Politics department limits thesis length to combat over-writing
The politics department has added a new 125-page limit for senior theses this year to counter the perception among students that longer theses are better. Theses that exceed this limit will not be eligible for departmental prizes.
“Any pages after 125 may or may not be read by the second reader,” Markus Prior, the director of undergraduate studies for the politics department, said in an email to seniors.
The policy had been discussed for several years, according to politics department chair Nolan McCarty. He said the policy was implemented in part to encourage students to focus on editing their theses more carefully.
Last year, members of the Class of 2012 submitted a total of 104 senior theses to the politics department. These ranged from 58 pages to over 200 pages, and a quarter of them exceeded 125 pages.
In addition, many of the prize-winning theses from the Class of 2012 had page counts in excess of 125 pages. One of the winning theses was more than 200 pages long, far exceeding the new guidelines.
“Some very good theses were 180, 200 pages long, unnecessarily,” McCarty said. “There was the sense that students were getting that that’s what we wanted, and that to be competitive for a prize, you needed to write a 200-page thesis, which was actually counterproductive because we were evaluating those theses more harshly than we would have had they been judiciously edited.”
Limitations on senior thesis length are not common among other departments, though some others have either word or page limits. In particular, the Wilson School’s policy is identical to the new politics department policy — a 125-page limit that must be adhered to for prize eligibility and a guaranteed second reading.
In other departments that have word or page limits, though, theses that exceed the limits are still eligible for prizes. Also, page limits are clearer and easier to enforce than word limits.
McCarty said the politics department would be strictly adhering to the new policy.
“If it says 125 pages, it’s 125 pages,” he said.
On the other hand, the French and Italian department requires theses to fall within a 15,000 to 20,000-word range. While theses that don’t fall within this range might receive lower grades, they are still eligible for prizes. In addition, these restrictions are intended to provide a lower limit rather than an upper limit, according to Departmental Representative Simone Marchesi.
“I’ve never had a case in which the thesis was too long,” Marchesi said. “But there have been cases in which the theses have been excessively on the short side.”
Seniors in the politics department said they weren’t concerned with the new limitation right now.
“I was a little bit surprised to know that there was an upper limit, but I figured that they just gave you some reference range,” politics undergraduate committee member Josh Webman ’13 said. “I don’t really see [the policy] being a problem for me.”