Current Students: Major Paper

MPIA Major Papers Examples

GIA 5904: Project and Report

Dr Gerard Toal

The final capstone requirement for the MPIA degree in NCR is a ‘major paper.’ The formal MPIA requirement is the following:

All students must successfully write and defend a thesis, major paper, or practicum. The document must be completed and certified as "defensible" by members of the student's committee before the final exam can be scheduled.

The major paper is not just another course. It is the summit of the degree, and it requires careful planning to complete with success. There are many potential pitfalls along the route so be prepared by being informed.  If you don’t obtain a satisfactory grade for your major paper you do not graduate no matter how many course credit you have. This document describes what a major paper is and how you are to proceed to write one. It explains the procedures you need to meet in order to present and defend your major paper.

Why a Major Paper?

Full time students in the MPIA degree in Blacksburg have three options: thesis (6 credits), major paper (3 credits) or practicum (2 credits). In NCR, the major paper is the only option available for part-time MPIA students. Full time students in the NCR can negotiate to undertake a 6 credit thesis if their advisor approves and agrees to supervise it. The thesis submission process is different from that of Major Paper so students pursing this option should consult the Virginia Tech Graduate School web site for details.

The MPIA curriculum does not actually list a course with the title ‘Major Paper.’ The course you must sign up for is listed in the timetable of classes as GIA 5904: Project and Report.

What is a Major Paper?
A major paper is a journal article sized academic work on a subject determined by you in consultation with your advisor. There are a series of things you need to keep in mind:

  • The topic of the paper must be approved by your advisor. You cannot decide on it alone.
  • The model for the major paper is a journal article so you should consult some journals to determine what is involved. Your advisor will tell you which journal is to be the model for your major paper.
  • The text of the major paper MUST be less than 10,000 words (excluding Bibliography; excessive use of footnotes or endnotes is discouraged). This is more than sufficient length to develop an argument and substantiate it. If the paper you are working on exceeds this length, this tells you it is too long and requires editing for greater concision and precision. At defense, the committee might in certain cases authorize revisions that allow the world limit to be exceeded.
  • The major paper is not a thesis. Thus, it should not have chapters or a table of contents. However, it must have an abstract of 150 words or less with 6 key words identified.
  • A major paper is evaluated by a three person committee, with the student’s advisor serving as chair and two other faculty members serving as readers. The key relationship is with an advisor; there is no need to meet with other committee members until the defense.

When do students sign up for a Major Paper?

Students in NCR should sign up for and defend their major paper during the regular academic year. The reason for this is that NCR faculty are regular academic year employees (August to May) and are not available for supervision over the summer (this is typically the time faculty members are on field research). In exceptional circumstances only, students may be permitted to take GIA 5904 in Summer II and defend by August 10 if student committee members are available and all agree that an exception is warranted.

Students should have submitted their program of study before registering for a major paper. They must have finished at least 30 credit hours of regular courses and be in good academic standing. Students who want to take GIA 5904 at the same time as a final regular course need special permission from their advisor to do so. The norm is that students take GIA 5904 as their sole academic undertaking during their final semester.

What is the procedure for writing a major paper at NCR?

Students should first develop their major paper topic proposal within GIA 5115: Research Methods taught by Dr Datz. After this they should meet with their advisor the semester before they anticipate working on their major paper.  In the last week of the semester prior to the one where they wish to sign up for GIA 5904, they are required to meet with their advisor to obtain permission to sign up for GIA 5904. A formal discussion and committee agreement on the outlines of the major paper are required to proceed. At this meeting the student and advisor will layout a timetable for the writing of the major paper. These are the rules:

  • Students can meet with their advisor a number of times to refine their topic depending on faculty availability. At these meetings, the initial written work presented will be paper outlines and argument statements only.  
  • The student will be given a completed first draft deadline for the paper. These dates are normally the first ten days of November and the first week of April. This date is typically 5 calendar weeks from the final exam date that semester.
  • This first draft is sent to the student’s advisor alone. He or she will then read the first draft within three days of receipt and return it with comments and suggestions for revisions. The name of the file should be [students last name] + 'firstdraft' + [date] (e.g. BushFirstDraft21Nov2004.doc).
  • There are three potential outcomes, indicated by color signals, after the first draft is read by the student’s advisor:
    • Proceed Subject to Minor Revisions (Green Light): If the paper, in the judgment of the student’s faculty advisor, is sufficiently strong after minor revisions, the faculty advisor will then request the program secretary to schedule a major paper defense with the Graduate School. The Graduate School requires two week’s advance notice of all major paper defense times, dates and locations. The date of the defense will conventionally be three weeks from the initial first draft deadline. The series of minor revisions will be explicitly indicated in the returned draft with advisor comments.
    • Proceeding Suspended (Yellow Light): If the paper is structurally weak and has major problems the advisor may give the student an opportunity to respond within two weeks to the identified problems with a warning that they may not be allowed to proceed. A revised first draft is required at an agreed date, and a final decision is rendered, turning the yellow into a definitive green or red.
    • Proceeding Denied (Red Light): If the paper is weak, the student will be asked to radically revise the paper or change topics. No defense will be scheduled until the paper is of a sufficient standard to be presented for defense. In effect, this means that the student will not be able to graduate that semester because they have not completed their final major paper requirement. Their GIA 5904 grade will be an incomplete. Their next available opportunity will be determined in consultation with their advisor. Typically, this will involve signing up the next available semester for ‘defending student status’ (which costs 1 credit hour). This allows the student a three week window at the beginning of a regular semester or most of the summer to successful defend and complete their major paper. Check with Graduate School website for the precise dates of the window as they vary from semester to semester. Note that completion during the summer is complicated by faculty unavailability and may not be possible. 
  • For students with a scheduled defense date, they will be given a second draft deadline for submission of the re-write they will defend before their committee. This will normally be 5 days before the scheduled defense to allow faculty members sufficient time to read the revised manuscript. Thus, students will typically have two weeks to make their revisions. This second draft should be sent to all three members of a student’s major paper committee. The filename format is: [lastname]SecondDraft[date]). Failure to meet this deadline will result in postponement of the paper defense and a failure of the student to graduate.
  • The major paper defense is open to members of the university community (but not general public). It should typically take 60-90 minutes and will involve a formal interview and discussion about the paper in a university location (it may be a faculty office or seminar room). All three members of the student’s committee may attend but it is not unusual if one is absent or participating by phone connection. Feedback and queries from this faculty member will normally be conveyed to and posed by the committee chair. If a student gets comments from a committee member before the defense, keep these and refrain from making alterations in the second draft until after the defense meeting. Do not send a third draft before the defense. The major paper grade is either ‘satisfactory’ (EQ) or ‘unsatisfactory.’ If the latter, the student will have to postpone graduation and investigate ‘defending student status.’
  • If the student’s work is deemed satisfactory, the student will be required to undertake a few final revisions and corrections of the major paper within 3-5 days. Once this is completed, the committee members will sign the card provided by the Graduate School as a record of the defense. The student is then approved for graduation with a Masters of Public and International Affairs from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.


What formatting style should the paper follow?

All major papers should be Word documents which are double spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font. Please name the file following the convention outlined above and indicate the word count on the front page below the title and your name. Check for viruses before sending.

For general information on major papers and theses see the Virginia Tech web site for Electronic Theses and Dissertations You will use this site to submit the final version of your major paper so it is worth taking the time to become familiar with it before you write your major paper.

For information on the template for the title page of your major paper see:

Papers should follow the author-date system used by the journal Political Geography:

References and footnotes

References should be indicated in text either by giving, in parentheses the author's name followed by the date of the paper or book; or with the date in parentheses, as in 'suggested by Fletching (1975)'. In the text, use the form 'Olsen et al 1975' where there are more than two authors, but list all authors in the references. Quotations of more than two line of text from cited works should be indented and citation should include the page number of the quotation; e.g. (Thomas 1979: 56). There is no need for quotation marks: the indention signifies it is a quotation.
References should be listed in one alphabetical sequence at the end of the text. They should be typed double-spaced in journal style, e.g. for journals: Thornthwaite, C. W. and Mather, J. R. (1955) The Water Balance. Publications in Climatology (this title should be italicized) 8, 1-104.

for books:

Zeleny, M. (1982) Multiple criteria decision making (title should be italicized). McGraw-Hill, New York.

for monographs:

Bailey, A. (1978). Politics and Planning: A New Approach Oliver Publications (title italicized), London.

for papers from conference proceedings, chapters from a book etc.

Smith, I. J. K. (1977) Liberal theories of the state. In Alternative Perspectives of the State (title italicized) ed., P. Shed, pp. 17-82. Back Bay Press, Boston, MA.


Tables should be numbered consecutively in Arabic numerals and given a suitable caption. Notes and references within tables should be included with the tables, separately from the main text. Notes should be referred to by superscript letters. All table columns should have an explanatory heading. Tables should not repeat data available elsewhere in the article, e.g. in an illustration.


All graphs, diagrams, maps and other drawings should be referred to as Figures, which should be numbered consecutively in Arabic numerals and placed on separate sheets at the end of the manuscript. Their position should be indicated in the text. All illustrations must have captions, which should be typed on a separate sheet.

What makes a superior major paper?
A major paper advances and develops an argument. It is analytical. It does not tell a story. Consequently, the skills you have learnt writing analytical assignments are essential to writing a good paper. Below are some key things to keep in mind.

All papers should have an abstract that states their argument concisely.

  • All papers should have ‘steering,’ that is a ‘road map’ to the paper in the introductory section which outlines the different sections of the paper and justifies the organization of the paper. The reader should know where the paper is going and why. This should be brief. Do not overdo this or repeat it elsewhere in the paper. Once is enough.
  • The organization of the paper should be clear, coherent and logical. Sections should be balanced (i.e. not 10 pages on one section and 2 on another). Section headings are mandatory and subheadings within them a good idea. Have a clear and logical transition in the paper between sections.
  • All papers should be methodologically self-aware, that is they should state what method they are using and justify it. This can be brief and does not need to involve an elaborate justification of well established method per se.
  • Argument not description must be front and center in the major paper. However, you should be careful to avoid repetition. Do not state the argument over and over again. Present it as a logical case that you are making: you are building towards it. The final section will be the climax of the paper where the case comes together and you state it in full.
  • Be efficient and precise in your reasoning: do not load up the paper with unnecessary detail. Avoid verbosity.
  • Be clear about the difference between conceptual points (deductive reasoning) and empirical points (inductive reasoning).
  • Engage and use academic readings: refer specifically to the texts under consideration (cite author, date and page); use detail in the service of argumentation. Do not overuse quotations.
  • Avoid historical narrative: major papers are arguments and do not tell stories. Be aware of the danger of falling into a lazy organization of assignments around historical chronologies.
  • Be Analytical: Get-to-the-point. Make every sentence count. Demonstrate that you have grasped the subject and worked out what you want to argue before writing rather than trying to figure out what you want to say as your write.
  • Be concise: Remember that the art of writing a good paper is knowing what to edit and leave out. Just because you read it does not mean it must be included in the bibliography or discussed in the text. Ask yourself: does this help advance the argument or not? Use the discipline of length to clarify what is essential and what is not.



The Open Software Movement in Latin America: A Comparison of Brazil and Argentina.
Marco Manilla, MPIA. Graduated May 2004.

Keeping the Next Generation HIV-Free: Efforts to Prevent Mother-to-Child Transmission in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and West Africa.
Emily Korff, MPIA. Graduated May 2004.

The Crisis in Darfur: An Analysis of Its Origins and Storylines.
Thu Quach, MPIA. Graduated December 2004.

Rhetoric Versus Reality: Prospects for Women’s Rights in Post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Susan Cathcart, MPIA. Graduated December 2004.

Technological Fundamentalism?  The Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the Conduct of War.
Doris J. Futrell, MPIA. Graduated December 2004.

The Jacksonian Tradition And The Bush Administration:  Policy Perspectives On The International Criminal Court.
Jennifer S. Cheyne, MPIA. Graduated May 2005.


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