General Guidelines for the MA Paper

All candidates for the Master of Arts degree in International Relations are required to write a Master’s Paper and defend that paper before a panel of three professors. This paper may take one of two forms. Students can choose to write a traditional research paper or a policy paper.

Students who elect to write a research paper can approach a topic from a number of different perspectives. For instance, students can choose to research a current topic or an historical issue in the area of international relations. Students, in consultation with their advisers, have broad latitude in selecting topics and approaches.

The policy paper addresses a current issue and makes recommendations for a course of action to introduce new ideas or change an existing policy. The purpose of a policy paper is to raise an issue that requires a decision-maker to consider whether a current policy should be continued or a change in policy is needed. This change should be proposed in the policy paper. Students should remember not to address general policy issues, but, instead, manageable changes within a specific policy area.

The Masters paper is expected to be a model of careful research, rigorous investigation and terse, incisive writing. Leading scholarly journals such as World Politics, Political Science Quarterly and International Security provide excellent models for writing in this area.

When to Write the MA Paper

Most student do the majority of the work on their MA Paper after completing their classes and other requirements. It is strongly recommended, however, that students at least develop a topic and an adviser relationship prior to finishing their coursework. Some students do write the MA Paper while still taking classes and finish their paper in the same semester in which they finish their required coursework. If possible, it is generally helpful for students to have begun the background research on their topic prior to the end of their coursework. Doing so will make it easier for students to complete the MA Paper in one semester.

Before defending, students must have completed ALL other degree requirements, including Statistics, Foreign Language, and Coursework. Exception: It is understood that in the case of Oral Defenses in December and April, some students may still be finishing classes when the defense is held. Additionally, in order to defend, a student must be registered with the university in some fashion — either for coursework or as a continuing student — for the term in which the student defends, as well as for the preceding regular academic term.


Students must strictly observe all deadlines set by the IR Department. See the page on the MA Paper Process for more information on deadlines.

Most advisers will require at least a few days to review the student’s paper proposal or paper draft before they will be ready to give their approval. Students must coordinate with their advisers to ensure that the advisers will have sufficient time to read, comment on, and approve changes to students’ various drafts by the relevant deadline. Students should confirm with their advisers that that they will be available (i.e., not out of town) to sign necessary forms before the various deadlines.

Please be aware that because the MA Paper is not technically a GRS MA Thesis, graduate students in IR are not subject to the thesis deadlines set by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Exception: Students must submit the Diploma Application to the GRS Records Office in order to graduate.

Page Limits

Students should be careful to restrict themselves to the page limits established by the department. The page limits are as follows:

  • Policy Papers: 30-35 pages
  • Research Papers: 60-65 pages

These limits assume double-spaced pages. The page limits do not include appendices, bibliographies, and endnotes. With regard to appendices, students should note that the same rule applies to the defense panel members as to actual policy makers – they will only go over the material in appendices closely if they are really interested in it. Students should not use appendices as a means of expanding their paper past the page limits, and should not include critical material only in an appendix. There is no guarantee that the material in the appendices will have been read closely by the committee.

Quality Standards

It is difficult to discuss paper standards in the abstract, but students should have two general goals in mind regarding the quality of the paper:

  1. The paper should be of publishable or near-publishable quality. In other words, students should think of their papers as the penultimate draft of a paper that a policy institute would be willing to offer to the world.
  2. The paper should be a writing sample that will help students to get a job or to go on to further graduate study. If the paper is not something that one would be proud to show to a potential employer or to a PhD application committee, then the paper is not meeting proper quality standards.


The final copies of the MA Paper that are submitted to the IR Department should be bound at a copy shop (not simply placed in a folder or binder by the student). Four bound copies must be submitted.  They should abide by the following formatting standards:

  • The paper should include a title page.
  • The paper should be bound by a copy shop with spiral or comparable binding.
  • The paper should have a clear plastic front cover.
  • The paper should have either a plastic or cardboard back cover.
  • Margins should be set at one inch or one and a quarter inch.
  • The font size should be set at 11 or 12.
  • The paper should be double-spaced.
  • Pages may be printed either single or double sided, at the discretion of the adviser.

The information on the title page should be clearly visible through the front cover. The title page of the paper should include:

  • The full title of the paper
  • The student’s name
  • The name of the adviser
  • The date of submission

Students should talk with their adviser about the issue of formatting style and follow the adviser’s recommendations. If the adviser does not have preferences, students are recommended to use the Chicago Manual of Style formatting guidelines, particularly for issues of grammar and citation. Students should use either footnotes or endnotes, not inline citations (unless directed to do so by their adviser).

In addition to the four hard copies of the paper, students are required to submit the paper in electronic form.  The electronic submission of the paper must be a single file in either MS Word or PDF format.

Students should read the pages on policy and research papers for format guidelines specific to each type of paper.

Adviser Relationships

Every adviser-student relationship is unique. The most important factor in the relationship is communication. Students need to make sure that they understand clearly the specific standards and expectations that their adviser has for their paper and for them. Students also need to be very clear on schedules – most advisers will not be able or willing to turn around drafts in the space of a day or two, and students should know just how long it will take to get comments back. This is essential information in putting together a feasible, mutually acceptable schedule for submitting drafts and final copy.

There are no departmental requirements for how the adviser-student relationship should work in terms of number and frequency of meetings, draft submission schedule, or anything else. However, the department does strongly recommend that students meet with their advisers relatively often, once per month at a minimum. Students’ advisers are their greatest resource when writing the MA paper! Students should plan to talk with their advisers regularly about the progress they are making, especially in regard to any areas in which students are struggling or are unsure of the strength of their arguments.

If students feel they are having a problem in communication or other aspects of the adviser relationship, they should discuss it as soon as reasonably possible with their adviser. If still concerned, students should see the Graduate Programs Administrator or the Director of Graduate Studies immediately. The department will do what we can to address the situation. Obviously, resolving such issues becomes more and more difficult as the final deadline approaches.

Any BU faculty member with an appointment as a professor can serve as an adviser. Faculty with appointments as Lecturer and faculty from other universities may not serve as an adviser.  Students are free to seek advice from such individuals, but they cannot serve as the official adviser of the MA Paper.

Most students choose advisers from within the IR Department faculty, but it is not necessary to do so.   Many students in joint and dual degree programs work with advisers from the relevant partner department / school. Students who wish to work with an adviser outside of the IR Department do, however, need the approval of the Graduate Programs Administrator to do so.

Human Subjects Research

Students who plan to conduct original research involving human subjects may need to obtain approval for their research from BU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), which reviews any research involving human subjects.  Please be sure to check their policies and/or contact them to find out if you need to submit your research for their approval.

If IRB approval is required, students should be sure to submit their proposals to the IRB as early as possible.  The IRB review process can take four to six weeks.

The IRB website, which includes contact information, can be found at

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