These guidelines for academic writing give you some essential pointers regarding the content of research papers/ essays/ Modularbeiten/ bachelor’s or master’s theses when submitted at our chair.
This style sheet provides you with guidelines for the formal set up of research papers and essays when submitted at our chair. It is based on the MLA Handbook, 8th ed. and focuses on basic formal requirements and gives extensive examples.
The department's Code of Conduct is crucial for constructive interaction in the classroom. So too are the Elements of Good Digital Conduct, supplemented by an assortment of Study Tips for digital learning, including an assortment of technical "quick fixes." We are looking forward to teaching and learning together.
Please consult the following FAQs according to your study program:
These FAQs are designed to answer your more conceptual and organizational questions with regard to your BA or MA thesis. They establish guidelines relevant for writing your BA or MA thesis.
For all administrative questions regarding the process of writing your BA/MA thesis, your main contact is the Prüfungsamt. Please visit their website or their list of frequently asked questions (only in German). For the formal requirements (MLA format) of writing an essay, a seminar paper (Modularbeit), and a BA or MA thesis (Abschlussarbeit), please consult our Style Sheet. For detailed advice on content, structure, argumentation and style, please see our Guidelines for Academic Writing.
1. What is the purpose of writing an academic paper?
Writing your BA or MA thesis is the culmination of the earlier research projects, presentations, and seminar papers that you have produced over the course of your studies. It is research-based and allows you to use and display your skills in the following areas:
- show that you can rigorously study a chosen field of research and explain the state of the art in this field (Forschungsüberblick)
- choose a particular subject in your area of study and develop expertise with regard to this subject
- understand and critically reflect different theories and methodologies for approaching your particular subject
- choose and explain your own scholarly approach to your subject
- build on, participate, and intervene meaningfully in the critical debate (state of the art) on your subject
- for an MA thesis (although you may already do this at the BA level): significantly contribute to the research in your chosen field; take existing research and debates into new directions (do original research relevant for other scholars)
- for all levels: present your results coherently, argue your thesis convincingly, and provide transparency with regard to your sources and results
All these skills are indispensable for writing a successful thesis, even if not all of your findings end up having a prominent place in your paper (for example, in explaining the particular theory/methodology you selected for approaching your subject, you will not present all the approaches you ended up rejecting, but will rather point out the specific advantages and implications of the one you chose).
In your thesis, you will apply theoretical approaches to cultural production (‘texts’ in a wider sense), situate yourself as a scholar in a field of research, and prove a specific thesis by analyzing your chosen text(s) closely and skillfully as a literary or cultural studies critic. Your thesis will be argumentative, not descriptive: rather than concentrating on compiling facts (what/who/where), you will place emphasis on analysis (how/why) and generate discussion with regard to questions that hardly ever have just one answer. You will analyze texts or concepts or representations and come up with a very particular (albeit careful and well-grounded) reading of your material from a certain angle.
In summary: your thesis requires you to practice independent thought and critical literacy, thus the ability to explain how culture functions and to analyze underlying discourses and ideologies. This is central for all students who want to continue on an academic career path or work in fields related to literature and culture. It is equally central for students who want to become teachers: these skills enable you to keep yourself up to date with regard to your field of expertise, stay aware of new theories and methodologies throughout your career, situate learning material used in schools into larger historical, cultural and theoretical contexts and critically reflect or redevelop the material used in schools, including schoolbooks.
2. How do I start?
In general, it helps to roughly follow these steps:
- First of all, make sure you have fulfilled all requirements for signing up to write a thesis. The Prüfungsamt is your main contact regarding these questions.
- Find a field of research (for example, decolonial studies), a topic (for example, conceptions of decolonization with regard to Puerto Rico), and a text (for example, the political pamphlets created by the Young Lords in the 1960s and 1970s, or the work of a particular contemporary Puerto Rican writer or filmmaker) that interests you. For how to choose a topic please see question 3, How do I choose a topic?
- Research both your chosen field (which theories of decolonization are current? etc.), topic (the history of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, particularly with regard to colonialism/imperialism and resistance movements), and your chosen text (what is the state of the art with regard to research on this particular writer? What have critics explored about her work so far?). At this early stage, you do not yet need to do in-depth research, but you need to get a good general overview in order to develop your own approach and thesis. Without this preliminary work, you cannot know what the current state of research is and whether your questions and concerns have already been addressed. Don’t be afraid that all this research will “influence” your “original” view of the subject: rather, it will deepen your understanding and inspire you to ask even better questions of your material
- You may already, at this point, have a general idea of a possible thesis statement with regard to your material. You should try to come up with at least a good set of research questions.
- Ideally, it is at this point that you should go to speak to someone about supervising your work. It is advisable to choose someone with whom you have worked before and who has a certain expertise in your chosen field. For how to choose a supervisor, please see question 4, How do I choose my supervisors?
- What also works: if you feel very tentative about your topic, speak to a potential supervisor after step 2 to make sure you are generally on a good track and/or someone in your department has the necessary expertise to supervise your topic. This still means, however, that you then have to go back and to the preliminary research involved in step 3 to confirm that you have, in fact, come up with a feasible project and a first idea of a thesis statement. Once this is done, the in-depth research can begin.
3. How do I choose a topic?
- This is your final independent research project with a self-chosen topic. This is your space to write about something you have been especially interested or invested in during your studies. Finding and developing your research topic is part of your research project, but we are happy to guide you along the way if you need advice.
- If you do not already have a specific research project in mind, don’t panic. Most students do not. There is not one definite way of finding a topic, but there are a couple of suggestions on how to find one:
- Establish a general topic and narrow the field down from there: If you are unsure what you would like to write about, revisit your seminar documents and papers to refresh your memory about all the different fields which you have covered in your seminars, papers, presentations, etc. Though you cannot reuse your exact topics for your BA/MA thesis, you may write on a related topic or a different text in the same field. Revisiting your notes and documents is also advisable if you are already set on a particular topic. It means that you do not have to start your research from scratch but can use the readings from class as a springboard. When developing your topic, keep in mind that you will need a supervisor that accepts your project, which depends on their own research (reflected in their teaching).
- If you have chosen the general topic (e.g. gender representation in U.S. America), you need to narrow down the scope of investigation. You may do so by choosing a specific time frame that you are interested in (e.g. Puritanism), and by choosing your object of investigation/analysis, so texts (performances, representations, etc.), which you would like to analyze. (e.g. Captivity Narratives; Witch Trials)
- Get an overview of your topic: Research your topic to decide on a research angle/theoretical approach, and maybe already develop an idea for your thesis.
- Use Anthologies on your topic to get an idea of canonized texts (theoretical approaches, ideas, performances, representations, etc.) associated with your topic. You will find other perspectives that will form a more comprehensive understanding needed to develop your own original thought on the topic.
- The MLA Bibliography is always a good place to start your research and get an idea of “what is out there.”
- Use databases such as Jstor and Project Muse to access literary and cultural studies journals
- After having formed an idea of your proposed research project you should find a supervisor before doing more in-depth research and before starting the writing process. Please see question 4,How do I choose my supervisors? It is good to have a clear topic for your research project in mind, but be aware that sometimes topics still change in conversation with the supervisor to whome you propose the topic.
4. How do I choose my supervisors?
For questions regarding who is eligible to be your supervisor please visit the website of the Prüfungsamt.
Generally, it is advisable to choose someone as your primary supervisor who you already worked with. You might also want to choose a topic that relates to the field from which you know them. That way, you both have a good basis to work together.
However, this may not always be possible, either because the lecturer you know is currently not at the department or because someone else in the department is a more suitable advisor in this field.
To find the most suitable supervisor for your topic, you should consult the department website and PULS to find out what the different lecturers list as research interests, and what topics they have taught and published on.
Do not be afraid to talk to prospective supervisors and see whether you are the right fit, or if they can recommend you to another colleague.
You can suggest a secondary supervisor, or your primary supervisor can suggest someone.
5. How closely do I work with my supervisor?
This depends in part on your personal preference but there are also a few restrictions to ensure that the project remains your own. At a minimum, you are required to meet with your supervisor at least twice: first in order to agree on a specific subject, and second in order to discuss the potential thesis and structure of your paper. Beyond that you can visit your supervisor whenever you encounter significant problems or have further important questions.
Please refrain from sending lengthy emails with numerous questions in order to avoid meeting in a consultation. Emails are fine if they concern only one or two small issues but inappropriate for more complex ones that are more efficiently discussed in person.
No matter how often or little you meet with your supervisor, you have to master certain steps of the writing process on your own, because they already make up an important part of your final grade (such as finding a specific topic, finding adequate secondary literature, developing a thesis). However, when you are in doubt whether a question is appropriate, please ask nevertheless! Your supervisor will always let you know which questions can be discussed and which you need to answer on your own.
6. BA/MA Organizational Steps
General remarks: The information given here is only for your general orientation. For the entire bureaucratic process of writing your BA/MA thesis, your main contact is the Prüfungsamt. Please make sure you consult the Prüfungsamt in all important administrative questions and check for updates on their websites, such as their information on the final thesis (available in English) and their FAQ’s on Abschlussarbeiten (only in German).
In addition, all the information you need is in your description of study (Studienordnung). If you cannot find the information in your specific description (fachspezifische Studienordnung), it will probably be in the general description (allgemeine Studienordnung). Here you can find all the Study and Examination Regulations of our department.
If you cannot find the answers there or are not sure, your administrator at the Prüfungsamt can help you with questions such as: In my particular course of study, how much time do I have to write the thesis? If I want to hand in my thesis by a certain date, when do I need to register? How many copies do I hand in? etc. Attention: in most cases, you must wait a certain time after formal registration in order to be allowed to hand in your thesis. Usually, 1/3 of your official overall writing time (Bearbeitungszeit) must have passed (please check if in doubt).
Here are the specific steps: Once you have found eligible supervisors (see question 4, How do I choose a supervisor?) and have come up with a topic, text, and preliminary thesis statement (see question 2, How do I begin? and question 3, How do I find a topic?), you are ready for the administrative and organizational tasks. First of all, you need to make sure that you have fulfilled all requirements for registering your thesis.
For your registration, please follow the steps outlined on the website of the Prüfungsamt. You will find all necessary documents there.
7. How long does the grading take?
For a BA thesis, your supervisors usually have 4 weeks for grading and assessment (Gutachten); for an MA thesis, they have 6 weeks. Once they send their assessments to the Prüfungsamt, it will take some time for your grades to be entered in PULS. MA students will have to do an oral examination once their thesis has been graded. From this point on, if you have fulfilled all your other requirements, it can still take some time until you get your official certificate/diploma.
For the issuance of graduation documents please visit the Prüfungsamt.
MA students also have to do an oral defense of their thesis (see question 16, Defending the thesis). This can take place as soon as your supervisors have written your assessments, and it is advisable to contact them ahead of time to talk about scheduling, especially if you are working with deadlines (for example, Referendariat or other applications).
In general, make sure that you plan your schedule well ahead of time, take responsibility for your deadlines, and contact your supervisors early if you need your grades by a certain date. This will ensure that the process runs smoothly and you will finish in good time.
8. Formal Requirements of BA/ MA Paper
Format: Papers written in the Literary and Cultural Studies Department have to be formatted according to MLA Style. If you are unsure about the guidelines revisit the style sheet.
Structure: A BA/MA Thesis is structured like an academic research paper and has to contain a thesis. If you are unsure about how to structure a paper, or how to write a thesis statement and an argumentative paper, revisit the Guidelines for Academic Essay Writing.
Your paper has to contain a title page, a table of contents, a list of works cited, a German summary, and a Declaration of Good Academic Conduct.
- Title page template
- The German summary of your thesis should be approximately one page long
9. Plagiarism and Good Academic Conduct
You are to work on your BA or MA thesis independently. You therefore need to attach a ‘Selbständigkeitserklärung’ (declaration of independent work) to your BA/MA thesis.
As pointed out in our department's code of conduct, plagiarism constitutes a serious academic misconduct and may lead to expulsion. Plagiarism in your BA/MA thesis will result in a failing grade.
If you feel uncertain about specific aspects of good academic conduct revisit the department’s code of conduct.
For more information on plagiarism revisit the department’s guidelines (only in German).
10. Where can I find exemplary BA-MA papers?
11. Inability to meet deadlines
There are many reasons for not being able to meet a deadline which range from academic reasons or a change of topic to short term illness and the need for individual equality measures. For information on Individual Equality Measures please contact the Prüfungsamt.
No matter what keeps you from meeting your deadline, please contact your supervisor and the Prüfungsamt at the earliest possible moment. The sooner everyone involved knows that you have time management problems, the more options are available to resolve this issue. The worst thing you can do is to wait until the deadline has already passed, before you act.
For information on extensions please contact the Prüfungsamt or consult their website.
12. Where can I get support during the writing process?
Completing an extensive writing project is a difficult task for anyone. The university’s writing assistance program is there to help you. You can take part in specific workshops or join a writing group and get individual help with your project (only about the structural aspects of academic writing, not on your subject). For more information visit the Zessko. International students are supported by the Zessko's writing assistance in German or English.
Sometimes the problems you encounter are more severe. Personal crises can directly and indirectly interfere with your academic performance. The university offers counseling and support if you need it. For more information visit the website of the Mental Health Counseling.
13. What can I do if I have problems with my supervisor?
First of all, it helps immensely if you have previously worked with your supervisor, for instance by taking a seminar or writing a term paper. This means that you are familiar with the supervisor’s expectations and the supervisor knows you and your specific abilities and interests. If this is not possible, make sure that you spend some time to get to know your supervisor during the consultation period. Ask questions, especially about the supervisor’s specific expectations. Nevertheless, communicative problems can occur during the supervision process. It is important that you communicate and attempt to resolve any possible issues directly.
If the problems persist you can contact the university’s equal opportunities office. They have so called “confidants” (Vertrauenspersonen) who can help you with your problems and offer mediation. You can find the contact information here.
14. What do I have to do if I should receive a failing grade for my BA/MA thesis?
For all formal and administrative questions and deadlines, please refer to the Prüfungsamt.
If you receive a failing grade for your thesis, you may try again. However, you must find a new topic. No matter whether you work with your old supervisors again or choose new supervisors, it is absolutely essential to discuss with the former what went wrong and why you failed your BA/MA thesis. If you choose to continue working with your previous supervisors (and they choose to continue working with you), speak to them in detail about the reasons for failing and about possible topics for your next attempt. If you choose to work with other supervisors, give them a good idea of what went wrong and discuss with them what you need to do to prevent this problem in the future. You can request to see your assessments (Gutachten) to get a clear picture of what to improve.
15. Defending the thesis
BA theses in our department do not have to be defended unless detailed differently in your specific Studienordnung.
Your MA defense is an oral examination that takes place after your thesis has been assessed and graded by your supervisors (Gutachten). Contact your supervisors to schedule a date that suits all of you. Please check your description of study (Studienordnung) for details on the defense. At your request, your supervisors (usually, it is only your first supervisor) can give you copies of your written assessment after they have handed it in at the Prüfungsamt. This may help you to prepare for the defense.
The defense is about 45 minutes long. For the first 15 minutes, you will present the main ideas and results of your thesis. You can choose your style of presentation: you can work with a power point presentation, a handout, or a poster; you can simply speak freely; you can speak with notes or note cards (just don’t read a written text out loud for 15 minutes). Beside presenting your approach and main findings, you can use this time to clarify things or, if you like, even begin to address possible criticism from the assessment. In any case, make sure to be concise and to stick to your allotted time. After your presentation, there will be a discussion among you and your supervisors (who will ask you questions). Even if this sounds scary: this part can be really fun and engaging, and most students are surprised when the time is up. After all, you are now an expert on a certain subject, and you will be amazed to see how much you know and how meaningful this can be in a discussion with other scholars.
Usually, your defense will involve just you and your two supervisors. If you prefer to bring a guest or several guests, you may do so – but you need to let your supervisors know well ahead of time, since this may mean that the defense cannot take place in an office and someone must reserve a classroom.
16. Definitions and Translations
- Prüfungsamt – central examination office
- Studierendensekretariat – Office of student affairs
- Studienordnung - Study and Examination Regulations
- Nachteilsausgleich – individual equality measures
- Prüfungsausschuss – examination committee
- Psychologische Beratungsstelle – Mental Health Counselling