously does not prevent you from cooperating with other students in some ways, e.g. by discussing each other's thesis works and helping each other with practical matters or the development of ideas. On the contrary, this kind of cooperation is strongly encouraged. In special cases, students may even cooperate when it comes to the collection of data when there is a good reason to do so. However, this is something that should be approved by the coordinator of the master’s thesis course before you embark on it. Furthermore, everything else must be an individual responsibility rather than a shared one.
Every student writing a thesis must have a supervisor. Any faculty member at the department with a Ph.D can serve in that role. In special cases, we may also allow Ph.D. students to supervise. However, in that case, supervision should be conducted in cooperation with a faculty member at the department who has a Ph.D. In practice, the Ph.D. student may do most of the job but it is important that there is a more senior person whom the Ph.D. student can ask for advice and who can step in when and if required.
You should start thinking about who might serve as your supervisor well in advance and it is a good idea to contact the person or persons that you deem suitable already some time before the start of the semester when the thesis is to be written. This maximizes the chance that you get the supervisor you prefer and ensures that the two of you can start to work together on day one. If you need help in finding a proper supervisor, feel free to contact the course coordinator about the matter. The same is true if you think that, for one reason or another, you need to change from one supervisor to another.
Supervisors are expected to give each student 16 working hours (two working days) worth of time. This of course includes not only the time set aside for meetings or other forms of communication but also the time the supervisor needs to prepare, by reading and thinking about what you are doing. As long as you stay within these limits, you should expect to get the attention you need. But since faculty members have many responsibilities in addition to supervision, you cannot expect that the supervisor is always ready to help you out on very short notice.
There are no regulations concerning the specifics of supervision. Supervision rests on trust and a common interest in the topic. Note that a supervisor, even if it is the most suitable one the department can provide, can not be expected to be an expert on everything related to your thesis. He or she may be able to help you out very well in some areas whereas in others, you may not get quite as much help. As a rule, however, you should be able to expect comments concerning the specification of your research question, relevant lines of literature, relevant data sources, and the choice of design and methods. The supervisor can also be expected to provide advice regarding the proper magnitude of your research endeavor.
You may feel pressed for time when the date on which the thesis must be submitted approaches. For this as well as other reasons, you should not expect that the supervisor reads and comments upon the final draft as a whole. But if the supervisor is able and willing to do so, it is important to keep in mind that the supervisor cannot and should not make any promises about the way the thesis will be graded. The supervisor provides advice and assistance, but does not participate in the grading. The decision to present the thesis for seminar discussion along with the full responsibility for the content rests with you alone.
Note also, that while it is often a good idea to follow the advice of the supervisor, you are not obliged to do so. The decisions you make regarding your thesis are in the end yours and yours alone. You should also keep in mind that when your supervisor provides advice that you choose to follow, you will not be able to defend your choice by reference to the supervisor. If you are asked, at the seminar where your thesis is defended, about the reasons for your decision, you cannot simply say that you did what you did because your supervisor told you to. You must be able to provide substantive motivations for your choices. Therefore, it is important that you fully understand the logic on the basis of which the supervisor gives you this or that piece of advice and that you consider whether that logic is sufficient to give you proper motivations for your actions.
When a Thesis Is Finished
Theses are presented for examination via seminars with one two-hour seminar accorded to each thesis. Seminar series are normally held on four occasions during the academic year: In the middle of January, at the beginning of March, at the end of May/beginning of June, and at the beginning of October. Further information about when and how to sign up for a round of seminars and when to submit your thesis can be found here.
You must attend eight of the seminars in the round you have chosen to take part in, including the one where you defend your own thesis and the one where you serve as discussant (“opponent”) on someone else’s. This is the only attendance requirement of the course and you are expected to make sure that you can devote the entire seminar period (usually about a week) as well as the time between thesis submission and the first seminar (usually about a week as well) to preparation for, and participation in, the seminars. Note that you must satisfy this attendance requirement within the same series of seminars as the one where your own thesis is presented. If you fail to meet the attendance requirement in full, you will have to make up for that by discussing some of the theses presented in the same seminar series in writing rather than verbally.
While the grade you are accorded depends first and foremost on the quality of the thesis itself, your conduct during the seminars is taken into account as well: how well you defend your own thesis, how well you serve in your role as discussant (“opponent”) on someone else’s thesis, and your contribution as a seminar participant more generally. This may sometimes be of decisive importance if the quality of the thesis itself is such that it is on the border-line between two grades.
The seminar where you present your thesis is chaired by an examiner who is always a faculty member other than your supervisor. The examiner, and the examiner alone, decides the grade. The usual grading scale is used: pass with distinction, pass, and fail (“väl godkänd, godkänd och underkänd”). If the thesis fails, you will have to revise it and present it again at the next series of seminars offered.
In special cases, where the shortcomings are very specific, the examiner may give you the option of submitting a revised thesis to him or her for approval rather than wait for the next seminar series. If you choose to take advantage of this option when offered (this is by no means mandatory), you can never receive more than a pass. If, by contrast, you decide to sign up for the next round of seminars, the thesis can receive any grade, just as when you presented it the first time. As to the attendance requirements when submitting a thesis for examination a second time, you need only participate in the seminar where you defend your own thesis and the one where you serve as discussant, provided that you attended at least six seminars in the series where you first presented your thesis.