Preparing to Write a Thesis

Although you don’t actually write your thesis until senior year, the success of your thesis depends in large part on what you do junior year.

The first decision you have to make is whether to write a thesis or not. This decision involves a combination of both academic and non-academic considerations. Devoting your senior year to thesis writing doesn’t require that you drop everything else (at least not until the final few weeks), but it does mean that you’re choosing to spend a very considerable portion of your time senior year engaged in scholarly research and writing.

Many students find this academic challenge an exciting capstone experience to their Government Department and Harvard experience. Others choose not to write a thesis because they wish to focus their energies elsewhere. Approximately 30% of Government concentrators each year choose to write a thesis.

When you start your junior year, you might not know yet whether you want to write a thesis. If you’re like many of your peers, you’ll have questions such as, “What exactly does a thesis look like?”, “So how much work do I really have to do?” and “What are the steps involved if I want to write?” The Government Department’s course offerings and programming for juniors are designed to answer these questions, and many others related to thesis preparation.

If you already know that you wish to write a thesis, your questions may be slightly different: “What courses do I need to take to prepare me to write a thesis?”, “How much methodological preparation do I need to succeed in my thesis?”, or “Is anything different for me if I’m writing a political theory thesis?” Our programming junior year is also designed to answer questions like these.

In addition to official Government Department programming, however, it’s also up to you to take initiative to explore the possibility of writing a thesis. Below is a rough schedule of what you should be doing during the junior year if you’re thinking about writing a thesis. 

Sophomore spring and summer. . .

  • Start thinking about whether you want to write a thesis, and if so, what topic it might be on. (It’s okay if the answers are still very vague at this point.)
  • If you are a joint concentrator, you should be in touch with both of your Departments, and speak with the Undergraduate Program Office in the Government Department about your plans.
  • To give yourself a better understanding of the thesis writing process, check out the Guide to Writing a Senior Thesis in Government. The Guide contains a wealth of useful information, and should be your first stop in exploring the thesis writing process.
  • Now is the time to open a conversation with your Gov 97 TF, House Concentration Adviser, faculty and TFs in courses that particularly interest you, and the advising staff in CGIS about your thesis ideas. Seek their advice on courses to take, people to talk to in the Department, and pieces to read. Even if you don’t have an idea, it’s good to open up this dialogue because an idea might very well come to you in the course of the emails or conversations.
  • One of the best ways to learn how to write a thesis is by examining theses written by Government Department seniors in the past. There are several ways to do this. You can visit the Harvard library system, and look at the Hoopes prize theses and the theses in Pusey. These represent some of the best theses in our department and beyond. If you are interested in a thesis on a particular topic, ask the Undergraduate Office for recommendations. We also have an online Government thesis repository on our website.

Early Fall Junior Year: Selecting courses junior year

  • As you start to sketch out some ideas for possible topics, look at the course catalog to see if there are Gov 94 Seminars that might align with your interests. Feel free to contact the professors before classes begin to express your interest, and solicit their advice.
  • Think about the courses you’ve taken so far, and determine if there are any methodology courses that you need to take in order to write a successful thesis. Specifically, have you taken Gov 50 yet? If you’re considering using quantitative methods in your thesis, you should consider taking Gov 61. If you’re considering qualitative methods (e.g. interviewing, archival research, content analysis), you should consider taking Gov 62. If you’re considering writing a thesis in political theory, you should consider taking Gov 63 and/or other theory courses consistent with your interests.

Mid-to-Late Fall Junior Year: Finding an adviser

  • By mid-to-late Fall, you should start thinking more carefully about what you might want to write your thesis on, and who you might like to work with. In the Government Department, advisers can be either Government Department faculty or graduate students. A list of graduate students who have expressed particular interests in advising is available here.
  • It’s important to start looking now because there are a number of thesis research funding deadlines in February, and in order to apply for some of them, you’ll need a decent idea of your thesis topic, as well as faculty support for the idea.
  • To make your thesis adviser search easier, please read Advice on Finding a Thesis Adviser. Remember: you don’t need to know your precise question before you start talking with potential advisers. Indeed, one of the roles of an adviser is to help you arrive at a question. While you certainly need a general topic area, this may be enough to open up a conversation with an adviser. You also don’t need to talk only to people who you think could be possible advisers. “Brainstorming” sessions are extremely useful at this point, and may lead you down new research paths.
  • In October, start looking for emails from the Government Department Undergraduate Program Office announcing the thesis orientations for juniors interested in writing a thesis. You are required to attend one of these orientations (they are identical) if you intend to write a thesis.
  • You should also draw on your House Concentration Adviser and the CGIS Staff as you try to select your preliminary thesis topic and search for an adviser. We can send emails on your behalf, recommend colleagues for you to talk to, and serve as a sounding board for your ideas.


Late Fall / Early Spring Junior Year: Finding Funds for Thesis Research

  • There are many opportunities to obtain funding for your thesis research. But many of these funding opportunities have their deadlines in February, which means that you need to start thinking in late Fall and early Spring semester about what to apply for. We have compiled a list of funding opportunities.
  • At the beginning of the spring semester, WCFIA, CES, and some other centers host “Funding Your Thesis Research” sessions, in which Center staff  talk about how to prepare a grant proposal. You should also be in touch with your House Concentration Advisers and the CGIS Advising staff to get feedback on your specific proposals.

Mid-to-Late Spring Junior Year: Finding a topic and adviser

  • By the middle of your Junior Spring, you should be fully exploring your potential thesis topic, and be engaged in the search for a thesis adviser in the Department.
  • In order to keep your thesis-writing options open, a series of mandatory orientations in February, as well as a number of strongly recommended methods workshops run jointly by Social Studies and Government, will be held in March and April. These sessions are designed to introduce the thesis process in more detail, and introduce you to the skills you’ll need to conduct your research. Topics covered include: participant observation, conducting interviews, historical methods, mapping and special thinking, content analysis, survey methods, quantitative and statistical methods, and how to write a theory thesis.


Late Spring Junior Year: Submit your adviser contract, prepare for summer research

  • By the end of May, you need to submit an Adviser Contract to the Undergraduate Program Office. It is critical that you leave campus in the Spring with a thesis adviser set for the following year. Trying to find an adviser over the summer is often difficult because of travel schedules, and not being on campus.
  • If you’re struggling with finding an adviser, or even coming up with a thesis topic, speak with your Concentration Adviser or come into CGIS and meet with members of the Undergraduate Program Office. We’re here to help.
  • Cheryl Welch, the DUS, and George Soroka, the ADUS, hold special office hours in the late spring specifically to talk to prospective thesis writers. Particularly if you are still on the fence about whether to write and aren’t sure whether your ideas for a thesis topic will work,  you should take advantage of these individual advising sessions. They can help you refine or narrow your topic and help you find an adviser.
  • Once you have an adviser, you can talk with her/him about your plans  for summer research. Not all students travel abroad or domestically to do original research, or interviewing, or spend the summer in archives. Almost all successful thesis writers, however, spend the summer at least doing background reading and/or refining their research questions.. It’s important to be clear with your adviser what you will (or will not) accomplish over the summer. That way, when you come back in the Fall, you’ll both know where you’re starting from and what you need to do.
  • If you are going to be using human subjects in your research (for example interviewing), you will need to get approval from the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects (CUHS)

Summer: Adviser search (if necessary)

Sometimes, either because you decided late to write a thesis or because you simply weren’t able to find an adviser before you left, you will enter your summer before Senior year without obtaining an adviser. Don’t worry. You’re not the only one who’s in that situation, and we can help you with your search.