A senior thesis is an extended research project on a topic of the student's choosing, completed under the guidance of a faculty member over the course of an entire academic year. Writing a thesis is a strenuous and rewarding exercise that offers students an opportunity to achieve expertise on a topic, produce a publication-quality research project, and work closely with a faculty advisor.

Key Deadlines

  • Rising seniors who expect to write a senior thesis should register for INTL 4951 (Senior Thesis) during the fall registration period. They should also be in touch with the thesis program coordinator, Prof. Hiroshi Nakazato, about possible thesis topics and advisors.
  • Current thesis writers should submit a complete draft of your thesis to your advisor in early April. Printed and bound copies of any thesis to be considered for the Matteo Ricci, SJ International Studies Thesis Prize, or the University's McCarthy Prize (for Scholars of the College theses), must be submitted by April 15; all others may submit final printed and bound copies by April 30.

Thesis Details


What is a senior thesis?

A senior thesis is an extended independent research project on a topic of the student's choosing, completed under the guidance of a faculty member over the course of an entire academic year. Students typically earn 3 credits per semester when writing a senior thesis; half of these credits will count toward a student's major concentration (e.g. Ethics and Social Justice, Conflict and Cooperation, etc.). Nine- or twelve-credit theses may be approved for students who qualify as Scholars of the College.

Is it required for IS majors?

No. Seniors in the IS Program must complete either a senior seminar or a senior thesis. The number of thesis writers changes each year; a little less than 25% of the class of 2020 wrote a thesis.

What are the benefits of writing a thesis?

Writing a thesis is a strenuous and rewarding exercise that offers students an opportunity to achieve expertise on a topic, produce a publication-quality research project, and work closely with a faculty advisor.

  • First and foremost, it is an opportunity to follow your intellectual interests: to dig deep into a topic of your choice, and to ask the kinds of questions you want to ask.  
  • Thesis writers work closely with a faculty member who becomes a mentor and advisor during the academic year and beyond graduation.
  • Thesis writers demonstrate to prospective employers and graduate schools that they are capable of completing a sustained research project, and that they have expertise in a particualr topic.
  • Thesis writers earn IS Program Honors, and are eligible for the Matteo Ricci SJ International Studies Thesis Prize, and (if designated a Scholar of the College), the Morrissey College's McCarthy Prize.

How big of a commitment is it?

Writing a thesis is a substantial commitment, but the specifics of that are up to you and your thesis advisor. There is no specific page-length requirement for the thesis itself, but they typically range from 70 pages (for those with more of an economics focus) to 150 pages or more. Thesis research should take at least as much time as you give to a strenuous 3-credit course each semester, and sometimes much more.

What are the deadlines?

The short answer is that you must enroll in the IS thesis course (INTL 4951) when you register for fall semester senior year classes, and your thesis must be approved by your advisor by April 15. But you should be thinking about the project during your junior year, so that you can conduct research or take classes while abroad that will inform your thesis project. You should also select a thesis advisor during your junior spring semester. For much more information, see "Timeline" tab at left.


While the thought of writing a 60, 80, or even a 100+ page paper may seem daunting, it is doable if done in stages. The senior thesis will likely be the longest, hardest, and yet most rewarding single academic project in your undergraduate career, the tangible and cumulative expression of what you have learned as an undergraduate scholar. Still, it is *only* a senior thesis, and cannot be expected to be perfect or comprehensive, or the final word on the subject. However, at the very least, it should demonstrate that you are familar with and engaged in the related academic conversations, and that you have made an original contribution to them. The thesis should be more than a big book report. It should have original points to make. It should employ the accepted practices of academic research. At its best, it should be a piece of scholarship that reflects your present ability and future potential.

Students enroll in INTL 4951 (Senior Thesis) in the fall, and take INTL 4952 (Senior Thesis) in the spring, with each course carrying 3 credits. While these courses are listed under the IS Thesis Coordinator (Prof. Hiroshi Nakazato), as the instructor of record, students meet with their thesis advisors. The advisor is also the instructor who issues the final grade, which is then recorded by the Thesis Coordinator. Because there are no scheduled times when students meet for these "courses," students are expected to set aside time each week to work on their theses, and make their own arrangements with their advisors on how frequently they will meet and on what days.

Please note: If your thesis involves surveys, interviews, or other data that involves contact with human subjects, you will need to submit an application to the BC Institutional Review Board (IRB). This takes time, so it should be done as soon as possible in the thesis process.

Thesis Types

The International Studies program has no particular requirements on thesis topics, apart from the expectation that there is an international component, broadly defined. Students are not required to write theses in their concentrations, although students are expected to have the necessary tools or coursework required to complete their theses. Thus, for example, students would be discouraged by the IS faculty from writing a primarily Economics-focused thesis without courses in statistics, game theory, or econometrics, or at least to the extent these tools are needed to begin and complete the thesis.

Stephen Van Evera, a political scientist at MIT, lists seven types of dissertations (read “theses,” for our purposes) in his Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997), 89-93:

  1. A theory-proposing dissertation advances new hypotheses. A deductive argument for these hypotheses is advanced. Examples may be offered to illustrate these hypotheses and to demonstrate their plausibility, but strong empirical tests are not performed.

  2. A theory-testing dissertation uses empirical evidence to evaluate existing theories. This evidence can take the form of large-n analysis, case studies, or both.  Many dissertations are a blend of type 1 and 2. They do some theory-proposing and some theory-testing. However, a good thesis can focus exclusively on proposing theory, or on testing theory, as long as it contributes useful knowledge.

  3. A literature-assessing (or “stock taking”) dissertation summarizes and evaluates existing theoretical and empirical literature on a subject. It asks whether existing theories are valuable and existing tests are persuasive and complete.

  4. A policy-evaluative or policy-prescriptive dissertation evaluates current or future public policies or policy proposals. Are the factual and theoretical premises of the proponents and opponents of proposed policies valid or invalid? Will the policy produce the results that its proponents promise? * * *

  5. A historical explanatory dissertation uses theory (academically recognized theory, folk theory, or “common sense” deduction) to explain the causes, pattern, or consequences of historical cases. Such works often provide a good deal of description but focus on explaining what is described.

  6. A historical evaluative dissertation evaluates the factual and theoretical beliefs that guided official or unofficial policy actors and/or evaluates the consequences of the policies they pursued. * * *

  7. A predictive dissertation applies theories to extrapolate the future world from current events or from posited future developments. A purely predictive dissertation is a risky project because the future is constantly happening, raising the danger that the project may be overtaken by events. Therefore, students should generally steer clear of dissertations of this sort. * * *

    This is not a comprehensive or exhaustive list, although the admonition regarding type-7 theses is worth following. To these seven types we may another type of thesis:

  8. A normative thesis applies an ethical or prescriptive analytical framework to evaluate empirical evidence. In a way, this is the opposite of type 2 or a variant of 4, depending on the topic examined: i.e., students, beginning with a framework, assess an empirical topic or event to make some judgment on it. Theses written under the direction of faculty in Philosophy, Theology, and similar subfields in other departments often take this form.

Students shouldn’t worry about identifying their “type” of thesis—the above are listed mainly to illustrate how theses can take different shapes. One implication, of course, is that two projects on the same topic may take completely different approaches and come up with different (but not necessarily contradictory) answers. Admittedly, the list is somewhat biased, in that it’s from a political scientist trained in International Relations, and the focus on theory-making and testing matches his preferences for suitable types of scholarship.

Students should pick a topic, develop several ideas about suitable problems, and then figure out how to answer them, without worrying excessively about what “kind of thesis” they’re writing. Also, rely on thesis advisors to mentor you in discipline-specific, or interdisciplinary, thesis methods and styles.

Choosing a Topic

The thesis proposal is the first, important step in the thesis process. It is your first chance to articulate a puzzle that interests you.

However, the proposal should not be couched as a sales pitch of the topic. Your task is not to sell the value of the topic—if it is a good topic, scholars (including the IS Thesis Coordinator and potential thesis advisors) will likely understand its importance. Understudied topics do exist, of course: perhaps the academic community is unaware or uninterested in a potentially relevant avenue of research and this needs rectification. But more likely, there are good reasons for the lack of prior research: some topics are inherently difficult to examine or carry out ethically, while others have been previously examined and subsequently deemed unimportant. At the undergraduate level, these latter topics (difficult or irrelevant) should be avoided.

Your task, then, is to sell yourself. What you need to convince others is your ability to tackle the problem posed in the proposal: that you understand (or will master) the scholarship that has been done before; that you understand (or will learn) the scholarly tools needed to conduct your research; and lastly, that you have a general strategy, or how you understand the puzzle of your research topic (i.e., the research question), how you see the project unfolding (i.e., the research design, the outline of chapters), and how you plan to allocate your time and resources (i.e., the research schedule and timeline).

Four related aspects are crucial in writing a workable proposal that sells your competence to a scholarly audience: interest, knowledge, skills, and resources. Interest: does your topic interest you strongly enough to sustain your time and investment (as well as your adviser’s) and is this evident? Knowledge: do you have or do you need to acquire adequate knowledge about your topic? Skills: do you have or will you need to develop specific research skills? Resources: do you have access to the necessary books, articles, or data needed to carry out the research?

Interest: your interest should be evident in how you convey your enthusiasm for the project and its academic worth. Why should you spend your junior summer and two semesters working on it? Why should an adviser care enough to supervise you?

Knowledge: whether you have spent considerable time developing your knowledge on a topic or not, make it clear in the proposal what you know now and what you recognize you will need to know later. Be specific here: mention important authors, seminal works, similar studies, and whether you have read them or whether you need to read them.

Skills: how will your thesis argument develop? What are you investigating and how are you investigating it? Generally, it is insufficient to write, “I plan to read articles, interview key people, and uncover answers.” Speaking in somewhat abstract terms, what you need to do is to state something that essentially covers these statements (fill in the letters with actual content): “I am investigating a general phenomenon, A. In doing so, I (or other scholars) define certain terms, B and C, as follows. The chain of reasoning that I (or other scholars) apply is ‘X happens in phenomenon A because Y affects Z in a specified manner.’ I am interested in one (or two, or three) cases of X and would like to confirm or dispute whether the chain of reasoning is applicable here.” After establishing these points, you can then indicate clearly what research skills are needed. Your presentation of the problem, any terms or definitions, and the underlying chain of reasoning will make it clearer to you and your audience what skills you need.

NB: Please note that if your thesis involves surveys, interviews or other data that involves contact with human subjects, you will need to submit an application to the BC Institutional Review Board (IRB). This takes time, so it should be done as soon as possible in the thesis process.

Resources: many senior theses founder on this aspect. A problem is that seniors are stuck on campus in their two semesters. Relevant resources may be elsewhere, in foreign archives, other university libraries, other government or non-governmental offices. Empirical data may be either insufficient or overwhelming. Proper corroboration of an argument might require interviews or fieldwork. Given these potential problems, what resources are available here (in the library, or through interlibrary loans and the internet) and how could these be applicable for your circumstances?

The proposal is a general outline of your thesis topic, and while it might start as a one-page, three paragraph initial document, it should grow to anywhere from 3-5 pages thereafter. It should cover the following areas: 1) the proposal should provide the necessary background on your topic; 2) spell out in broad terms what you plan to do; 3) propose a method and time-line for carrying out this work; and finally, 4) provide an annotated bibliography of important reference materials you have located. It also helps to provide a title at this stage, to summarize for prospective advisors what your project is about.

It is understood that your thesis may depart from what you have proposed—this is quite common. For most students, this arises from a greater familiarity with the literature on the subject, or as you proceed further with your work and realize you need to modify their argument or approach. The proposal is a living document, in that it will grow and change over time, getting longer and more developed.

Writing a Proposal

In order to convince an adviser that your thesis is worth doing, you must propose a sufficiently honed research question along with a suitable method of answering it. Finding that right topic can be frustrating; while there may be dozens of issues that interest you, narrowing the scope of these interests into a manageable research question is another matter. Some potential advisors may be happy to help hone a question with students.

Even so, faculty will respond best if you can contact them with a precise research question and thesis proposal. Saying, for example, “I’m interested in China” is a bit too broad. Asking a faculty member if he or she would consider supervising “a study of China’s growth in the special economic zones” is a bit better, but still open-ended. But if you suggest examining whether these special economic zones are the harbingers of political transformation, or whether their associated patterns of uneven distribution of social and economic benefits with other regions of China will cause political unrest, you may be on to something. These latter ideas are still not research questions, but they can be transformed into them through further consideration. You can now ask yourself what theoretical models or causal explanations might explain why economic patterns would cause political change and how these would apply to China, or gauge the effects of present trends by comparative analyses of comparable historical cases. It is at this point you have a research question and a possible method of answering it: these are the seeds of a senior thesis.

Clearly, moving from interests to topics and from topics to questions can be a difficult part of the research process. The research question must be 1) something doable, 2) something worthwhile—that is, it should address the intellectual conversation in the field of research, and 3) something interesting—you have to stay interested in a large research project over the course of an academic year, as well as pique the interest of an adviser in the first place.

Finding that singular research question is thus the most crucial step. And finding it will take hard thinking and perhaps some preliminary research. The perfect thesis topic will not fall like an apple upon your head; you will have to shake the tree.

Equally important, a precise research question will narrow your research focus. Knowing what you want to answer will help you gauge the utility of all the material you will undoubtedly uncover. The research portion of the thesis can overwhelm anyone. But knowing what you need to know to answer the question you have set before you will also help you determine whether the resources you find are important or unimportant for your purposes.

Students should not spend time, at this stage, in reading books or articles, or looking at what sort of data exists. Rather, you should brainstorm and put down, in writing, the ideas you have about what issues interest you, and what you want to know. After you begin to narrow down your thoughts, then you can tentatively put together a bibliography of books, articles, monographs, and other sources you think might be useful. Starting research by looking for suitable resources (and especially reading them) before you know what you want to do is often a futile exercise.

Useful books for this purpose are How to Write a BA Thesis by Charles Lipson and The Craft of Research, 4e, by Wayne C. Booth, et al. Both are relatively inexpensive and very useful sources and guides.

Selecting an Advisor

The IS program allows students to select faculty advisors from the university as a whole, not just IS-affiliated faculty. As a general observation, temporary or part-time faculty members do not have the time needed to supervise theses. Similarly, graduate students do not or cannot supervise theses, but senior doctoral candidates (ABD status) may be allowed, on a case-by-case basis.

Due to MCAS regulations regarding senior theses, it is not possible to write a thesis in two majors. Students writing a thesis in an alternate major (e.g., THEO, HIST) must normally complete an IS senior seminar to fulfill IS major requirements.

The IS program allows students to select faculty advisors from the university as a whole, not just IS-affiliated faculty. As a general observation, temporary or part-time faculty members do not have the time needed to supervise theses. Similarly, graduate students do not or cannot supervise theses, but senior doctoral candidates (ABD status) may be allowed, on a case-by-case basis.

The ideal thesis advisor would be a faculty member who: 1) is an expert on your thesis topic; 2) is willing to help you; and 3) is someone with whom you have comfortable rapport. If you are lucky, you will find this ideal combination in a single person. But you might not. Your favorite professor may not be an expert in your topic, or you may not have taken courses with the professor who is most knowledgeable about the topic. In either situation, it may be hard to convince the professor to advise you. And of course, your ideal advisor may be on a sabbatical, or have other commitments, or already have too many students to supervise.

What should you do if this ideal combination for an advisor is not present?

In such cases, students in the past have suggested the third criterion is most important: select as an advisor someone who knows you and with whom you have a comfortable rapport. In defense of this third criterion, it is worth noting that almost any faculty member will be able to help you in the research process, even if he or she is not familiar with all the nuances of the topic you are studying. Because there are basic principles of research in the social sciences and humanities, it is very likely he or she will be able to give some helpful advice.

At the same time, the faculty point of view might lean closer to the first criterion: select an expert on the topic. Being able to give basic advice on research and writing is one thing, but being able to help you navigate the necessary literature and relevant issues is another. You can avoid wasting time discovering what you need to know only if your advisor knows the topic well and can guide you to the relevant scholarly research. Moreover, he or she will be a better judge of the worth of your project. And while it may help to have an initial positive rapport with your advisor, the mutual effort involved should create a useful and productive rapport through the process of research.

Even if you do not know your potential advisor very well right now (and vice versa), contact them and express your desire for working under their supervision. If you can, meet them in person during office hours. If not, emails will have to do. In either case, don’t waste their time by coming to meetings unprepared to discuss ideas and topics. Have some ideas fleshed out: at the least, present a set of narrow topics as possible research questions. The more you can indicate your interest, enthusiasm, and initial knowledge, the better your chances will be in getting him or her to agree being your advisor. The willingness of faculty to help you (i.e., the second criterion) is a function of your being able to convince them that investing their valuable time and effort will be worthwhile.

What should students initially provide to potential advisors?

You should “flesh out” your tentative ideas, perhaps in a one-page, three-paragraph format: 1) what is the puzzle? 2) why is it significant (to the student; to policy; to scholarly understanding)? and 3) where and how might one find the answer to the puzzle (archives; library research; interviews)? It also helps to send this to faculty a couple days in advance of the initial meeting. With subsequent meetings, send updated proposals and ideas (longer than the three paragraphs mentioned above), send the proposal a couple days in advance as well.

Also worth observing here is that different faculty may have different ideas on how to tackle the same project. A historian may well see a given problem in a different light than a political scientist or economist, and certainly, all three will have different methods in mind on how to answer the problem you pose. Put differently, if you have a faculty member from the History department, be prepared to write a history-oriented thesis, and so forth. This is not a hard rule, and many professors can ably supervise theses outside their immediate competence.

It should also be mentioned that the student-advisor relationship is open-ended. You are free, indeed encouraged, to ask other faculty members for advice. Your advisor is the faculty member who will read the completed thesis and issue a grade, but anyone can help you through the thorny issues and problems you will undoubtedly encounter. As mentioned earlier, talk to everyone. Let people know what your thesis topic is, and what you are researching. You will be surprised at what resources and ideas people can come up with. Even if your advisor meets all three criteria, there is nothing wrong with contacting other faculty members who might be able to help you with your research.

This leads to another point: different faculty undertake their supervisor roles differently. Some are more hands-on, supervising your progress carefully, while others take a more removed approach. It is important to establish an informal or formal “contract” of sorts, where you can agree to the frequency of meetings, the expected progress made between meetings, and set down deadlines to produce parts of the thesis. You do not want to expect one form of supervision, only to discover that the faculty member has a different one in mind—and to discover this too late to change advisors.

Finally, bear in mind that thesis advisors receive no additional compensation for assisting you with your thesis. If they agree to help, it is because they feel that you are doing something worthwhile and they are willing to spend their time assisting you. Be considerate of your advisors! Remember that the thesis is independent work and that the advisor’s function is to provide general guidance and advice, not to do your research. Furthermore, make sure that you live up to your own obligations by giving your advisors plenty of time to examine and comment on anything that you turn in to them.

Thesis Advisor FAQ

How do students register for the thesis?

Students register in the International Studies thesis sequence INTL 4951/4952. These courses are listed under the IS Thesis Coordinator, Prof. Hiroshi Nakazato.

How do I grade a thesis?

The grade is submitted by the adviser to the Thesis Coordinator, who enters whatever grade(s) are given. Students are usually given a “J” grade for the first semester, and an overall grade at the end of the second semester. Split grades for the two semesters (e.g., like A- for Fall and A for Spring) are accepted as well. No accompanying letter is needed, nor is there a formal defense. The Thesis Coordinator will contact advisers in May to get a grade.

Are there specific guidelines for thesis advisors?

There are no specific guidelines for the content or style of an IS thesis; advisers have full control over the process. Citation formats (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style, APA, MLA, etc.) are at the thesis advisor's discretion, though overall formatting guidelines (including requirements for the binding and cover sheet) will be given by the Thesis Coordinator (Prof. Nakazato) as part of the thesis seminar. Page counts can vary, depending on disciplinary focus and methodology.