Developing a Thesis Statement
Updated Jun 2022
A thesis statement defines the core elements involved in the question around which a research project is built. With it you can shape and implement a plan of action for conducting your research. You begin by creating one or more suppositions-or hypotheses-as to what the answer to that question might be. Think of them as preliminary thesis statements.
The difference between a preliminary and a final thesis can be thought of as the difference between:
"I don't know, but I'm thinking such and such."
"Trust me on this one thing."
A final thesis statement removes the doubt inherent in a preliminary thesis and provides a solid basis for your project. The rightness of you position will be advanced and argued in your research paper.
Creating a preliminary thesis is the first step. For this, you must already have a research question. Examine it carefully and do a little brainstorming as to what the possible answer(s) might be: make some educated guesses and write them down.
You want to end up with a statement that isn't necessarily conclusive but gets you thinking and started on building one that is: a final statement around which your research can be focused. Let's use an environmental question fueling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling debate (circa 2006) to build a thesis statement.
Research Question: What is the impact of China's rapidly expanding economy on global oil markets and how does it affect the argument against drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
Formulate a preliminary answer; add some supporting facts or observations-in this case both-as well as a preliminary conclusion, as in the following:
Preliminary Thesis Statement: The growth of China's rapidly expanding economy is radically changing the playing field in a global oil-market dominated for decades by the United States and Japan. Currently the second largest consumer of petroleum products in the world, China may very well become the largest, possibly importing as much as two-thirds of its requirement by 2025. This may be due to the growing Chinese auto market. It may also be due to an inability to meet established nuclear power plant construction targets. Regardless, the stakes are high. The question of where enough energy to satisfy global needs is going to come from cannot be downplayed. Despite the protests of environmental activists across the United States, the increasing needs of China to sustain their growing economy by contracting with nations deemed hostile by the United States may very well change the tone of the debate about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It may tilt away from environmentalist conservation positions toward those who favor exploration and production.
This preliminary thesis provides some direction for your inquiry. In one short paragraph, four things are accomplished:
- A preliminary answer to the first part of a two-part question has been given: "China's economy is radically changing the global, oil-market playing-field."
- A hypothetical observation has been added: "In time, China might become the largest player in the field."
- A supporting fact is also added: "China is currently the second largest petroleum-product consumer in the world."
- Finally, a concluding supposition or hypothesis is suggested: "The tone of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling debate may change."
Reviewing the Preliminary Thesis Statement
Reviewing the preliminary thesis is the second step. In this example you'll notice that the preliminary statement is a little bit loose, a little broad. This is not unusual, and it's okay. It suggests too much information, but at least there is something with which to work.
In the example, the two-part question has both a "what" and a "how" component. The preliminary thesis briefly answers the "what" component, makes a credible observation regarding "why", and then suggests a hypothetical answer to the "how" component.
So, where did the "why" come from: that wasn't part of the original question? The interesting thing about questions is how often they lead to others. The important thing to note here is that an answer to an unasked question is a good indicator that something needs to be revised. And perhaps it's in the question itself. Sometimes a research question needs revising before the preliminary thesis can be revised. How about, something like this:
Revised Research Question: Why is the expanding Chinese economy exerting so much pressure on global oil markets and how will it affect the debate between corporate America and environmentalists over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
Considering Your Purpose and Audience
Consider both your purpose and the interest of your audience next. Notice that the new question is more purpose driven. The inquiry is more specific. It asks: "Why" does one situation exist and "how" will it affect another? Notice that the "what" component has been removed, replaced by a fact and a rephrased question that incorporates the "why" component.
With a clearer purpose the interest of the audience will be much easier to hold. In this case, two groups with opposing views have been identified. Each has a vested interest in what you have to say. With a more purposeful question a more precise thesis can now be shaped.
Revised Preliminary Thesis Statement: Currently the second largest consumer of petroleum products in the world, China may very well become the largest, possibly importing as much as two-thirds of its requirement by 2025. This rapidly expanding demand for oil may be caused, in part, by their exploding automobile industry and, in part, by an inability to meet their nuclear power plant construction targets. Regardless, the stakes are high and oil resources are limited. With increased global competition, the demand will rapidly outpace current production capabilities in the oil producing nations. Such increased competition is going to seriously impact the current debate between environmentalists and corporate America regarding drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And, in the end, the environmentalists may not like the outcome.
You can see that, with just a little tweaking, the preliminary thesis has taken on a sharper focus, one that will attract the attention of an audience that includes people on both sides of this divisive issue. It begins with a simple statement of fact supported by reasons that address the new "why" in the revised question. A very transparent conclusion suggesting the direction the research paper will take follows.
Considering the Scope of Your Thesis
Finally, consider the scope of your statement. There's still something a little bulky about the preliminary thesis. It's time to hone it down, narrow it to where the actual research won't be overwhelming. Here's a possibility:
Further Revised Preliminary Thesis Statement: China, currently the second largest consumer of petroleum products in the world, is poised to become the largest. Projections indicate that it will be importing as much as two-thirds of its nation's requirement by 2025. Regardless of the reasons for this-and there are many-global resources are limited as demand soars. With production capabilities in the oil producing nations maxed at current levels and increased competition from China to secure enough oil to sustain their economic growth, the current debate between environmentalists and corporate America over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is going to ratchet up a decibel or two. And the environmentalists are going to be hard-pressed to win the argument.
Converting Your Preliminary to a Final Thesis
Converting from a preliminary to a final thesis is the last step. You've come a long way. It's shorter, but still bulky. Let's set the first few sentences aside and tweak the last to see what happens.
Final Thesis Statement: With production capabilities in the oil producing nations maxed at their current levels, and increased competition from China to import that oil, the current debate between environmentalists and corporate America over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is going to ratchet up a decibel or two. And the environmentalists are going to be hard-pressed to win the argument.
An Even Better Final Thesis Statement: Environmentalists are likely to lose ground in the current debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as oil producing nations struggle to meet the increased demands of an emerging industrial China competing for limited supplies in the global oil market.
Okay. There you have it, a final thesis statement. The preliminary statement has been honed down and tightened up. And guess what? The sentences that were set aside, as well as all the others you have worked on during your revision, aren't a waste. They, or any combination of them, might make an excellent opening paragraph. You may want to include some version of your original research question, also. It's a great way to get started:
Plausible Opening Paragraph: China, currently the second largest consumer of petroleum products in the world, is poised to become the largest. Projections indicate that it will be importing as much as two-thirds of its nation's requirement by 2025. Regardless of the reasons for this-and there are many-global resources are limited as international demand soars. How will this affect the current debate between environmentalists and corporate America over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
Palmquist, Mike & Peter Connor. (2008). Developing a Thesis Statement. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=21