Theses and independent studies

Will I be your thesis or independent study advisor ?

First, take a look at my research, projects and courses to see if there is a fit. My work is primarily in economic development, micropolitics, and civil war, and tends to be quantitative in nature. Some areas where I have limited experience (and tend to steer students to another advisor) include: human rights, international law, and ethnographic methods.

If you think there’s a fit, come by my office hours the previous semester. But please read the advice and requirements below beforehand. They go a bit beyond the official requirements in political science and economics.

My first piece of advice: if you don’t have to write a senior essay, think carefully. I see a lot of senior essays that weren’t worth the student’s investment of time and energy, and I feel some people’s’ time at Yale would be better spent acquiring technical skills (see my course tips here). As for independent studies, most students I have supervised would have benefited from the structure of a course, and ultimately don’t put in the same amount of work, or get the same reward.

The exception: you have a well-developed topic, you want to really invest in answering an important or interesting question, and you want to learn how to do research and write long papers, perhaps to prepare for graduate school or see if you enjoy research as a career option. In these cases, a senior essay can be a great investment.

For those who want to (or have to) write a senior essay or independent study, read the requirements and recommendations below.

Requirements

First, you should approach me the previous semester with the request. That way we can have the plan set by the beginning of the semester. I generally don’t take senior essay or independent study requests after the first week of classes.

Before the semester begins, you should draft a 2-3 page plan that includes:

  1. a research question, including a discussion why it is significant;
  2. brief background (essentially, why you are interested in the subject and what you have done so far);
  3. proposed research activities;
  4. proposed outputs;
  5. a timeline/workplan;
  6. a preliminary list of readings.

You’ll be held to the workplan you propose. Outputs will be spread across the semester or academic year, and should usually include:

  1. a bibliography/syllabus (early in the semester)
  2. a literature review and outline of your argument (midway through the semester)
  3. a first draft (handed in at least two weeks before the final draft is due), and
  4. a final draft (on the final due date).

Note, if you plan to analyze data, by the beginning of the semester you need to have (1) the skills, and (2) the data. Data skills will vary according to the question, but in general you should understand multivariate regression. If you don’t yet, consider taking stats courses in your final year. They will come in handy in every public or private sector job.

Finally, I don’t accept last-minute advising requests. You should come to office hours at least a week in advance of any deadlines to discuss whether I’m the right advisor for you.

Recommendations

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Students produce the best senior essays when they plan the project in their junior year and spend their summer conducting original research. This is a terrific experience and excellent preparation for becoming a professional essayist, researcher, or academic. Consider that strategy if you have the time and interest.
  • Take a seminar in the fall that allows you to write a final paper in your subject. Then develop that paper into a bigger, better senior essay in the spring semester. Use your fall, winter, or spring breaks to do primary data collection or investigation.
  • Try to find an academic or an organization (NGO, government official, etc.) who can use your research. They will be willing to help you access people and other primary data. Plus your work will be put to good use. It will play well in a job interview or grad school application, you’ll learn more, and you’ll appreciate it more too (at least in retrospect, when the work is done).

Comments are welcome.