Christian Groth, Feb. 2010 (updated November 2, 2015), Department of Economics, University of Copenhagen

Advice for writing a BA or MA thesis

1. Setting up a project

A thesis should be an examination of an economic question. Thus you should attempt to phrase your topic in the form of a question. It should be about something that interests you. You should sketch a reason why you think answering the question is interesting. And you should outline the procedure you will use to answer or at least throw light on the question.

1.1 A theoretical question

It takes some time to find out what the question should be. It might be a discussion of a specific theoretical topic: What theoretical approaches to an explanation of a given economic phenomenon exist and what are their strengths and weaknesses? The phenomenon could be a sharp and durable rise in unemployment in the wake of a financial crisis.

Or you may extract a theoretical statement or a policy suggestion from the literature or from the media and then discuss it, again in terms of strengths and weaknesses from different perspectives. There often exist interesting, but somewhat differing expert opinions upon which you can draw.

1.2 An empirical question

The question could be about what empirical evidence there exists concerning a certain hypothetical relationship. For example: What are the known estimates of the size of the government spending multiplier under different circumstances? What is known about the interest elasticity of money demand or investment demand? What is known about labor supply or participation elasticities with respect to after tax wages for different groups, including high-income groups?

Or you might want yourself to make an empirical estimation or carry out an empirical test of a hypothesis. Preferably, previous studies of a similar problem should exist, based on other data. You should in advance think about: What alternative data outcomes are ex ante possible? What will I be able to conclude ex post in each situation? If the data outcome is A, then …. If the data outcome is not A, then ….

2. How to get started

2.1 Be curious, but don’t ask too big questions and don’t be afraid of asking questions that have been asked by others before. It will often be possible in practice to give the question or the answer your twist.

2.2 You may get inspiration from good textbooks, good articles, and existing economic policy debates. Publications from a national economic council or an international economic organization may give inspiration. Stimulating and at the same time accessible (non-technical) brief articles by leading economists are published in journals like Journal of Economic Perspectives and (more popular) the electronic The Economists’ Voice (access via Faculty Library of the Social Sciences). A very useful encyclopedia is The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics. More demanding surveys are published in Journal of Economic Surveys, Journal of Economic Literature, and the yearbook Annual Review of Economics (access via Faculty Library of the Social Sciences). Summaries of policy-related academic economic research are published at VoxEU: Research-based policy analysis. Some prominent economists also have very informative own websites and blog-sites. Besides you may get inspiration from previous BA or MA projects. The library at the Faculty of Social Sciences keeps track of these. Searching via Google or Google Scholar, using different search terms, may give inspiration as well.

2.3 Not setting up too big projects also means not setting up projects that require analytical tools you have not yet learned. Concentrate on an issue where you know applicable tools. Of course, this does not rule out that you may want to discuss limitations and weaknesses of the models and analytical methods you have been taught in the BA program - quite the reverse.

2.4 Remember: start by writing some idea down, vague as it may be. Then read something about the topic, write, then read, write, read, return to what you have written, and so on. The point is that writing comes first. This will make reading productive and creative.

2.5 Consult a potential supervisor when: a) you think you have found the question you want the thesis to examine; b) you have written a set of brief notes related to this question; and c) you have set up a brief list of literature of relevance. The potential supervisor may respond that the project makes sense and is manageable and that this or that supplementary literature is relevant. Or the potential supervisor may help clarifying the main question and narrowing it down.

3. Working on a project

3.1 When a project has been formulated and agreed upon by a supervisor, the project is running. The supervisor may suggest useful additional literature. The fact that you now have a well-defined question implies that you are already halfway w.r.t. the organization and composition of the thesis. The supervisor may help with particulars. Remember: you are the originator and initiator, the supervisor is your consultant.

3.2 During the work you may also find help in for example the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, which is electronically available here: Faculty Library of the Social Sciences. Other information sources include the various series of handbooks in economics (one comprehensive series is published by Elsevier North-Holland). Websites of national and international economic organizations like IMF, INET, OECD, World Bank, etc. may be useful as well.

3.3 The work process will often be a stepwise dynamic interaction between writing, exploring, calculating, reading, consulting, writing, etc. The very last sections to be written in detail are the introductory and concluding sections. Their phrasing depends on the substance of the thesis, contained in the sections in between.

3.4 Be prepared that your time table will not hold. Every step in the process is much more time consuming than expected. So an ample buffer before deadline is recommended.


Link to TLU (Teaching and Learning Unit of the Social sciences):

Hints about writing.

How a research paper is typically evaluated (from the research department of the ECB).