Writing an Empirical Senior Thesis
Middlebury College Political Science Department
Fall 2014

A senior thesis is a serious undertaking – a major research project that will require countless hours of research, writing, and revising. By the end of the three-term process, you should expect to produce a significant piece of social science research of which you can be proud. This handout is designed to give you some insights into each phase of this process. These suggestions are not hard and fast rules, nor do they cover the official departmental requirements for the senior thesis. For the department’s official rules and requirements, see the departmental website:




This handout offers a framework and advice for those who have chosen to undertake an empirical senior thesis project. Those writing a thesis on political theory may find some parts of this handout useful (selecting an advisor and second reader, for example) and other parts less applicable (generating testable hypotheses).

For other questions on the thesis, and for advice on how you might adapt some of the suggestions here for your own project, consult your advisor or the departmental senior thesis coordinator, Amy Yuen (2014-2015 academic year).

Choosing an Advisor and Second Reader

Your first task is to secure a thesis advisor. Your advisor will meet with you regularly, give you feedback on written work, and answer crucial questions and concerns you may have about your research. The advisor’s role is different from that of a professor in the classroom. Whereas in the classroom, the professor is presumed to be the expert on both the subject matter and the political science that treats the subject matter, in a thesis setting you take on the role of expert in your particular subject. This is because your goal in writing a thesis is to gather original evidence and make an original argument. Accordingly, do not suppose that all is lost if you are not able to find a thesis advisor who is an expert in your particular area of research. If you are writing a thesis on India, for example, do not despair if you cannot find an India scholar in the political science department.

An advisor can and should offer expertise on the conduct of political science research. All members of the political science department have been through what you are about to go through: they have designed an original research project and shepherded it through to its conclusion. One strategy for selecting an advisor, therefore, is to find someone who has done research in the manner in which you plan to do research. If you will be working with statistics, find someone with knowledge of statistics. If you will be conducting detailed case studies, find someone who has done case studies, and so on.

A second reader’s role is to provide a third-party “set of eyes” on your work. Because the second reader is usually not as closely connected with the project as the thesis advisor, his or her feedback can be very valuable as a check on whether your research makes sense to someone who is not intimately familiar with your thought process. In selecting a second reader, consider someone whose skill set complements, rather than duplicates, that of the thesis advisor.

Finally, do not assume that the thesis advisor and second reader are your only means of getting good advice about your project. This is a college full of great resources and experts who may be useful to you. Take advantage of these assets! Consult other professors in the political science department and other departments; make use of the writing center in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research; discuss your project with your peers and solicit their feedback; and make use of the library and all it has to offer (contact social science librarian Brenda Ellis with questions on library materials).

Components of a Good Thesis Project

Good senior theses are clear, well-organized, and contain original thinking and new evidence. The goal is to make a contribution to scholarship in the field by offering something fresh.

Take a look at some articles in major peer-reviewed political science journals (American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, World Politics, Journal of Conflict Resolution, etc.), or at a major political science book or two that you have read in class. Note how these works are organized. Each work typically contains a beginning literature review section, a middle section in which it outlines the research design, a third section in which it describes the empirical analysis, and a conclusion that summarizes the broader implications of the work. Try to emulate this pattern. In fact, if you are concerned about how much space to expend on literature review vs. data analysis (for example), these articles and books can serve as a good model.

Embedded in this organizational pattern are four key elements of an empirical research project.

Introduction: The Research Question

What is the unexplored area that you are trying to shed light on?  What has the other research missed? What “puzzle” are you trying to solve? Tell the reader the research question as early as possible in the introduction.

This is not as easy a task as it sounds. Many of us begin our research projects because we are interested in a particular subject: nuclear proliferation, campaign contributions, non-governmental organizations in Africa, elections in France, etc. But a subject is not enough. Each subject can be associated with innumerable research questions. Suppose, for instance, that I’m interested in the 2012 election in France. Four questions that could generate productive research projects are: How has gender’s impact on French elections changed in the aftermath of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal? How deep does Euroskepticism run and what is its impact on voting behavior? How do ethnic and religious animosities affect French election results? How has online social networking changed campaign styles in Europe?

Each one of these research questions could lead to an entirely different project. When you settle on precisely the question you want to ask, you have gone a long way toward narrowing and focusing your research. Even a thesis-length research project should have only one research question. 

Do not keep the question a secret from the reader – make it as clear and concise as possible very early in the thesis. One tactic is to announce it in the first sentence or two. For example: “In a political system where nearly every adult may vote, but where knowledge, wealth, social position, access to officials, and other resources are unequally distributed, who actually governs?”[1] Or: “The distribution of wealth is one of today’s most widely discussed and controversial issues. But what do we know about its evolution over the long term?"[2]

Literature Review: The Theories

Once you have posed the question, the next task is to propose possible answers to the question. This is where theories come in. A theory is “a reasoned and precise speculation about the answer to a research question, including a statement about why the proposed answer is correct.”[3] Whereas each research project should have one research question, you should examine multiple theories. There are several reasons for this rule. First, if you ignore other possible answers to your research question, you open yourself up to the criticism that you have unfairly biased your research in favor of your own preferred explanation. Second, if there is only one conceivable answer to your research question, it is a question with an obvious answer and therefore is uninteresting.

Science is a cumulative endeavor. Rarely, if ever, will a social science research project treat a question that has never been addressed before in any form. Previous research may have examined particular aspects of your research question, tested alternative theories, and come to divergent conclusions. In a literature review section, you should critically examine previous research, and draw on this research in developing the theories that you will test in your own work.

Note that the literature review’s purpose is to set the stage for your own project – it is not intended to be a summary of all that you know about your research subject. Instead, the literature review ought to be a focused argument that 1) explains why previous literature is insufficient to answer the research question, and 2) highlights what you consider to be the major potential theoretical answers to the question. As part of the literature review section, you may also propose an alternative theories or theories that you will test and that the previous literature has missed.

A common problem in doing background research is to be too narrow in the initial round of searches.  For example, suppose someone is interested in doing research about Argentina’s decision not to pursue a nuclear weapons program.  This person might begin by searching for articles that other scholars have written about Argentina’s lack of a nuclear weapons program, find only a few articles, and decide that little if anything has been written on this issue.  This would be a mistake.  Instead, the researcher ought to think of the broader category or categories into which this research falls: Nuclear proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, militarism in Latin America, etc. Existing research on these general topics ought to be relevant and plentiful.

After casting a wide net for relevant research, your task is to efficiently discuss it with reference to the key theories that you will be testing. Do not use the “boxcar method” of discussing each relevant article or book in turn. This would take forever and be tedious to read. Instead, group studies together into categories and give details about them only where they are relevant. Here is an example from the literature review section of a recent American Political Science Review article on the initiation of conflicts by authoritarian regimes:

To date, only a handful of studies have explored variation in the conflict behavior of autocracies. A series of early studies by Mark Peceny and colleagues (Peceny and Beer 2003; Peceny, Beer, and Sanchez-Terry 2002; Peceny and Butler 2004) concluded that personalist dictatorships, in which the leader depends on only a small coterie of supporters, are more likely to initiate conflicts than both democracies and other authoritarian regime types. Peceny and Butler (2004) attribute this pattern to Bueno de Mesquita et al.’s (2003) selectorate theory, arguing that personalist regimes are more likely to initiate conflicts than single-party regimes because of their small coalition size.[4]

Note that the author makes an argument that previous research has fallen short, she groups many similar studies together, and she highlights the theory tested by these studies (“selectorate theory”) rather than other less important details. Take a look at other literature review sections of articles and books for other examples.

By the end of your literature review section the reader should know why the previous literature has fallen short of answering your research question and should be aware of the theories from past research that you consider most important. You may develop an original theory as part of the literature review section, or you may describe it in a separate section immediately after the literature review. In any case, by this point in the thesis it should be clear to the reader which theories you will be testing.

Research Design: The Hypotheses

Each theory should generate at least one hypothesis.  A hypothesis is a theory expressed in a way that can be empirically measured.  For example, one theory might be that people don’t vote because they’re cynical about politicians.  One hypothesis based on this theory is as follows: if I examine survey data, those people who express low levels of trust in public officials are going to vote at lower rates than those who express higher levels of trust.  This is not the only possible hypothesis that can test this theory -- on the contrary, most theories can be associated with many hypotheses. You should be prepared to test as many hypotheses as you believe will allow you to make a convincing case about which theories are supported and which theories are not supported by the evidence. This may mean you test one hypothesis per theory; this may mean you test several per theory.

In the research design section, you should provide an explanation of how you will gather the evidence needed to test your hypothesis, an account of how you will analyze this evidence, and a description of what type of evidence you will accept as confirming or disconfirming each hypothesis. Using the cynicism and voting example above, if I find that expressions of trust in public officials seems unrelated to voting rates, then my hypothesis is not confirmed.

The particular method you use to analyze the evidence ought to be dictated by the types of evidence that are available to test each hypothesis. If the most viable hypotheses concern evidence that is best observed through case studies (e.g. marginal elite movements play a central role in social revolutions[5]), then case studies are appropriate. If the hypothesis seems well suited for statistical analysis (high mortality rates among Europeans led to the creation of extractive colonial institutions[6]), then statistical analysis may be appropriate. The theories and hypotheses should precede the choice of method of analysis. 

Empirical Evidence: The Data

The centerpiece of your thesis should be your analysis of the evidence, or “data,” broadly construed. There are many different ways to present information effectively. Again, look to political science articles and books – as well as past Middlebury political science theses – for good ideas. The analysis chapters should appear in a logical order and should be clearly related to the theories and hypotheses you discussed earlier. Whatever your approach, the reader should always have a good idea of why you are doing what you are doing, how you are doing it, and how each part of the thesis relates to the other parts. Do not be afraid of some repetition – it can be a good idea to remind the reader of the overall outline of the project in the introduction of each chapter, for example. Headings and subheadings also reinforce a clear organizational scheme.

By the end of the analysis section, the reader should know how closely the evidence you have gathered fits your hypotheses, and by implication, which theory (i.e. which answer to your research question) is most likely to be correct.  If one theory is supported and other theories are not, discuss the implications of this finding.  If several theories are supported, it is probably a good idea to propose a research design that could potentially determine which theory is actually correct.  Or, if you think that several theories are correct to a certain extent, propose how they could be combined into a single broader theory.  For example, two possible theories of non-voting are 1) non-voters are cynical, and 2) non-voters are people who don’t have the time to figure out how to register.  One way to combine these two theories might be to say:  For those 25 years of age and under, non-voting is probably the result of not knowing how to register, since young people are more mobile and can’t figure out a new system of voter registration every time they move.  Older people, on the other hand, are more settled, and therefore their non-voting is probably less the result of registration difficulties and more the result of cynicism. (Note: the above theory is not necessarily true – it is just an example of how you can combine two theories into a coherent whole.)

Do not be upset if the data fail to show exactly what you thought they would show. Remember, the reason that you asked your research question in the first place was that the question did not have an obvious answer. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the results were not predictable in advance. As a scholar, you are not judged on how well you anticipated the precise result, but on whether you considered the most relevant theories, whether you tested hypotheses with appropriate evidence, and whether your interpretation of this evidence is convincing.


In a concluding section, give the reader a concise summary of all you have done. Explain the implications of your research both for your topic area and perhaps for related similar topic areas. This is your last chance to drive home the importance of your work. The points you make here about the broader implications of your research can form the basis for future research, and – more practically – may generate significant discussion during your oral defense of your thesis.  

This guide necessarily contains only the broadest overview of how to write a successful empirical senior thesis. You will have other questions and concerns. Consult your advisor, thesis coordinator Amy Yuen, other members of the political science department, and one or more of the works listed below.

Recommended Reading

Johnson, Janet Buttolph & H.T. Reynolds.  Political Science Research Methods (7th Ed.). Washington, DC:CQ Press, 2012.

Lipson, Charles. How to Write a B.A. Thesis: A Practical Guide from Your First Ideas to Your Finished Paper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

King, Gary, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Van Evera, Stephen. Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

[1] Robert A. Dahl, Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 1.

[2] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 1.

[3] Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 19.

[4] Jessica L. Weeks, “Strongmen and Straw Men: Authoritarian Regimes and the Initiation of International Conflict,” American Political Science Review 106:2 (May 2012), pp. 326-347.

[5] Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[6] Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James T. Robinson, “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation,” The American Economic Review 91:5 (December 2001), pp. 1369-1401.

for Biology, ESBI,  and MBB majors
 with biology advisers

(Neuroscience thesis students:  please visit the Neuroscience Independent Study and Senior Thesis web pages for instructions.)

Check with your adviser for any format preferences.  Below are general guidelines.

There are three versions of the thesis title page:  one for high honors, one for honors, and one without honors.  Once you know which level of honors you're receiving (some time after your defense), print copies of the appropriate title page to accompany your final thesis copies.  How many to print depends on how many you will need:  One each for your adviser and committee members, two for the Bio department, and one (or more) for your own personal copies.  

  • Margins:  Generally one-inch margins are fine for all copies, including the cloth-bound copy.  (For clothbound copies, the bindery trims up to .5”, on all four sides.) 
  • Set the line spacing to be 1.5 for all sections except the Bibliography, which can be single-spaced.
  • Print the copies of your final thesis double-sided (see exceptions below).
  • Start all new sections on a new page:  Abstract, Intro, Methods and Materials, Results, Discussion, Bibliography, Appendices. These are still double-sided, but each section should start on the right hand page.
  • Charts, graphs, and photos should be single-sided (although not necessary if they are embedded within text).
  • Your personal copy can be single-sided if you prefer.
  • Citation format is at the discretion of your adviser.

Once your final revisions have been approved by your committee, print copies of your thesis for the Department, your adviser, your committee members (should they want a copy), and yourself.

By NOON on the last day of exams, you need to have completed the following:

  • Print copies* of your final thesis
  • Print copies of the appropriate title page (see examples under Forms and Worksheets) 
  • Obtain signatures of your committee members on all copies of the title page.
  • Turn in at least four copies of your final thesis with title page, secured with binder clipsto Joanna Shipley (MBH 375)

       PLUS:  EMAIL the following information via email to Joanna (shipley@middlebury.edu):

  • If your thesis title is over 60 characters including spaces, send Joanna an abbreviated title that is no more than 60 characters long (including punctuation and spaces). This is for the spine of the clothbound copy only.
  • Your home mailing address to send your personal bound copy  (allow 4-8 weeks).

 *How many copies do you need to print?   

 At least four: 
- One for the Bio Department Thesis Cabinet (will be clothbound)
- One for the Library Archives (not to be confused with the digital archives)
- One personal copy for you, clothbound at no charge. 
- One for your Thesis Adviser (you may give it to him/her directly, or to Joanna)

Plus any additional copies:
- Do your committee members want copies?   If so, paper, or electronic?
- Do you want any additional personal copies clothbound?  If so, the cost is $15 each (this covers the cost to us).

Theses to be clothbound are sent to a bindery in Boston.  It takes 1-2 months to get them back, at which time we’ll mail the bound thesis to you.

If you have any questions - don't hesitate to ask Joanna or your thesis adviser!

rev. 4/2015


Theses Procedures and Schedule

(Revised July 2014)

 A. General Procedures

Prerequisites: Students must have a cumulative 3.33 grade point average in their regular political science courses taken at Middlebury through the end of the junior year in order to undertake an honors thesis project. ("Regular political science courses" include fall and spring political science courses, plus a maximum of one winter term political science course.) A proposal for an Honors Thesis must be submitted to-and approved by-a student's prospective thesis advisor. No exceptions will be made to these requirements.

A thesis project normally is inspired by a research or seminar paper written during the junior or senior year, often in a 400-level seminar or 500-level independent project. The department strongly recommends that (1) students begin thinking about their thesis project and speaking with potential advisors in their junior year, (2) students enroll in PSCI 0368 before their senior year, and (3) students planning to write a philosophy thesis take a 300-level political philosophy course before their senior year.

A political science honors thesis is a three-term project. Normally, students register for PSCI 0500 in the first term of the thesis process, PSCI 0700 in the second term, and PSCI 0700 (again) in the final term. For the purposes of calculating the 10 course major requirement, a PSCI 500 section taken as part of the thesis sequence counts as a “course,” but PSCI 700 does not. May graduates will normally work on theses in the fall, winter, and spring terms of their senior year, while February graduates will work on theses during the spring, fall, and winter terms.

B. Schedule

Thesis writers should pay close attention to the following schedule and should work with their advisors to establish realistic interim goals and deadlines that will help them to meet the official departmental deadlines.

1. Last term of junior year: Begin discussions with potential advisors about possible topics. Secure a professor’s commitment to advise your thesis. It is the student’s responsibility to select a thesis topic and to find a main thesis advisor from the political science department. A thesis advisor serves as the student’s first reader and guides the student through the thesis process. Thesis writers meet frequently with their advisors over the course of the senior year, both to obtain guidance and to keep their advisors abreast of their progress.

2. Early in the first term of senior year: Enroll in PSCI 0500 - Independent Project. Discuss, develop, and finalize your topic with your advisor. Consult your advisor about a possible second reader. This second reader must also be a member of the political science department; a third reader is optional and can be chosen from outside the department. Second readers should be selected as soon as possible and in no case later than the submission of the final draft of the thesis prospectus (see below). The deadline for declaring thesis advisors is by Friday of the 2nd week of classes of the term. Students declare a thesis advisor by notifying the departmental thesis coordinator (in 2014-15, the departmental thesis coordinator is Associate Professor Amy Yuen).

3. Prospectus and Bibliography in the first term: Students must submit to their advisor a draft of a thesis prospectus and bibliography by the end of the 5th week of classes. After subsequent revisions, students must provide their advisor a final version of the thesis prospectus by the end of the 10th week of classes. The prospectus should also be given to the second reader(s) for consultation with the advisor and student. A late prospectus will not be accepted, and may disqualify a student from the thesis project. The prospectus must be approved by the student's advisor, and only students whose prospectus has been approved will be permitted to continue writing the thesis.

A thesis prospectus should: (a) define the research question(s) to be answered in the thesis; (b) explain the intellectual importance of the thesis; and (c) outline how the project will be completed, i.e., sources and methodology which make it clear how evidence will be gathered and assessed. The prospectus should be 2000-2500 words long.

4. Deadline for First Chapter Draft: Students must hand in their first chapter draft to their advisor by the last day of classes in the first term of the three term project. Failure to submit a chapter draft will, without exception, result in the termination of the thesis project. Students who are unable to complete a first chapter draft in accordance with departmental deadlines cannot be expected to complete a well-developed thesis reliably. Please note that individual advisors may expect more than a first chapter draft as a requirement to continue the thesis project.

5. Second term of senior year: Thesis students register for PSCI 0700 - Thesis Project. Students are expected to meet regularly with their advisors, and may also meet with other reader(s) if appropriate. The absence of competing coursework during Winter Term affords a precious opportunity for research, writing, and consultation with the advisor and reader(s).

6. Third term of senior year: During the third term, thesis students again register for PSCI 0700,. The penultimate draft of the thesis should be completed and submitted to the advisor and reader(s) for comments by the Monday of the 8th week of classes in spring term of the Senior year (May graduates) or the last day of classes in fall term (February graduates). The final draft must be completed, with copies submitted to the thesis advisor and reader(s), by the Friday of the 11th week of classes in the third term (May graduates) or the end of the second week of winter term (February graduates). The final draft of the thesis may not be returned to the student for revisions prior to the oral defense.

7. The thesis advisor schedules the oral thesis defense during the first week of the final exam period, and for February graduates, during the last week of Winter Term.

C. Honors Regulations

1. As indicated above, students must have a 3.33 average or higher in all regular political science courses taken at Middlebury through the end of the junior year in order to apply to write an Honors Thesis; a thesis is required for departmental honors. A student whose departmental GPA falls below 3.33 during the senior year may continue with the thesis project, but is not eligible to receive departmental honors. No exceptions will be made to these requirements.

2. Students must meet all of the deadlines in the above procedures and schedule in all three semesters involved in the honors project. Failure to meet the deadlines for the thesis prospectus or the final draft of the thesis, will result in the denial of honors. Failure to meet the deadline for the penultimate draft of the thesis will mean that the thesis writer will receive no comments from the second reader. Students should note that departmental deadlines can only be extended by the department chair, and will be so extended only in medical or other serious emergencies.

3. The thesis grade is based on the quality of the written thesis as well as the oral defense, with the preponderant weight given to the written work. Grammar, spelling, and typographical errors, or lack thereof, will be included in the evaluation.

4. The determination of awards of Honors, High Honors, and Highest Honors is based on (1) the level of the grade achieved on the thesis and (2) the level of the average grade received in other regular political science courses taken at Middlebury (courses taken abroad do not count toward the grade point determination). Honors candidates will have a political science course average of at least 3.33 and a thesis grade of B+ or higher to attain Honors; a political science course average of at least 3.50 and a thesis grade of A- or higher to attain High Honors; and a political science course average of at least 3.67 and a thesis grade of A to attain Highest Honors.

5. Any appeal of a thesis grade, or the award of Honors, or the termination of a thesis project shall be made to the department chair, who will either make the final decision or request an evaluation by another colleague.

D. Research Resources and Thesis Format

1. The department recommends Wayne C. Booth et al., The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press), Charles Lipson, How to Write a B.A. Thesis, and Stephen Van Evera, Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science (Cornell University Press) and King, Keohane and Verba, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton University Press). In addition, the reference desk at the College Library has some useful bibliographic guides for various fields and geographic areas which the student should consult. For more specific and technical matters, students should consult Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, latest edition) or The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, latest edition).

2. The thesis should be printed double-spaced, with adequate margins. Just as books and journal articles vary in length depending on the subject of the research, the method used, and the author’s individual style, theses can have a range of acceptable lengths. Discuss this issue with your advisor for more detailed guidance. Notes may be at the bottom of each page, at the end of each chapter, or at the end of the thesis. The title page should be prepared according to the example available in the department office. You must also provide a 1" x 4" spine label for each reader's copy, stating your thesis title, your name, and the month and year you completed your thesis. One copy of the thesis must be submitted to the departmental coordinator (MNR 213) to be forwarded to the College Library.

3. The department also strongly recommends that students consult Honors Theses [AY1] from prior years for guidance on thesis format, structure, and argument. These Honors Theses [AY2] can be found in the Special Collections department of the College Library.


2014-2015 Deadline Schedule

Deadline for:

Fall-Winter-Spring Thesis Writers



Declaration of Thesis Advisors

Friday, September 19, 2014

First draft of Prospectus & bibliography

Friday, October 10, 2014

Final draft of Prospectus & bibliography

Friday, November 14, 2014

First chapter draft

Friday, December 5, 2014

Penultimate draft

Monday, April 6, 2015

Final draft of thesis

Friday, May 1, 2015, 5pm

Oral defense

No later than Friday, May 15, 2015




Deadline for:

Spring-Fall-Winter Thesis Writers



Declaration of Thesis Advisors

Friday, February 20, 2015

First draft of Prospectus & bibliography

Friday, March 13, 2015

Final draft of Prospectus & bibliography

Friday, April 24, 2015

First chapter draft

Monday, May 11, 2015

Penultimate draft

Last day of classes, fall 2015

Final draft of thesis

End of second week of winter term, 2016

Oral defense

Last week of winter term, 2016


What Can I Request?

Many types of items can be borrowed. Books are usually borrowed in print copy. Newspapers are usually provided in micro-form covering multiple weeks. Journal articles are sent as photocopies or digital copies.

Media items: DVDs, CDs, etc, can be ordered, but may take longer to arrive.


Writing and Plagiarism Guides

Help With Writing

Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research (CTLR)

Middlebury students can consult the CTLR in the Davis Family Library for help. Staff & Peer Tutors are available to offer feedback on your writing.

Writing and Plagiarism Guides

If you use other writers' ideas, paraphrase, or use quotations in your thesis, you will need to credit the author--in the text with a citation and in the bibliography. Make sure you are familiar with Middlebury's Academic Honesty Statement for a full explanation.

A number of guides show how to write using information from other sources and properly credit your sources within your papers.  See the Writing & Plagiarism section on the Middlebury Citation and Style Guide for links to recommended guides.

Thesis Research Help Sessions


Check with your department or thesis advisor to see if they have scheduled a thesis session for your major.

If they haven't, you can set up an individual appointment by contacting the Librarian for your subject area (also listed on each Research Guide) or by filling out the Email a Librarian form.  Even if there is a thesis session for your major, you can still set up an individual research consultation to ensure you know how to find the resources you will need.

We are happy to help you with your thesis research and any Library questions you have. Just ask!


Finding Materials

Getting Started:

Locate and browse a few KEY WORKS.

Find a few key works on your subject by asking your advisor, a librarian, or checking a scholarly encyclopedia that identifies key works for each entry. A key work may be a recent analysis, classic study, or a primary source on your topic. Check Summon or MIDCAT to see if they are in our Library. If using MIDCAT, look at the full record and explore the subject links in the records.


Once you begin finding and reading important works on your subject, the bibliographies of those works will help you identify valuable primary sources, other secondary works, and other information.

Use the LIBRARY SUBJECT GUIDE for your discipline.

The Library Subject Guides will point you to databases and indexes for books, journals, magazines, newspapers, as well as subject encyclopedias and dictionaries, bibliographies, statistical sources, and specialized resources for the discipline, including primary source material. And don't forget to ask for a research consultation with a Reference Librarian.

Finding Books and Other Materials in Summon, MIDCAT, NExpress, and Worldcat

Start your search with Summon (comprehensive library search tool) or MIDCAT (Middlebury's Library Catalog) to see what Middlebury already has and to identify key subject terms to use in other catalogs and indexes.

For MIDCAT, the SUBJECT search uses Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).  If you don't know which LCSH headings are relevant, try using a KEYWORD search using terms you are familiar with.  The keyword search will look for your terms in the full record including title, subject fields, and table of contents (if included).  Once you find relevant works, look at the full record and follow any relevant subject links. *Note: Reference Librarians can also help you identify relevant Subject terms.

Make note of useful LCSH subject terms to use in NExpress (a catalog of 6 NE college libraries holdings, including Middlebury - used for express borrowing) and Worldcat (a catalog of over 40 million books, documents, reports, and media from libraries worldwide). Both NExpress and Worldcat have links to borrow items.

NExpress buttonYou can easily go from searching MIDCAT to searching NExpress by following the link to NExpress at the top of your results page.  Worldcat is listed under MIDCAT's Other Catalogs link.


Tip: Search in these catalogs for a published bibliography on your topic.

An annotated bibliography created by an expert on the topic can save you much effort.  Look for the subheading -- bibliography from Subject search results or use bibliography as one of your terms in a keyword search.  Example subject search: United States--Economic Conditions--1918-1945--Bibliography

Finding Journal, Magazine, and Newspaper Articles

Search using Summon (comprehensive library search tool) or consult the Library Subject Guides for your discipline and related disciplines to identify specialized library databases.  These guides have sections for journals and newspaper databases.  There is also a separate Newspapers Research Guide.

Search in each index or database using your list of subject headings, key terms, names, etc. you've discovered so far.

If the full text is not included or linked to in the specialized database, you will need to check Summon, MIDCAT or the Journal A - Z list to see if we have the item. If using Midcat or the Journals list, be sure to search by the name of the journal, not the article title. For articles within books, search by the title of the book it is in, not the chapter title or author. If we don't have it, you can request the item via NExpress (if available) or Interlibrary Loan.

Finding Materials to Borrow from Center for Research Libraries (CRL)

Middlebury is a member of the Center for Research Libraries and can borrow any materials from their collection. CRL materials can be borrowed for extended checkout if no one else requests the item!  CRL specializes in harder to get periodicals (including many foreign language newspapers and journals) and other resources. See their collections description. Search the CRL catalog to identify items, and then request them via ILL and note it's available from CRL.

Finding Primary Sources

What are primary sources?

It is difficult to make firm distinctions between primary and secondary sources, but generally primary sources are first-hand information. This includes information written or compiled in the time period of an event or derived from a person who witnessed or participated in an event. There should be a strong element of being contemporary to your subject.

What are some examples?

Original manuscripts, documents and records, diaries, memoirs, letters, newspapers and magazines of the period, legal cases, hearings, minutes, photographs, art, memorabilia, oral histories, interviews,
research data and reports

How do I identify and locate primary materials?

Start by searching in Summon or MIDCAT (then expand your search to NExpress, Worldcat, and the Center for Research Libraries catalog). Libraries have many primary sources found in book form, government documents, and on microfilm. Try combining your subject terms with keywords such as sources, correspondence, narratives, letters, diaries, interviews, etc.

For more examples, see these Middlebury handouts:

Finding Primary Sources in the Library Using MIDCAT

History Theses: Searching for Primary Sources--Some Questions to Ask Yourself

Check the Library Subject Guide for your discipline.  Some guides have sections for Primary Sources. There is also a separate Government Information Resources Research Guide.

Check Middlebury's Special Collections & Archives Collection. Many of their holdings are listed in MIDCAT.  Try restricting your search to "Special Collections" from the drop-down menu next to the search box.

Check Middlebury's Digital Collections page (these items are also indexed in Summon).

Check the web. Many primary sources have been digitized and are available on the web. See the Using Primary Sources on the Web guide from the Reference & User Services Association.

Also look for references to primary works cited in bibliographies of secondary works, then check MIDCAT to see if we have the source. If we don't have the source, it may be possible get some materials via NExpress or regular Interlibrary Loan.

Using Other Libraries, Museums, or Research Collections

If you think you may want to use other institutions for your research, there are a variety of catalogs, collection guides, directories, and indexes which can be consulted to help you identify collections related to your broad topic. Be sure to check their hours and access policies ahead of time! See the Using Other Libraries section of this guide for more information.

For instance, try

Subject Collections
New York: Bowker, 1993.
Library Reference Z731 .A78 1993.

Repositories of Primary Sources (online guide compiled by Terry Abraham from the Univ. of Iowa)


For specific suggestions, consult with your faculty advisor and/or a reference librarian.

Financial Help & Awards

This list is by no means complete. Check with the Undergraduate Research Office, your department, and advisor for other opportunities.

Financial assistance for travel, photocopies, and other research expenses

Please note the deadlines!

Senior Research Project Supplement

Grants for Student Research Abroad (Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs)

Awards for Vermont topics

The Center for Research on Vermont (located at UVM) sponsors two undergraduate awards:

Andrew E. Nuquist Award for Outstanding Student Research on a Vermont Topic
For In-depth studies, i.e. honors project, senior thesis, or year-long independent study.

George B. Bryan Award for Excellence in Vermont Research
For one semester, term-paper length Vermont research projects.

For details on these 2 awards, including submission guidelines and abstracts of past award-winning and finalist papers, see the Center's Student Awards for Vermont Research webpage. Note that Middlebury student papers have frequently won these prizes.

Awards for using data (statistical surveys, public opinion polls, etc)

ICPSR Undergraduate Research Paper Competition
See past award winners for examples of excellent papers (you can read these online).

Awards for other topics

See individual academic department homepages for details on prizes offered by them.


Search Records

To keep track of what databases and indexes you have searched, start to keep a SEARCH RECORD of these sources. You will quickly forget what you have already consulted, and these records will make it easy to see what you haven't yet covered and may also be useful in discussions with your advisor or a librarian.

*It is also a good idea to note the search terms you used with electronic databases, that way when you review your results with your advisor or a librarian, they can suggest other terms that might improve your results.

For example:


keyword: china and cultural revolution and sources
keyword: china and cultural revolution and personal narratives
keyword: red guard*
subject: China -- History -- Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976 --


same searches as Midcat

Bibliography of Asian Studies (BAS)

keyword: china and cultural revolution
keyword: china and red guards

Historical Abstracts

keyword: china and cultural revolution
keyword: red guard* and cultural revolution
keyword: red guard* and mao



Thesis Guide

Below you'll find information to help you with your thesis research and documentation. It is strongly recommended that you consult with reference librarians along the way, either with the librarian on duty or by appointment with the librarian in your subject area. Ask us! See the Thesis Handout (09/2011)Thesis Handout (09/2014) for a brief overview

Library Services

Finding Materials

Middlebury Theses & Dissertations

Theses & Dissertations From Other Institutions

Using Other Libraries

Search Records

Evaluating Sources

Citation Guides and Tools for Formatting Bibliographies

Writing and Plagiarism Guides

Awards and Financial Help


Citation Guides & Tools for Formatting Bibliographies

**Find out what style guide is required/recommended for your thesis.

Consider using a bibliographic management tool, such as Zotero (easier) or RefWorks

zotero_logo (recommended)

You can save citations in a database and these tools will automatically format your citations into the style you need (ex. MLA, APA, Turabian,...).  Zotero is an add-on to Firefox and with it you can directly download citations from your browser.  There is also a standalone version for Chrome or Safari.  In addition, many databases allow you to directly export citations to Refworks and Zotero, using their save/export function.

See the Middlebury Style and Citation Guide for information and help with Refworks, Zotero, and other tools as well as print style guides available in the libraries (MLA, APA, Chicago, Turabian, etc.).

Evaluating Sources

Evaluation becomes important in choosing what to read or use and in determining how much weight to give sources. Think about the source of the information and the suitability of the contents. You may not have time to read everything on your topic. If you need guidance, consult your professors or a librarian.

  • Is the information well documented with footnotes and a bibliography? Is the bibliography current relative to the source, and is it annotated?
  • Does the author use primary sources or rely mainly on secondary sources?
  • Does the source appear to be objective and thorough? Do you notice political or cultural bias? Are statements substantiated by facts or documents? Has the author omitted people or events which should have been included? Reading book reviews and doing a cited reference search can help you address these questions. (Cited reference searches show where an article or book has been cited by other publications.  See a Librarian for help).
  • When was the source published? For your topic is it important to have the most current information?
  • Is the information specific to your topic or too generalized?
  • Was the source recommended by a knowledgeable person or one of many found in the research process?
  • What are the credentials of the author? Does the book or article mention affiliations, or background? Do book reviews reflect views of colleagues?
  • Who is the publisher of the book or article? A university press, popular press, scholarly organization, a political group? Is the book intended for the general public, students, or professionals?
  • Does the item include useful statistics, graphs, maps, illustrations? Is the source of these identified?

Evaluating What You Find on the Internet:

When doing research using the internet, you will likely run across a whole range and variety of resources. For help with judging the usefulness and authority of webpages, consult these resources:  

Evaluating Information Found on the Internet
A guide by Elizabeth Kirk, Johns Hopkins University Libraries. Nicely lays out the criteria for consideration.

Evaluating Web Content
Guide from the University at Albany Libraries.

Internet Detective Tutorial (Wise up to the Web)
British tutorial on evaluating internet resources.

Five Criteria for Evaluating Web Pages (from Cornell University)


Recent grad hopes thesis on TV storytelling will lead to discussion

Aaron Smith, Class of 2009 and a Film & Media Culture major, has posted online a discussable version of his senior thesis, "Transmedia Storytelling in Television 2.0," in which he explores how contemporary television has embraced new narrative strategies and digital media to encourage participation in expansive storyworlds. In this online version, he invites readers to comment in the margins of his project to further the dialogue about these new developments.