I'm on the top floor of that building you see in the front (albeit on the other side). I can see some of my colleagues' offices, though. (Photo: Clément Morin)
I'm on the top floor of that building you see in the front (albeit on the other side). I can see some of my colleagues' offices, though. (Photo: Clément Morin)

Last updated: 22 June 2024.

This will be a periodically updated blog post of things I want to tell students in my department (and maybe yours too) as they start writing their research papers. Students in my department write a B-paper (second-year pilot analysis, of sorts), a C-paper (a BA thesis), and a MA thesis. However, the abbreviated, somewhat hurried nature of the curriculum and the economic situation brought on by our landlords mean we don’t have as much real estate as I’d like to teach students important things I want them to know.1 I have assorted things on my blog that try to teach students assorted things, but I also need something a bit more tailored to students in my current department.

These are all things I wish I could say if I had more time or resources to teach students, but I have to point them here instead. It won’t be the first such post I’ve written. For example, I have a 2014 post on how to do a literature review, a 2015 “dos and dont’s” post on writing for students. The latter was followed by a post later that year on some tips for students in writing papers. The audience in that case were Clemson University students over whom I had more agency in crafting a curriculum. The last such post of its type came in May 2016 on a web content approach for academic writing. Themes from all those posts will recur here.

Here’s a table of contents for navigation.

  1. Make Your First Page Count
  2. What’s the Question?
  3. Intro -> Lit Review -> Theory/Argument -> Analysis -> Conclusion
  4. “What Are You Doing and Why Are You Doing It?”
  5. (Don’t) “Pick a Theory and Apply It”

Make Your First Page Count

There’s a dirty secret that we all learned getting our PhD and submitting things for peer review. The reviewer’s mind is effectively made up after the first page. As students, we liked to believe that the full submission is read and evaluated on its entire merits. That’s still true, but it’s also the case that we’ll know if a paper will be good or bad after the first page. Students have to write one paper, but professors have to read a class full of papers (amid other things). We have our heuristics, and this is one of them.

If the first page is an unstructured mess, is unclear on what is happening in it, and gives no real indication of what to expect, then the professor will have considerable doubt on what will follow. A good first page does not guarantee a good paper. Certainly, things can go haywire in the design and analyses sections of a paper. However, it is kind of a necessary condition, and a signal. You need a good first page (“introduction”) to have a good overall paper. A bad first page is a good signal that the remaining parts will assuredly be bad as well. Make your first page count.

What’s the Question?

Students in my department may find this a curious thing to include here. In almost every instance, they are induced to write papers for which there is an explicit section titled something like “Research Purpose and Question”, which has like a second or third section in the paper (i.e. it appears anywhere but early into the paper). This section is typically one or two sentences and just outright says the question. Leaving aside, for the moment, my distaste of this tradition and my uncertainty of its origin, my plea here is too many papers lose sight of the question. The paper that follows conflates the question with the topic of interest. You might be interested in UN peacekeeping operations, postcolonial perspectives, or how (in Sweden) news outlets treat news sources supported by the Russian government (e.g. RT, Sputnik). You care about your topic; I care about your question. What’s your question?

As you write your paper, identify what your question is and do so early. Ideally, for students: just the one question. One question (tack, snälla). A single, focused question allows for a more focused paper that is less likely to go on detours to nowhere in particular.2 A single, focused question makes it tractable for students to be focused on an answer to the question. A better paper is more likely to follow, and more likely to be finished by the student.

Again, do this early. Do it in the introduction as well. May this be another reason why I find this “Research Purpose and Question” section that students are induced to write to be a curious tradition. It leaves me confused about what I’m reading and it confuses the student’s paper on its purpose.

Intro -> Lit Review -> Theory/Argument -> Design/Analysis -> Conclusion

Student papers at all levels have curious formats, which are often explicitly induced to them by guides we give them. There is the aforementioned “question” section coming in a second or third place after some background section. The biggest offender, in my view, is placing a theory section before a literature review. From a political science standpoint, this tradition is so strange it’s almost offensive. How could you possibly know your argument without knowing about the bigger picture in which your argument rests? How could you possibly know what you’re doing without knowing what others have done? It’s just weird, all around. So many carts go before horses in student papers.

I take my inspiration from Jim Stimson’s guide and will offer only a slight variation of it here. The basic point remains, though. Academic writing is a largely deductive process. Each succeeding part will (by and large) logically follow what comes before it. The exact substance will vary contingent on method and, I’m sure, a particular academic tradition that may still clutch to the almighty -isms. No matter, I want your papers to look something like this.

  1. Intro: a good four paragraphs (or so) with the following basic flow. 1) What is happening that I should care about? 2) Why should I care about what you just said? 3) What are you going to argue? 4) What is the structure of the paper? If you want some applied examples, check out my publications in Political Behavior (2017), Conflict Management and Peace Science (2017), and Political Research Quarterly (2017). All introductions have this basic flow.
  2. Lit Review: I worry we don’t emphasize this enough in my department. At most, a literature review is annotated bibliography of exactly three things. If the professor is fortunate, this annotated bibliography of exactly three things is related to the question the student is asking and doesn’t say “no one has ever done this before”. I have a guide and might expand on it, but understand literature reviews are thematic assessments of the state of knowledge on some topic. It should identify what we know, what we don’t know, and further emphasize why all this is important to know.
  3. Theory/Argument: I have to know what you intend to argue and what you think can better help us understand the state of the world that interests you. I need to know what you think the answer to the question is, and why you think this. How you do this will depend on the nature of the question and the particular methodology to follow. I have my quantitatively-oriented tradition, but even a colleague of mine who doesn’t operate in this same vein will emphasize the same things I will here. Theories have assumptions or simplifying factors. What are they? Identify them. If I accept the assumptions that underpin the argument, I have to accept that the argument is valid and could (potentially) be subjected to some kind of “test” (next section). Some of my early-semester lectures in my quant methods class at Clemson University discuss this, at least in a quantitative mindset.
  4. Design/Analysis: These are really two sections, and not one, but I’m condensing them here for simplicity’s sake. Tell me the materials you will use and the methodology you will use. For a quantitative methods paper, I prefer: 1) discuss the DV, 2) discuss the primary IV that interests you (i.e. the “cause”), 3) discuss the “controls”, where appropriate, and 4) discuss the method. The analysis section will entirely depend on the design section (and the results of the analysis), so there’s not much I can really say here. However, I will emphasize here to stay focused on the motivating question. From a quant standpoint, discuss the main IV first and controls second. Stay focused on the question and make the important stuff come first.
  5. Conclusion: Emphasize what you did with respect to the question you asked. What do we know now that we didn’t know before? What are the implications of what you did?

I’d much rather read a paper of this format then something that pretends to have an answer before knowing the nature of the question.

“What Are You Doing and Why Are You Doing It?”

Amid everything that’s happened personally and professionally, this has been the question I’ve repeated to myself the most. It’s the defining question of my life for a while. “What are you doing and why are you doing it?” It’s also been something I repeat on student drafts. At various points along the way, ask yourself what are you doing and why are you doing it. If the answers to that question do not withstand any further scrutiny, then you should not be doing what you are doing because what you are doing, or the manner in which you’re doing it, would appear odd to any person who understands what you’re doing (but is unclear why you’re doing it).

I’ll give an example from an otherwise fantastic experience supervising a BA paper. In this particular case, the student wanted to impress the examiner (another professor) by showing how much initiative they took with learning quantitative methods. They estimated a set of linear models with type-3 heteroskedasticity-consistent standard errors. Then, they did a Breusch-Pagan test on that model, which suggested heteroskedasticity. Afterward, they re-estimated the model with bootstrapped standard errors. I asked, “what are you doing and why are you doing it?” The student’s answer was they wanted to go through the textbook process of robustness tests for the linear model.

That’s fine, but then why is the first model estimated with type-3 heteroskedasticity-consistent standard errors? The initial set of models assumes heteroskedasticity. The Breusch-Pagan test does not know you did this when it looks for patterns in the offending model. So, the procedure went: 1) assume heteroskedasticity and be conservative with standard errors, 2) test for thing you assumed was already there, 3) do yet another heteroskedasticity robustness test. “What are you doing and why are you doing it?”

Granted, this student was still excellent and a joy to supervise, so this learning experience for him was just an opportunity to rib him a little bit.3 I still cherish that student and wish he were every student I taught. Never lose sight of what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, please figure out why you’re doing it, whether you should be doing it, or if you need a better justification for what you’re doing.

(Don’t) “Pick a Theory and Apply It”

This will assuredly be a losing battle, but it’s my San Juan Hill. Students feel compelled to “pick a theory” and “apply it” to a particular thing they want to understand. I think this a fool’s errand, and often results in mishaps like “picking” realism and “applying it” to guest worker policies in Southeast Asia. It’s related to the aforementioned issues of placing the theory you select before any semblance of a literature review or an understanding of what the problem is.

The complaints here are multiple, and ultimately assorted. So-called “realism” will feature prominently here.

  • I primarily study international conflict, so I’m attuned to realism more than I am to other things. I tried to be polite, but here goes. Realism has nothing to tell you about any question you should care about asking.4 Realism has no explanation for war, only an assumption that it happens because nothing stops it from happening. There is no question that realists ask that isn’t begged, and begged poorly. War has never required states; just groups capable of killing on scale. War has never required anarchy and even Kenneth Waltz’ inspiration for the anarchy assumption wasn’t Hobbes (who is so easily misread). It was Rousseau. Apologies to the “Y’all Need Jesus” meme, but y’all really need R. Harrison Wagner. Read the first two chapters of his book, and this woefully underappreciated postmortem on bipolarity. Read John Vasquez (1998). Read Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s textbook for more insight, along with his co-authored article with James D. Morrow in 1999. Literally, read anything else that is at least clear in its assumptions.
  • And, yes, I’m aware of John Mearsheimer’s five assumptions in Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Charitably, that is a description of the international system and not an explanation of it. Credit Mearsheimer, though, for at least making those transparent. It at least makes it painfully obvious that Mearsheimer is begging the question, and begging it poorly.
  • “Constructivism is not a theory of international politics.” That is not me saying that. That’s Alexander Wendt saying that on p. 7 and p. 193 of his book. If you want to use this “theory”, understand that it’s deliberately (I’ll go with) “broad” on a lot of the assumptions that underpin it. In applied circumstances, that makes it almost assumption-free. You, the researcher, have to supply the assumptions. That’s not to say others haven’t done well with this approach. Indeed, constructivist motifs are everywhere in analyses of the international politics of human rights and I’ve always found constructivist explorations of socialization and NATO to be interesting. However, none of that is so simple as “picking” a theory and “applying” it. There’s more work involved.
  • Charitably, I think the impulse to “pick a theory and apply it” comes with a confusion about what the “theory” is. When I talk about research design, I talk about “perspectives” as a kind of proto-theory. I can (or certainly should be able to) falsify a theory; I can’t falsify a perspective. Perhaps realism isn’t a theory as much as it’s a ritualistic perspective that sees the world as conflictual in a system without an outright sovereign. Liberalism isn’t a theory as much as it’s a perspective that tries to identify the multitude of actors and the levers of power they have in a system governed by its transactions as much (or more?) than its conflict. Constructivism isn’t a theory of international politics as much as it’s perspective that is interested in exploring the ideational forces that construct the world and give it its meaning. That’s fine? But if we consent to that and proceed from it, we’ve deliberately dropped the “theory” label from these so-called “theories”. Now, the researcher/student has to supply assumptions on its behalf. It’s the IR equivalent of IKEA furniture, at least in the Futurama bit. In that bit, IKEA doesn’t sell you furniture as much as it gives you (some of) the tools to build your own furniture. You still have to build it, and supply some (most) of its parts.

This part is dissatisfying for students, who I worry are so fixated on convincing the professor that they read the material given to them that they don’t want to think outside it. But, rest assured, Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer don’t have all the answers. They’re just begging the question, and begging it poorly. I don’t want students to get a university degree and be thumbing through After Hegemony or Social Theory of International Politics for answers to pressing questions in international politics. The book doesn’t go on the job market. The student, with the diploma, does.

  1. American friends, imagine if the same (I’ll be polite) people gobbling up off-campus real estate (e.g. Campus Partners at The Ohio State University) also owned the buildings the campus needed to function and you’d get the gist of my reaction about this particular practice when I moved here. 

  2. I don’t know why I keep seeing this, but students often structure their aforementioned “Research Purpose and Question” in threes. This means the student asks three questions, which may or may not overlap. The paper in which the question is asked still has a set length it must be. Thus, answering three questions that may or may not overlap often results in an answers to those questions that are superficial, at best. I’d rather you answer one question well than try to answer three questions poorly and confuse me on the point of the exercise. 

  3. There was one other instance, related to this central point. In a later draft, the student corrected this point but took inspiration from a blog post of mine and did the Wild bootstrap procedure. I saw this and asked him, in my office, “all right, wise guy, explain the Wild bootstrap to me.” He proceeded to explain the simple bootstrap, and explain it quite well. However, that’s not the Wild bootstrap. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it. 

  4. If the question is “what would John Mearsheimer have to say about this”, fine, ask it, but that’s only because you care about it and not because it’s informative. John Mearsheimer is the Donald Trump of international relations scholarship. He’s so patently been full of shit for the near 40 years in which we’ve known him, but he sells you the illusion that he knows what he’s talking about. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs find both to be useful, but I don’t and neither should you. Tragedy of Great Power Politics is not a bad argument, it’s a caricature of a bad argument and it’s fitting that it was given a back-cover endorsement by Stage-IV Samuel Huntington. These people have never been serious about science and there is no definition of scientific research that so-called realists would find palatable that is consistent with what they do. It’s tough to read Kapstein (1995) and see a generic IR curriculum and not be left with the impression that we still have this stuff on the curriculum the same way older societies did human sacrifices. There’s no logical reason whatsoever to believe this is accomplishing what we want, but it’s a ritual so ingrained in us that we don’t know what else to do. We’re collectively afraid that reckoning with why we do this will make us supremely uncomfortable, far more uncomfortable than we’d feel if we sacrificed just one more person at the altar.