The Thesis

The Thesis (Chapter 11)

A thesis is a lengthy research paper that is often required to receive your masters degree. The length of a thesis can vary, but the purpose of it is to test your subject area knowledge and your ability to research and write. As a masters degree candidate, you need to prove that you have a full understanding of your field and that you can conduct research, combine information, formulate arguments and write persuasively. Producing a successful thesis is a long process involving several strategic steps.

Choosing a Topic

Researching and writing a thesis is a time consuming activity, so the sooner you choose a topic, the better. Ideally, your thesis topic should be something that interests you and a topic that is narrow in scope. It may sound counterintuitive, but having a narrow and specific topic actually makes the research and writing of a thesis much easier. Keep a journal or notebook of topics or articles that interest you and write down questions that you have about them. This can help launch your thesis topic.

If you plan to continue your education and enter academia, make sure that your thesis engages thoroughly with other scholarship related to your topic. At the same time, you should also try to make some unique and innovative suggestions as well. This can help you if you apply to doctorate programs since applicants often use their masters theses as the writing samples for their PhD applications. PhD admissions committees want to see that you are aware of current scholarship and that you are a thoughtful scholar in your own right, capable of adding a new perspective to the discipline.


Depending on your field of study, your method of research may involve anything from analyzing primary sources to designing and carrying out experiments. Once you have a thesis topic or a general idea for your topic, go to your library or to the library’s website and look for subject guides. These will show research and article databases and will include lists of publications in your field. The databases will not be your only resources, but are a good place to start. If you don’t have access to these resources through your school, you can also use the public library and university or college libraries near you.

When you find relevant readings, note the other works and research that the author cites. This can lead you to even more useful resources. Your professors and fellow students can act as resources, as well, so do not forget to speak to them.

And remember, it is almost always difficult to find an end point to your research. There will always more information out there, but at some point you have to start writing.


Writing your thesis is a commitment and can be a challenging undertaking, but 1 of the advantages to writing such a long paper is that you can break it up into smaller papers. Before you jump into the actual writing of your thesis, make a detailed outline of what you want to say and how you want to incorporate your research. Detailed outlines help you to view and write your thesis in smaller sections. For example, ten 4-page sections are less daunting than one 40-page section.

Revise each section and the thesis as a whole many times. Make use of your classmates and have them read your work. The more time you spend revising and editing, the better your thesis will be.

Working with Your Thesis Advisor

Your thesis advisor can provide suggestions on your research, guidance on narrowing your thesis topic and feedback on how your thesis is progressing. In most cases, your advisor will be teaching and researching interests so remember to prepare for your meetings and not waste your advisor’s time. Have a prepared list of questions that you would like to ask or issues you would like to go over. Take notes to record the meeting. Your advisor will appreciate your professionalism, and you will be much more likely to have a productive meeting. If you communicate with your advisor primarily through e-mail, outline your questions so that your advisor knows exactly what you are asking and why.

Balancing your Thesis and Your Family/Job

It is hard to balance writing your thesis with what can seem like your more immediate responsibilities of family and work. But as a graduate student, writing your thesis is your job and you should devote time to writing every day. This may include working away from your home or scheduling blocks of your day and week just for your thesis. Remember that when you schedule time for your thesis, you’re also freeing up time for your family or your other responsibilities. Although life happens, try to put off any major life changes if you can help it.

Remember that at the graduate level, you are not just a student. Rather, you are participating in a professionalization process, much like entering a new job or participating in workplace training. If you treat your thesis like a work assignment, you will set healthier boundaries that will allow you to spend enough time writing as well as leave time with your family.

Thesis Committee

A thesis committee is a group of faculty members who will read, review, and question you about your thesis. Some schools and universities ask that you select you own committee. If they do, you should go about creating your committee carefully. Ask your advisor who they can recommend and who they’d like to work with. If there are committee members who do not get along, it could make for a difficult process for you.

Defending your Thesis

Depending on your school and department, the defense of your thesis may take place when you have completed your thesis or towards the end of its completion. In either case, you almost always will be asked to present and defend your thesis in front of your advisor, your thesis committee and members of an audience who will usually include classmates.

Before your defense, make sure you fill out and submit any required paperwork. Strategize with your advisor about your defense. If you have time, sit in on someone else’s defense so that you can get a feel for the process and what to expect. Practice speaking about your thesis and prepare yourself for questions. Why is your thesis relevant? Why is it important to contemporary scholarship?

During your defense, take the time to be thoughtful. Before you answer the questions posed to you by your committee, think about your responses. It is much better to have a thoughtful answer than a quick one. After your presentation and defense, your thesis committee will tell you that your thesis has passed, that it needs minor revision, that you need to resubmit it or that it has not been approved.

If your online masters degree program requires you to defend your thesis in person, make sure to give yourself enough time to travel to campus. If your defense is to take place via video conferencing, give the software a trial run so that you are ready on the day of your defense.