International Relations Department Honors Program
“Honors quality” is a subjective determination, but there are some necessary conditions for an honors thesis. What follows is a list of some of the essential attributes:
The thesis is an extended essay, so it must have an argument. The argument is what you intend to prove in your thesis. Strong theses are built upon a clear and coherent assertion of causation or correlation. If someone asks you what your argument is, you should be able to answer them in one sentence that has the general form: “Because of x, then y.
Worthwhile theses also require an argument that is significant or non-trivial. If the person who asked you what your argument then proceeds to ask “So what?” you should be able to tell her why it is important, how it illuminates other related problems, and how it applies to cases beyond the ones you are studying.
Finally, an argument is framed within a theoretical structure or conceptual framework that draws upon previous work in the relevant discipline or disciplines. Arguments are not made in a vacuum but build on and add to existing theories.
One of the most common mistakes thesis writers make is to tackle a topic that is too broad. The average length of an International Relations honors thesis is 100 pages. That is not a great deal of space when you consider all the elements necessary to a successful thesis: an introduction, theoretical framework, case studies, and conclusion. No matter how focused you believe your original topic is, it will inevitably grow as you research and write the thesis. Beginning with a broad and diffuse topic risks having the thesis grow beyond manageable bounds. The narrower the scope, the more manageable your task and ultimately the more convincing your argument.
This is a crucial requirement: An honors thesis must make an original contribution to the literature. To fail to demonstrate originality is to write essentially a literature survey.
There are basically two ways to meet the originality test. You might make a novel argument, one that has not been made before on a particular topic. Or you might confirm an existing argument by marshaling new evidence. Either way, originality does not mean that your thesis deals with a topic no one has addressed before. Few topics have been exhaustively or definitively explored. All sound academic work builds upon a foundation laid by generations of scholars who went before. Simply because others have already written books or articles on the same topic is no reason to abandon it. But originality in a heavily studied field requires one to find a fresh angle or perspective, to propose new answers to old questions, and to uncover evidence substantially different from what others have cited in the past.
An original argument requires primary research if it is to be sustained. Primary research simply refers to evidence in original sources. These could include interviews, polls, and other types of surveys that you design and conduct yourself, or ones conducted by others and published or otherwise made available as unedited, raw data. Or they could be diaries, memoirs, oral histories, government cables or memos, newspaper accounts, and film footage. Statistics of all sorts are also essential to supporting many arguments. Primary research does not require uncovering sources no one else has seen or cited before; it does require that you go back to the original sources themselves and not rely on earlier researchers’ analyses or interpretations of these sources.
Primary research is part of the process of writing. While one should always start one’s research with a question in mind, it is more than likely that the question will change in the course of investigation and analysis. Primary research is part of an iterated process: one asks a question, researches a possible explanation, refines the question in light of the research, investigates the new, more refined question, and so forth. There should be a constant and vigorous interaction between the research and the writing of a major essay.
Put simply, the absence of primary research suggests that the essay is not rooted in evidence, but rather based on an interpretation of others’ interpretations. Such an essay may provide a useful summary of the existing literature, but it does not advance our understanding of the question being explored and may, unfortunately, perpetuate a gilt-edged error.
To be persuasive, an essay has to present the evidence in a clear and logical manner. In the social sciences and humanities, one never “proves” a hypothesis in the sense of the natural sciences and mathematics largely because one can never test thoroughly exact conditions over a long period of time. But one can persuade, carefully and fairly.
Honesty and conviction are the keys to persuasiveness. Honesty is the presentation of the details without exaggeration. Never claim more than the evidence warrants; acknowledge limitations in your research and the merits of counter arguments. Conviction is the sense the reader gets that in spite of your work’s limitations and all the counterarguments, you stand by your argument. You do so based on a carefully reasoned analysis of the best evidence available to you.
Neither honesty nor conviction can make up, however, for poor prose. Good writing depends on clarity and precision, on direct language and structures. The final draft of your thesis must be free of grammatical, syntactical, and typographical errors.
Before You Begin
Pursuing an honors thesis is a substantial undertaking, requiring a great deal of independent work. Because of this, please consider very carefully your own preparation for the project. Have you taken courses on this topic? If not, it may still be possible to complete the project, but experience has shown that doing so usually requires more work than can usually be completed in a year’s time. Planning ahead can alleviate this problem. For example, during your Sophomore and Junior years, you should look at the various courses offered—both at Mount Holyoke and in the Five Colleges—and be sure to take courses related to your intended area of honors research, well before you begin writing your thesis in your Senior year.
Moreover, choosing a topic for independent work can rarely be separated from choosing a faculty advisor. If the project is undertaken with a view towards honors, the student should probably select a topic that taps into the director’s competence and interests. Few faculty members have the time to learn a new topic along with a student, much as they would like to. The thesis must be done under the direction of an International Relations Department faculty member.
Statement of Intent: April of Junior Year
By late April of Junior year, you must make clear your intention to pursue Honors. This is done by working with a Thesis Advisor and submitting a preliminary plan of study to Linda Chesky Fernandes (email@example.com). Notification of acceptance or rejection will be given before the end of the semester. The statement of intent should be 2-3 pages and must:
1) State the question your thesis will try to address
2) Describe how you plan to investigate the question
3) List relevant coursework
4) Include the name of Thesis Advisor (who has already agreed to supervise this project)
5) Include a preliminary bibliography
Research: Summer before Senior Year
Because of the amount of writing that needs to be done during the Fall, you should plan to begin and complete most of your research over the summer. This may involve reading secondary literatures, finding and analyzing primary sources, developing surveys and gathering data, conducting interviews and coding responses, and so on. Please be advised that your research may require Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Proposal: September of Senior Year
The purpose of the thesis proposal is to help you organize and define your topic and to inform International Relations faculty about who is working with whom and on what subjects. The Department neither approves nor disapproves projects based on proposals. The proposal should be 7-10 pages; more detailed guidelines can be found below.
First Draft: January of Senior Year
To have your independent work eligible for honors consideration, you must submit, by one week before the beginning of spring semester classes, the first draft of your independent work to your independent study advisor and to the faculty member who would serve as the second reader of a paper later submitted to the International Relations Department for honors consideration.
The advisor and the second reader shall evaluate this first draft to determine whether or not it shows promise of honors quality. By the beginning of spring semester classes, the Chair of the International Relations Department must obtain the evaluation of the advisor and the second reader and must then report to the International Relations Department faculty the names of students whose independent work, on the basis of first drafts, remain eligible for honors consideration.
Revised Draft: March/April of Senior Year
By the end of March, the student, the advisor of the independent work, and the second reader must decide whether the independent work should be submitted for honors consideration. If the independent work is to be submitted for honors consideration, the advisor must so notify the faculty of the International Relations Department by the end of March, indicating the title of the paper and the composition of the examining committee.
A paper to be considered for honors must be submitted by the end of the last full week in April. At this time, you must provide a copy to each member of your examining committee (electronic or hard copy depending on their preferences) and one electronic copy (as a PDF) to Linda Chesky Fernandes (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the International Relations Department office.
Honors Examination: April/May of Senior Year
An examining committee shall consist of the advisor, a second reader, typically from within the International Relations Department, and an outside reader from either another department at Mount Holyoke College or from another institution in the Five Colleges. The Chair of the International Relations Department may also attend honors examinations. The honors examination, which normally lasts an hour, usually occurs during the reading period and the week of final examinations.
This examination is meant to be more of a conversation than an interrogation. That is to say, an honors paper representing work done over two semesters shall not be held hostage to an hour’s examination. Your examination will not detract from your committee’s evaluation of your essay, but a good examination can enhance the committee’s evaluation of your essay.
You must wait until graduation to learn the outcome. In accordance with College rules, the examining committee makes a recommendation to the International Relations Department, and the Department, in turn, makes a recommendation to the Academic Administrative Board. The Registrar will notify you of the actual degree of honors awarded.
By June/July, a corrected copy of an honors essay must be sent by the student to the Library for permanent cataloging, see the Library’s instructions for doing so.
By April of Junior Year:
- Find faculty advisor for the project
- Register for an International Relations 395 for following Fall semester
- Submit a 2-3 page statement of intent to the department
Strongly Encouraged for Summer
- Write thesis proposal
- Review college IRB guidelines and apply for IRB approval, if applicable
- Do most of your research: literature review, data gathering, etc.
Senior Year (exact dates for the current academic year are below):
Mid-September: Full proposal submitted to department
Mid-January: Complete draft due to advisor and second reader
Late January: Advisor and second reader let the department know if student can proceed with project on the basis of the first completed draft of the Honors project
March: Revised draft to advisor and second reader; faculty decide whether project will be considered for Honors designation
April: Submission of project to the department
May: Honors examination
June: Corrected final copies due to Library
The proposal should be sent to Linda Chesky Fernandes (email@example.com) as a pdf.
LENGTH: 7-10 pages
Your proposal should include:
- Abstract. This is a brief description of what you plan to do, how you will do it, and why it is important. Begin by clearly stating your research question and working hypothesis. What is the point of your thesis project?
- Literature Review and Conceptual Framework. Explain the theoretical context for your project, as well the current state of the field. What concepts and theories will you use? What have others written on this topic?
- Methods and Work Plan. How will your demonstrate your central argument and claims? What is your primary source material or evidence? Will you use qualitative, quantitative, or interpretive methods? Why? Does your plan require particular skills (e.g. languages, statistics) and do you have them already? Have you completed the IRB process if necessary? Provide a work plan that explains what you will accomplish when (a draft Table of Contents would be useful here as well).
- Significance. Why does this thesis matter for the study of politics? What are the broader implications of your project and how will you bring those into your thesis? How will your project expand or challenge other literature on the subject?
- Bibliography. This should include primary and secondary sources that relate directly to your project.
The deadlines for honors work in International Relations during 2017-2018 are as follows:
- Friday, September 22, 2017, at 3:00 pm: Submission of the prospectus to Department. The prospectus should be sent to Linda Chesky Fernandes (firstname.lastname@example.org) as a pdf
- Tuesday, January 16, 2018: In order to have their independent work eligible for honors consideration, the student must submit, by one week before the beginning of spring semester classes, a first draft of their independent work to the advisor of their independent work and to the faculty member who would serve as the second reader of an essay later submitted to the International Relations Department for honors consideration.
- Tuesday, January 23, 2018: By the beginning of spring semester classes, the Chair of the International Relations Department must obtain the evaluation of the thesis advisor and the second reader, and must then report to the International Relations Department faculty the names of students whose independent work, on the basis of first drafts, remains eligible for honors consideration.
- Saturday, March 31, 2018: By the end of March, the student, the advisor of the independent work and the second reader must decide whether the independent work should be submitted for honors consideration. If the independent work is to be submitted for honors consideration, the advisor must so notify the faculty of the International Relations Department, indicating the title of the essay and the composition of the examining committee.
- Friday, April 27, 2018: A paper to be considered for honors must be submitted by the end of the last full week in April. At this time, two copies of the paper are due in the Department office, in addition to the three copies distributed to members of the examining committee.
- Tuesday, May 1 - Monday, May 7, 2018: Honors examinations held.
- Saturday, June 30, 2018: Corrected copy of honors essay must be submitted to the Library in electronic format.