Master's Program Requirements

Program Overview

The M.A. program offers two tracks:

  • Thesis Option: Requires 24 units ( 8 courses) in graded course credits, 6 credits in ungraded research credits, and successful defense of a master’s thesis
  • Non-Thesis Option: Requires 30 units (10 courses) in graded course credits and successful defense of an oral exam on two (2) original research papers

Program Course Requirements

  • A minimum of 30 credits
  • A minimum of 8 one-semester graded courses of 3 units each. 
    • At least 5 courses must be offered by the Department of Political Science.
    • At least 3 courses must cluster in one of the Department of Political Science major fields
    • At least 2 courses must cluster in a secondary major field or a theme field
  • Students must pay for at least three full terms of tuition (e.g. Fall, Spring, Fall). 
    • The enrollment cap is 12 units of graduate credit per semester
  • All Duke University master’s students are required to complete a minimum of three (3) credits of Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training..

Final Examination Requirements

Both thesis and non-thesis track, are required to pass a final oral examination in the form of a master’s defense. Thesis track students defend a master’s Thesis. Non-thesis track students defend two (2) non-thesis original research papers.   

Master’s defenses are conducted by a committee of at least three (3) faculty members selected by the student. It is the responsibility of each student to obtain, in a timely manner, the explicit consent of each faculty member to serve on their committee.  

Defense deadlines, procedures, and formatting guidelines for all master’s theses are set by the Graduate School. The timeline for submitting and defending a thesis will vary by term.  Thesis and defense deadlines are posted on the Graduate School website.

Thesis Track Overview

The master’s thesis demonstrates a student’s ability to collect, interpret and analyze pertinent material on a research problem. To encourage early development of the thesis project, and to help advise students on their plans to complete the degree, students are required to apply to be on the thesis track by the end of May of their first year.

Ideally, a master’s thesis is a journal-style paper of approximately 30-50 pages. Students  may choose to expand upon a seminar paper that is completed during the first three semesters of coursework to fulfill the thesis requirement. Students must successfully pass their thesis defense in order to earn their degrees.

Thesis Track Course Requirements

Students on the thesis track must receive at least 24 credits (8 courses) from graded courses and may enroll in up to 6 units of ungraded research credit hours. The ungraded research credit hours should be spent preparing the Master of Arts proposal and the thesis itself. 

Thesis Track Application Process

To apply for the thesis track, students submit a 2-page proposal to both their DGS and the Political Science faculty member they intend to have serving as the chair of the thesis committee.  The thesis proposal is due by the end of May of the student’s first year of study.  

The proposal should include: 

  • The research question
  • An explanation of why the research question is important to ask
  • The types of arguments that will be developed
  • The types of analyses that will be used to evaluate the arguments
  • A proposed timeline for completing the project. 

After submitting the proposal, the DGS will inform the student regarding their fit for the thesis track. Students may be asked to continue to develop their ideas over the summer before a final recommendation is made. 

The goal of the application process is to give students clarity about their placement on the thesis or non-thesis track by the start of the fall semester of the second year. By this time, students should know if they are on the thesis track, who will serve as the chair of their master’s thesis committee, and what steps are needed for successful completion of their thesis in time for a spring graduation.

Non-thesis Track Overview

Students on the non-thesis track must successfully pass a final oral examination in which they defend two (2) research papers originally written in political science seminars to their faculty committee. 

Non-thesis students must complete a minimum of 30 units (10 courses) of graded course credits in order to earn their degree.  Non-thesis track students do not enroll in ungraded research credits and ungraded credits will not count towards the requisite 30 credits. 

Please note that if a student switches from the thesis track to the non-thesis track after they have taken ungraded research credits, the ungraded credits will no longer count towards the requisite 30 credits. The student would need to enroll in additional graded course credits to reach their requisite 30 units.


Major Fields

Normative Political Theory & Philosophy

This field interprets, critiques, and constructs philosophical conceptions and arguments concerning morally appropriate and prudent standards and purposes for political actors and regimes. Topics include historically influential theories, the genealogy of political ideas, democratic theory, and contemporary theories of legitimacy, identity, ethics, the good society, and social justice.

Political Behavior & Identities

This field is concerned with understanding and explaining mass political behavior, opinion, and identities. This broadly includes the formation and acquisition of political attitudes, beliefs, and preferences by individuals and groups; how those beliefs, attitudes, and preferences, as well as various social identities, map onto political behaviors and decision-making. Specific areas of study within this field include the origin, nature, and measurement of public opinion; political psychology; voting and participation; campaigns and elections; media and information; political parties; collective action; and disruptive political action.

Political Economy

This field examines the reciprocal relationships between politics and markets, both within and among countries, using a variety of analytical tools, including those of economics. Its concerns include interactions among economic and political development; cooperation and conflict among nations, groups, and individuals; the distribution of material resources and political power; the effects of political actors and institutions on economic outcomes; the causes and consequences of technological and structural change, growth, and globalization; and regulation.

Political Institutions

This field studies the formal and informal rules, practices, and regularities at both the domestic and international level that guide and constrain political choices and activities. It is concerned with the emergence, dynamics, and consequences of institutions in both authoritarian and non-authoritarian regimes. This focus includes constitutional design and how the organization of legislatures, parties, judiciaries, markets and other social structures shape relationships between individuals and states, and in turn, the factors shaping the emergence and evolution of those institutions.

Political Methodology

This field focuses on scholarship directed at providing appropriate methodologies for investigating theoretically motivated political questions. Departmental activities in methods are organized around deductive/analytical, empirical/inductive, and computational approaches to modeling political phenomena. 

Security, Peace & Conflict

This field is dedicated to the study of political violence, armed conflict both within and across state borders, and to the study of politics in the shadow of violence. We seek to understand the causes of armed conflict and violence, the conduct and consequences of the use of violence and coercion by state and non-state actors, and the conditions under which the peace and security of states, societies, groups and individuals can be protected. Toward these ends, we examine the policies and strategies used by states and other political agents – both domestic and international – to control, manage, contain or prevent the use of political violence.

Theme Fields

Law and Politics

Law and Politics is a second field for those students who want to pursue research questions that are at the intersection of political science and legal studies. This interdisciplinary research encompasses a wide range of theoretical and empirical methods and addresses both normative and explanatory concerns. The relevant topics touch all of the traditional fields in political science. Some general themes include the legal relevance of international treaties and organizations, both domestically and globally; courts and judicial decision-making, including their independent effects on politics and policy; the relationship between legal and political governance structures; the determinants of both deviant behavior (like corruption) and legal compliance; and the interrelationship between legal, political and moral philosophy. The Law and Politics second field allows political science graduate students to formally draw on the expertise of a number of members of the law faculty who work in areas that overlap substantially with the study of politics.

Race, Ethnicity & Politics

Race is central to the political fabric of the United States. One, therefore, cannot study American politics without studying racial politics. The changing context of the United States requires that we move beyond the historical understanding of race as one dominated by seeing the world solely in "black and white" terms. Latinos, Asians, American Indians, and other populations of color are now part of the construction of race in America and thus are increasingly important to the study of politics in general and racial politics in particular. A comparable dynamic is driving citizens in other parts of the world to see their nations in multi-racial terms. Moving beyond the national particularities of race creates space for cross fertilization and intellectual development. Understanding race in these terms requires those in American politics to engage race in terms encountered in comparative politics, in political theory, and in international relations – and vice-versa. 

Religion and Politics

Religion and Politics examines the continuing importance at both the theoretical and empirical levels of religion for social and political life. More specifically, the field explores how religious beliefs, practices and institutions affect social, economic and political behavior and how political and economic structures and institutions affect the practice of religion.