Isabel Bernhard '20

Isabel Bernhard smiling and holding her completed thesis in front of Widener LibraryThesis Title: Controlling Alternative Sources of Power: Denuclearization and Democratic Consolidation in Brazil and Argentina, 1983-1994

I wrote a qualitative political science thesis on democratic consolidation in Brazil and Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s! My thesis topic united three things: my family’s experience with authoritarianism, my coursework in Latin American Studies, and my internship experience in Argentina. I wanted to understand family stories of authoritarianism and democracy through an academic lens. I investigated this topic in Latin America because I deeply enjoyed the Latin America-centric courses in my focus field. I was also fortunate to intern in the municipal government of Buenos Aires the summer after my freshman year, alongside a cohort of Brazilian exchange students. This primed my interest in Argentina and Brazil in particular.

Within the topic of Argentina and Brazil’s democratic consolidation, I conducted archival and interview work to analyze the trajectory of both countries’ national nuclear agencies. I set out to answer how and why civilians consolidated control over military-managed nuclear programs during inchoate democratic years. I first created a new vocabulary to understand civilian control, then found that the sequence and difficulty of exerting control were caused by each country’s mode of democratic transition.

There were challenges both in fieldwork and in drafting. One fieldwork challenge was unexpected logistical hiccups on a compressed timeline. In Argentina, an archive abruptly cancelled my appointments with one day’s notice and rescheduled them for September. Thankfully my appointments were reinstated, but I nearly lost access to roughly 200 documents. While drafting, a challenge was that my data did not cleanly fit my initial predictions or theories. This pushed me to analyze if I had misunderstood the literature’s theory, if I had misunderstood the data, or if I should create a new theoretical framework.

The most rewarding feeling while abroad was the feeling of being well-prepared for an interview. I loved hearing people who lived through my events of interest say things that made sense and jived with my background research. The most rewarding aspect of thesis-ing on campus was the ever-present support for thesis writers! The abundance of advice, mentorship, and humor from my advisor and our department were incredibly motivating, as was the sense that things were beginning to fall into place.

If time permits during fieldwork, don’t hesitate to collect data beyond the scope of your original research question. Once you return and tweak your question, you’ll be grateful for the diversity of sources that can back up a new idea. For drafting: start early and write ideas out of order. In senior fall, I focused a lot on “visualizing” how the thesis would flow conceptually before I wrote much, which was not the best use of time. When you write, you’ll realize which parts of your argument need to precede/follow other parts. Lastly, enlist people without specialist knowledge to help you determine if you explained things well enough! I was lucky to have a thesis writing group of Applied Math and CS concentrators who were incredibly helpful and direct in identifying gaps in my logic.