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Subject guide

International Studies: how to write your thesis

This Subject Guide is designed to support students of International Studies with writing their BA thesis and research papers. This guide focuses on the research process, and suggests effective ways to: 1. find a topic and formulate a good research question; 2. search, find and evaluate literature; 3. search, find and organize primary sources; and 4. organize the research and writing process.

A. Getting Started & Staying Organized

Writing a thesis, or a larger research paper, can often be a challenge. It requires not only research skills, but also organizational skills to break down the process in smaller steps and make a realistic planning.

Sage Research Methods is a tool that helps you develop your research from the first to the last step.

B. Finding a good Topic

Leiden University’s library offers a number of tools to help you find a good research topic: Start your thesis.

Portland State University’s library, too, offers a good tool to help you get started: the DIY Library, and Ohio State University offers a handbook.

Three short videos that can help you get started are: Picking a topic IS research (by NC State); Choosing a Research Paper Topic (by University of Minnesota Libraries); How to Develop a Good Research Topic (by Kansas State Libraries).

C. Formulating a Research Question

The instruction pageHow to write a research question’ of George Mason University’s Writing Center can form a good starting point, as well as this handbook.

You can also watch these short videos to help you get started: Developing a Research Question (by Steely Library); and Research Questions tutorial (by George Washington University Library).

D. Finding & Evaluating literature

Leiden University’s library offers help with finding and evaluating literature for your thesis or research paper.

You can find tutorials on searching for literature; as well as tutorials on evaluating sources, or use this handbook.  

You can also ask for help by asking questions directly to library staff; or by requesting a one-on-one meeting with a subject librarian.

Two helpful short videos on finding literature include: One perfect source? (by NC State); and Tips & Tricks: Phrase Searching (by NC State).

E. Finding Primary Sources

The library provides access to a large number of digital resources, databases and archives. The Subject Guide for International Studies provides an overview of the various resources. 

Four examples of digital primary sources are, digital & digitized newspapers; the Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) History; the Economist Intelligence Unit, which provides economic profiles and country reports; and the The Digital National Security Archive, which contains declassified CIA and US government documents.

You can gain an overview of the databases and e-resources offered through the library via this link.

F. Planning your Research Project

Students often struggle with making a realistic time-plan and then sticking with it. The following tools can help:

The Open University’s interactive website Time Management Skills portal helps you to develop your time management skills. See the following links for topics such as: -setting goals, -how to prepare a schedule and -tips for time management.

G. Help & Support

For questions about finding the right literature, you can approach the library, by asking questions directly to library staff; or by requesting a one-on-one meeting with a subject librarian.

For help with writing your thesis or research paper, you can also contact the International Studies Writing Center.

For help with developing your Study skills & managing your studies (for example help with managing your time or coping with study stress), you can approach the Student Support Services for various workshops and courses.

If you are coping with more serious study-related or mental issues, you contact the study advisers or the university’s student psychologist, or visit the university’s website.

Find a topic, formulate a research question, make a realistic time-plan

As a student you will have to do research assignments, write papers and hand in your final thesis before graduation. In order to succeed in this, you need to choose a good topic, formulate a researchable question, and make a realistic planning.

An effective tool for designing your research process in an effective way, is the SAGE Research Methods website. This website is user-friendly and helps you to break down your research process into smaller blocks. It also provides help with planning your research project.

Tips on how to choose a topic

  • Get inspired: Take inspiration from your required readings for a course you like, browse the books in the Wijnhaven Library reading room, explore topics in peer-reviewed international studies journals, or have a look at other theses by former students. Ask yourself: which question has not yet been answered? What information seems to be missing? What can you add to the discussion?
  • Brainstorm: Write down possible topic that comes to mind. These tutorials can help you with your brainstorm.
  • Pick something you like: If you have little influence over your thesis topic, try and steer your assigned topic in the direction you would like to take it to. This can be a specific discipline (sociology, anthropology, politics, linguistics) era (historical approach) or method (surveys, data sets, newspapers, personal stories etc).
  • Make sure you can make it into an academic treatise: A good number of students choose a thesis topic that aligns with their private interests. However, it can be a challenge to turn such topics into an academic treatise, because you may not have enough (1) relevant (2) academic and (3) accessible sources about the topic to base your argument on. Make sure that you choose a topic that you are passionate about, but that also has received scholarly interest, on which there is literature available, as well as other sources. If you start searching for sources in an early stage you can quickly determine whether your topic is in fact viable as a thesis topic or not.
  • Mind the size of your topic: it is important to narrow down your topic to a manageable size. Too few sources means you may want to expand your topic a bit. On the other hand, having too many sources on your topic means you need to narrow your topic down further. This is one of the reasons why starting to search for sources early is an important step in pinpointing a research topic that is just the right size for you.
  • Use the Sage Project Planner or other tutorials for defining a topic

Tips on how to formulate a good question

  • Avoid questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’
  • Have a voice: Ideally you already have a hypothesis, idea or point of view through which you can enter this topic. Often times you will adjust your view on the topic the more you learn about it.
  • Formulate a ‘problem’ that you need to answer: Think about the big questions, such as ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘who’. This will give you an open-ended question through which you can explore your topic.
  • Avoid ‘Compare A to B and see what happens’ scenarios: There needs to be a formulation of a ‘problem’ and a point of view.
  • Use these tutorials or the Sage project planner to develop a researchable question

Tips on how to meet your deadline

  • Start with a general overview of the amount of time you have: When is your deadline? When can (and when should) you get started? How many hours can you realistically spend per week on this project?
  • Write down the steps you need to take from start to end: Go through this research guide to get an idea of how much time you need for your research. Don’t forget about things that might not be included here, such as spell checks, format checks, printing and binding etc.
  • You can use the Sage project planner to make a planning.
  • Be realistic: A realistic planning will help you to set goals and avoid stress by impeding deadlines. Underestimating the amount of work needed to write a well-researched, well-written paper is the number one reason students experience a lot of overwhelm from the research process. Therefore, be realistic about the amount of work you can put in in a day.
  • Write down your daily top 3: Write down three achievable things you want to have finished by the time you are done for the day and start with the most important thing.
  • Don’t forget to take a break: It is important to put away what you wrote for a bit so you can revisit it later. Oftentimes, when you go back to your text at a later point, you see little inconsistencies that you overlooked earlier; or you have new insights to add to your argument.
  • Time Management Skills: Planning your research is about much more than just prioritizing and setting goals. It is also about how you deal with distractions, procrastination, and what to do if you fall behind. Time management skills are essential skills not only for now, but also for when you find employment. Read more about Time Management Skills: -setting goals, -how to prepare a schedule and -tips for time management.

Recommended Books

A. Finding literature is not like a trip to the supermarket

Some students approach the act of gathering information for their research as if they were taking a trip to the supermarket; they expect to be able to find exactly what they need within a certain set amount of time. Unlike a supermarket trip, however, searching for scholarly information is difficult, and you do not always get the results you want. This is mostly due to the fact that it is easy to (1) overestimate the quality and availability of the sources you need, and (2) underestimate the amount of time and skill needed to find these sources amidst the millions of sources out there.

In other words, some students expect to find ‘perfect sources’ for their thesis topic – meaning; academic sources that ‘tick all the right boxes’ of their thesis topic – fully downloadable, and found with little effort with just a few keywords and clicks. In reality, however, the ‘perfect source’ likely does not exist, many sources you need will not be available digitally, it will take quite some time and effort to find these sources, and you will have to pick up some new search skills along the way. This often causes students to experience the ‘search’ and ‘access’ phase as the most frustrating, unsatisfactory experience in the whole research experience.

Frustration, coupled with a lack of time, makes it tempting for students to turn to less trustworthy or relevant sources because they are more familiar (Google), or more easily available (full-text search only). This, however, leads to an unbalanced and incomplete list of sources. It is therefore important to think about how you search; are your expectations realistic? What are your pitfalls when pressed for time or when something does not work out immediately? How can you avoid them?

The good news is that you don’t need to find a ‘perfect source’, and this brief video shows you why: ‘Good research isn’t about finding the perfect article that makes all the connections for you, it’s about finding information that helps you form your ideas, and tying it together yourself to form a cohesive argument.’

If the perfect source already existed, there would not be a reason for you to write your thesis or paper. As a researcher, your assignment is to get to know the literature on a topic, identify what is missing, and add to the existing knowledge with our own writing. Sage Research Methods helps you to approach your research project in exactly this way.

Second, there are many ways the library can help you get access to difficult-to-obtain sources and teach you how to search. Third, if you make a project plan early and manage your time, you should have enough time to search for the sources you need, thus avoiding a lot of stress and frustration.

B. First Step: Background Search

The best way to start your search is getting yourself more acquainted with the topic; you know some things about it, but there is a lot that you do not (yet) know. Background search can help you to identify important facts (dates, events, people, terminology) refine your topic (what aspect about this topic is it that truly interests you?), and give you additional information and tips on where to search (dictionaries, encyclopedias, databases). For your background search you can use Google, Wikipedia, your textbooks, bibliographies and encyclopedias.

At this stage of your research, important tools to start with are Google Scholar, which allows you to search and browse journal articles as well as the bibliographies that you can find in this Subject Guide for International Studies. The bibliographies are curated by a specialized staff and are more complete and systematic.

When doing background research you can start with a couple of keywords. You can use keywords from titles or abstracts. Specific keywords can narrow or broaden the amount of information you will find. Try out different (combinations of) keywords/synonyms to see what kind of information you get and which terms are useful. Learn more in these tutorials about keywords.

You can also use the so-called snowball-method to find literature on your topic: simply browse the bibliography at the end of a book or article that you found convincing to see if it contains other titles related to your topic.

C. Searching in the Library Catalogue

Try out different search terms when you start searching in the catalogue. The catalogue automatically searches for all of the entered search terms in one document unless you use OR. You can use NOT if you want specific words to be excluded. If you don’t know how to spell a word or it can be written in different ways, you can use the symbol # or ? (wom#n finds woman and women). When you have found a relevant item, you can also use the references or citations as new sources. It is not recommended to limit yourself to things only available in Leiden University by selecting ‘Leiden Collections’ instead of ‘All content’ in the search screen. See our catalogue tutorial.

D. Find Literature Elsewhere

Though Leiden University provides access to an extensive collection of literature related to International Studies, many more can be found elsewhere.

Recommended Library Catalogues

  • Worldcat: is the biggest world-wide search engine for library holdings. You can use it to search information about books, but also to locate the nearest library (inside or outside the library) that holds a copy. If any book or journal you found is unavailable in Leiden, you can either visit the holding library (which is often free for Dutch University Students) or request the item through (International) Inter Library Loan.

Recommended Online Search Engines

  • Google Scholar is Google’s search engine for scientific articles and academic books. It is recommended not to limit your search activities to Google, but it does offer a good starting point.

Recommended Bibliographies

A. Digital and Paper Sources

Tips for accessing Digital sources

  • If you have found a digital source in the catalogue that you wish to access from home you need to login via the library catalogue, using your ULCN credentials, and not via a publisher portal. You can also use the Get Access browser extension.
  • If you come across a source in the catalogue that is listed as “Online Access” or “Open Access” but you cannot get access, click the ‘report a problem’ option within the record. 

Tips for accessing Paper sources

  • You need a valid LU card for access in most buildings.
  • Leiden University Libraries consists of several library locations. Depending on your research topic, you may need to access physical books from these different locations.

B. Not available in Leiden?

There are a number of ways in which you can get access to materials that are not available at Leiden University Libraries.

How to get access to materials not available in Leiden

  • Look up the book or journal in Worldcat. If you enter your zip code, you can find the library nearest to you that has a copy, such as the Royal Library in the Hague or other University Libraries.
  • The Royal Library in the Hague offers a 50% discount for students for a one-year membership. Leiden University Students can apply for a library card free of charge at all Dutch Universities.
  • Request the item through Inter Library Loan (ILL) or through  International ILL.
  • Ask Leiden University to acquire the item: You can file a request for the library to purchase a book, access to a journal or database. All requests are considered by the relevant subject librarian, and a decision is made depending on collection policy, available budget and price of the item. Please keep in mind that, in case an item is purchased, it can take several weeks for the item to be shipped and processed.
  • Contact your subject librarian. If the above measures did not help, reach out to your subject librarian. It is possible that they know different means and methods within their field of expertise to obtain access to the materials you need.

A. Why do I need to evaluate scholarly publications – wasn´t that evaluated already?

Students are required to be critical of all their sources, including the ones you find in the library catalogue, academic databases, and those quoted in other scholarly publications. In today’s world, publishing and sharing information has become accessible to all, which also has made it easier to publish misinformation.

Academic information, at least, has put up a number of hurdles to tackle misinformation and disinformation from spreading, such as peer review. However, aside from the fact that these measures are far from failsafe, journals, books and authors can certainly be biased or prejudiced while working within the academic framework. It is your job as a scholar to be critical of all sources you use – academic or not – and train yourself in recognizing credible sources and using them in a critical fashion.

B. Popular & Scholarly

At the beginning of your student career at Leiden University, you may sometimes miss the difference between scholarly information and popular sources, and why this difference is important.

Media like YouTube videos, blog posts, or magazine articles can be tempting to use in a paper, because they (1) mainly focus on being entertaining instead of being informative, (2) use clear and easy to understand language, and (3) due to algorithms, are likely to confirm your pre-existing worldview and ideas. The goal of a research project, however, is to approach a certain problem in an open way, and embark on a research as an open-ended process. For such a project, usage of scholarly publications is crucial.

One of the main differences between popular sources and scholarly sources is the scientific rigor that lies at the basis of an analysis and argument, and transparent presentation of the used methods and sources. These are part of the scholarly format of peer-reviewed and annotated texts. Illustrative of the importance of this format is the fact that an op-ed written by a professor is categorized as a popular source, while an article in a scientific journal by the same professor is categorized as a scholarly text.

It is especially tricky when opinions of the author are presented as ‘facts’ that seem correct due to being based on cherry-picked data. If you are not yet confident in discerning between scholarly and popular sources, we recommend you follow a couple of tutorials.

C. Evaluating information

It is important you ask yourself a number of questions while reading a source, such as: Who wrote the information, why did they publish it, is there an agenda and when/where was it published? All of this comes before you can think about the text itself. This follows a technique used by professional factcheckers, called lateral reading, where you first consider the container of the text, before you look at the text itself. 

The above is useful for information found both in print and online. For information found solely online there is an additional method, called the SIFT method. SIFT stands for Stop, Investigate the Source, Find trusted coverage, Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context. In many cases it will take about 30 seconds to quickly check whether for example a news report is true once you have trained yourself in the four moves of SIFT.

Take a look at these tutorials about evaluating information.

A. Reading and searching: two sides of the same coin

The most conventional method of discovering relevant authors and publications for your research is discovering them citations and references of other publications. We therefore recommend to make enough time to read your sources, and then do follow-up searches. When reading ask yourself: which authors are talking about my topic, what do they say, what books/articles did they write, which sources do they cite and how was the research conducted?

You may think that reading all the sources you find in order to do follow up search will take too long. However, in this part of the research process, you are only reading your sources to (1) confirm that they match your information need, (2) double-check that they are academic (3) not too old for your topic of choice, and (4) find references to other scholars and publication about your topic.

Tips on strategic reading

  • Scan: Quickly go through a text by reading just the titles of chapters, abstracts of papers, paragraph titles, or the first sentence of a new paragraph, and the conclusion. This will help you determine whether or not you want to read the source more in detail, and which parts you can easily skip.
  • Reading and Note making: You will have to read, process and remember information from a lot of different sources. To stay organized, it is important to make efficient notes while reading. Look here for a top five of critical reading techniques and a brief course on critical reading.
  • Don’t forget to write down where your information comes from! If you are not sure where the information comes from when you start writing, you are at risk of plagiarism. Tip: The quickest way to make a short note when you are reading is taking the last name of the author  + page. For example: Hall, p. 31. If you use multiple sources by the same author, add the publication year. (Hall, 2005, p. 31)
  • For more information see the Critical Reading Techniques.

Rinse and Repeat

At this stage, you have found a good number of sources, read them, took notes, and likely found other publications authors and data that you have not found before. This marks the second round of searching for sources – look up that interesting looking book you found in a citation, find out what else the author of that book wrote, see if you can get it through Leiden University or other means, and... read! By repeating this cycle of read-search-access-read two or three times, you are very likely to find (1) the majority of relevant publications on your topic of choice, (2) the majority of authors writing about your topic of choice, and (3) a good overview of primary sources relating to your topic of choice. Only once you have followed this thorough and deliberate way of locating your sources are you ready to move forward.

B. Refine your topic

This is a good point in your research to revisit your topic and your research question. While reading you may have found that there is much more information available about your topic than you initially thought – or not enough. You may have found that your research question has already been dealt with in length by other scholars, while at the same time, another question that is even more interesting may have come to mind. Perhaps you would like to take your research into a whole different direction after doing some reading and follow up research? When you are refining your topic, allow yourself to be flexible. It is common to modify your topic during the research process.

Take some time to visit the checklist for your topic and research question again, and see if you need to make any chances. If you have already handed in your topic and research question to your supervisor, you should always inform them of any major changes you wish to make. Have a look at this overview of tips for refining your research topic.

In some cases, using primary sources for your research is optional, in other cases it is an obligatory part of your research. Students can use a variety of primary sources for their projects, depending on their topics. Different sources may require different research methodologies.

Central to all primary research projects is, however, that you systematically analyze a well-delineated corpus of sources. The delineation refers both to the source and the time-frame. For example, instead of analyzing how ‘the media’ reported on a topic, choose a specific media outlet (for example one newspaper) or set of media outlets (a well-delineated set of newspaper titles), and research the news reports over a specific time-frame (for example: how did the New York Times report on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program between 2010 and 2020). A similar systematic can be used when analyzing statistical data, CIA reports, the correspondence between Marx and Engels, etc.

Sage Research Methods provides a good overview of the most important primary source research methods, as well as examples and cases.

The library provides access to a large number of digital resources, databases and archives. The Subject Guide for International Studies provides an overview of the various resources.

Four examples of digital primary sources are digital & digitized newspapers; the Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) History; the Economist Intelligence Unit, which provides economic profiles and country reports; and the The Digital National Security Archive, which contains declassified CIA and US government documents.

You can gain an overview of the databases and e-resources offered through the library via this link.

A. Managing your research project

Once you have found, evaluated, and read all of your literature (for now) it is time to think about what you have read and to organize your findings. This can be a challenging phase in the research project. If you feel overwhelmed by the work you have to do, various actions may help: 1.) break down the project into smaller steps; 2.) make a time plan that enables you to find a good balance between reading, researching, writing, and free time; 3.) break down your thesis or paper into smaller blocks that you can separately work on.

Tools that can help you to break down your project into smaller parts and to manage time-planning are: the Sage project planner; and the Open University’s Time Management Skills portal. See the following links for topics such as: setting goals, how to prepare a schedule and tips for time management.

For help with writing your thesis or research paper, you can also contact the International Studies Writing Lab.

For help with developing your study skills & managing your studies (for example help with managing your time or coping with study stress), you can approach the Student Support Services for various workshops and courses.

B. Synthesizing & Interrogating the literature

Your thesis or research paper needs to clearly relate to the existing literature on a topic: you need to show who you (dis)agree with and what you are adding to the existing body of knowledge. This means that you need to identify at least the following three points (1) common themes between sources, (2) points on which the sources/authors (direct or indirect) disagree and (3) gaps in the literature (what is missing?).

This does not mean that you should just give a number of summaries of articles. Instead, it is important to compare and contrast, broaden the argument and give your own thoughts and conclusions. For a more detailed explanation on synthesizing and integrating information, use one of the following sources:

C. Footnotes, Citations and Citation Managers

For your thesis or research paper you are potentially going to refer to a large body of sources. Typing up all the footnotes by hand, and maintaining one consistent reference style is time-consuming. Therefore, it is highly recommended to use an electronic citation manager. Learning how to work with a reference manager is a new skill, but it will save you time in the long run – the more papers you write, the more time you save.

There are various citation methods. International Studies theses and papers are to use CMS as their citation style. The most important thing about using a citation style is consistency. Do not mix up the different styles and rules! If you are uncertain which style you should use for your paper or thesis, always consult with your supervisor. See these tutorials and books below that can help you get started with making your own citations below. 

Recommended Books:

D. Writing the Report

For the actual writing of your thesis or research paper, structure is important in a double sense of the word. First of all, it is important to structure your thesis into smaller parts that you can write in subsequent order. Secondly, it is important to structure your working day and working week in such a way that you can find a productive balance between working on your thesis and doing other things.

Next to the Sage project planner, the website of the Australian National University can help you to design an effective structure for your thesis.

For structuring your working day and working week, you can take cue from the Open University’s Time Management Skills portal. See the following links for topics such as: setting goals, how to prepare a schedule and tips for time management.

Another helpful website is the Thesis Whisperer, which among other offers advice on How to become a literature searching Ninja, and on How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy).

Library
For questions about finding the right literature, you can approach the library, by asking questions directly to library staff; or by requesting a one-on-one meeting with a subject librarian. If you would like to suggest purchase requests, contact the subject librarian for International Studies, Bart van der Steen.

Writing Lab
For help with writing your thesis or research paper, you can also contact the International Studies Writing Lab.

Workshops on Managing Time and Coping with Study Stress
For help with developing your Study skills & managing your studies (for example help with managing your time or coping with study stress), you can approach the Student Support Services for various workshops and courses.

Study-related and Mental Support
If you are coping with more serious study-related or mental issues, you contact the study advisers or the university’s student psychologist, or visit the university’s website

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