The main idea. The argument of an essay. The thesis. It’s a tricky thing to define “thesis” because theses come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. A thesis can be a sentence, two sentences, perhaps even an entire paragraph. Every thesis, though, regardless of where in an essay it appears, does a few important things:
- A thesis acts as a unifying idea for every piece of evidence in an essay.
- A thesis results from research in addition to the writer’s own beliefs or opinions.
- A thesis answers a specific question.
There are lots of ways to create a successful thesis because good theses come in all sorts of varieties. What all successful argumentative theses have in common, though, are the following characteristics:
- A good thesis statement is arguable. In other words, the writer’s claim might be challenged or opposed.
- A good thesis statement expresses one main idea, and that idea controls what is said, what is left out, and how the delivered evidence is organized.
- A good thesis statement is specific and insightful.
- A good thesis statement encourages discussion.
- A good thesis statement is supported by relevant evidence. Every paragraph should contribute to proving the thesis to be valid
Developing a Thesis
- Define the Rhetorical Situation: The key to developing an appropriate thesis is to begin by examining the rhetorical situation: What is the purpose of your essay (e.g., to inform, to persuade, to analyze)? To whom are you writing (e.g., classmates, members of a particular interest or age group)?
- Choose a Topic: Based on the purpose of and audience for your essay, what is an appropriate topic? Moreover, what is an appropriate topic that also interests you personally?
- Start with What You Know: What do you know about your topic? What have you heard on the news about your topic? Do you have personal experiences related to your topic? If so, what are they?
- Research What You Don’t Know: Start by searching the library databases (e.g., with Academic Search Premier or WorldCat). It’s best to begin by searching with your general topic and then refining your initial results. Gather a variety of sources and start reading. Some general reading on your topic will help you with the next step.
- Take a Position: Before you take a position, be sure you have done ample reading and you are aware of the various positions regarding your topic. Most issues have more nuances than basic understandings suggest. It is not enough to be “for” or “against” an issue. You must be able to support your position with evidence and logical reasoning, and research can help you in this regard.
Refining Your Thesis
After choosing a position, in forming reasoning for your decision, you must be clear and specific. You must be able to substantiate your claim using authoritative, credible, and relevant source material. Theses tend, in draft form, to begin as general and to become more specific as you do more research. Let’s look at how we might turn a weak thesis into a strong thesis.
On April 20, 2010, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform caused the largest man-made disaster in U.S. history.
This thesis has a serious problem for two reasons: it doesn’t actually make an argument. It simply states an unproven fact: that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest man-made disaster in U.S. history. In order to be successful, a thesis must be arguable and supported by evidence. If we consider that a thesis must be a statement that reasonable people may disagree with and a position substantiated with credible evidence, this thesis is problematic because no one will disagree with the date the oil spill occurred and because the claim that the oil spill was the largest man-made disaster in U.S. history is unsubstantiated.
A still weak thesis:
Many people are to blame for the oil spill that resulted from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, which caused the largest man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.
This thesis is better than the first because it does more than state a fact, but it is still problematic: it is not specific enough, and the claim that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the “largest man-made” disaster is still unsubstantiated. This thesis might, instead, attempt to answer the following questions: “Who is to blame for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?” and “Why might it be considered the largest man-made environmental disaster in the U.S. history?” A successful thesis must be arguable and must answer a specific question.
A better thesis:
BP, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, Republicans in Congress, Democrats in Congress, and every citizen in the United States share the blame for the oil spill that resulted from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, which some consider the largest man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, and in order to prevent another such disaster, Congress must develop better regulations, oil companies must enact better maintenance procedures, and Americans must decrease their dependence on oil.
This thesis is certainly more specific, but it’s trying to do too much. Proving that all parties mentioned are to blame for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and that the solutions mentioned will prevent another oil disaster requires covering a lot of ground. A good thesis is arguable and specific, but also has one main idea. This thesis has too many main ideas.
An even better thesis:
Oil companies and the federal government share responsibility for the Gulf oil spill that resulted from the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.
This thesis works better than the previous versions because it’s arguable, specific, and focused on one main idea, but not so specific as to greatly limit discussion of the topic. From an essay based on such a thesis, readers will expect evidence that supports the claim that oil companies and the federal government hold joint responsibility for the Gulf oil spill.
Did Barack Obama's thesis for Columbia University, entitled 'Aristocracy Reborn,' note that America's founding fathers 'did not allow for economic freedom'?
Barack Obama’s thesis for Columbia University, entitled “Aristocracy Reborn,” noted that America’s founding fathers “did not allow for economic freedom.”
I saw someone online claim that the following is a quote from Barack Obama’s thesis at Columbia contains the following segment:
“… the Constitution allows for many things, but what it does not allow is the most revealing. The Founders did not allow for economic freedom. While political freedom is supposedly a cornerstone of the document, the distribution of wealth is not even mentioned. While many believed that the new Constitution gave them liberty, it instead fitted them with the shackles of hypocrisy.”
In academia, a thesis is a typical requirement for a graduate degree (although some schools require a thesis for a bachelor’s degree as well), an original research project submitted by a student on a topic related to his major. Many universities keep their students’ theses on file and make them available to the public as library resources.
In recent years, theses written by U.S. presidential candidates and their spouses have become subjects of great interest, particularly for the possibility that they might provide some insight into the thinking and mindsets of their authors, including the disclosure of once-held viewpoints that might be now be considered controversial and disadvantageous to their current political careers (or those of their spouses). Accordingly, major political figures have become more circumspect about allowing public access to their theses: Former First Lady 1969 Wellesley College thesis on community organizer Alinsky, for example, was not available for examination by the public during the eight years of her husband’s presidency, and current First Lady 1985 Princeton University thesis on “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” was the subject of controversy when access to it was initially blocked during her husband’s campaign for the presidency. (The Obama campaign made a copy of Michelle’s thesis publicly available in February 2008, and Princeton’s restriction on access to it was likewise lifted.)
Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign (and afterwards), one of the items that was frequently cited as a “missing document” connected with Barack Obama was his own thesis for Columbia University, a school from which he graduated in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in political science (with a specialization in international relations). Politico noted in October 2008 that:
His campaign would not release his transcripts, and it says it does not have a copy of his thesis, which dealt with Soviet nuclear disarmament and which has drawn intense interest.
As far as has been determined, Barack Obama did not produce a formal thesis for his degree at Columbia University; the closest match is a paper he wrote during his senior year for an honors seminar in American Foreign Policy. However, Columbia University has said it did not retain a copy of that paper, Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt has said that Barack himself does not have a copy, and the professor to whom the paper was submitted has said that he no longer has a copy in his possession either:
[Baron] had saved Obama’s senior paper for years, and even hunted for it again [in July 2008] in some boxes. But he said his search was fruitless, and he now thinks he tossed it out [in 2000] during a move.
described [Obama’s] paper as a “thesis” or “senior thesis” in several interviews, and said that Obama spent a year working on it. Baron recalls that the topic was nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union.
“My recollection is that the paper was an analysis of the evolution of the arms reduction negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States,” Baron said in an e-mail. “At that time, a hot topic in foreign policy circles was finding a way in which each country could safely reduce the large arsenal of nuclear weapons pointed at the For U.S. policy makers in both political parties, the aim was not disarmament, but achieving deep reductions in the Soviet nuclear arsenal and keeping a substantial and permanent American advantage. As I remember it, the paper was about those negotiations, their tactics and chances for success. Barack got an A.”
Baron said that, even if he could find a copy of the paper, it would likely disappoint Obama’s critics. “The course was not a polemical course, it was a course in decision making and how decisions got made,” he said. “None of the papers in the class were controversial.”
So would it provide any political ammunition today? “I don’t think it would at all,” Baron said. “It wasn’t a position paper; it was an analysis of decision-making.”