Whether you’re just entering a master’s program or finishing your coursework, it’s never too early to start thinking about your thesis. You know that researching and writing are time consuming, but there’s much more to the process than putting fingers to keyboard. Completing a master’s thesis also requires filing official paperwork, selecting and communicating with a committee of faculty advisors, and following strict departmental guidelines. Couple that with in-depth research and publishing, and you’ve got one stress-inducing project on your hands.
The following guide breaks down the major components of the master’s thesis process and makes it easier to see all the moving parts at once. While the required steps and details vary from program to program, this guide offers tips, resources, and explanations of each part that typically apply regardless of major or school. You don’t have to go it alone, and the first steps detailed in this next section can help get you started.
Before You Begin: First Steps
Before you tackle a project of this magnitude, take time to think through the first several steps. While your colleagues, department staff, and professors are likely within reach to offer guidance, the following first steps give you a starting point that begins even before you put your fingers to the keyboard.
Selecting Your Topic
Choosing a thesis topic can be difficult. You’ve taken in a lot of information, and your attention has been pulled in a thousand directions. It doesn’t make sense and isn’t practical to include all your ideas and interests in your master’s thesis. You’ve got to narrow it down.
Start by listing topics that interest you and that you can think deeply about for an extended period. To narrow that list, highlight topics that feel smaller or more short-sighted than you think you might need. Master’s thesis topics tend to grow and expand as you work on them, so pick one that isn’t too complicated and that feels small enough to keep your thesis topic manageable.
Choosing Your Advisor or Chair
Now you need to choose an advisor to spearhead your thesis committee. Since you know your professors well by this point, consider which ones you have a solid professional relationship with. Is there one who stands out as an unofficial mentor? Also consider which professors have academic backgrounds or research interests that pair well with your chosen topic.
The advisor you choose should be able to answer questions about the research and writing process and help you stay focused and on schedule. They’ll also help you follow both the written and unwritten norms or expectations for thesis writing in your department.
Selecting Your Committee
Along with a chairperson, you’ll need to select the remaining members of your committee. These people should also have an interest in or history of working with the topic or ideas you plan on exploring in your thesis.
Committee members are less responsible for the administrative and timeline of your project but are available to help support you academically as your work through ideas, conduct your research, and write your thesis. They can also point you toward helpful resources on campus, additional readings, or recent alums that might be useful as you move forward with your thesis.
Other Key Questions
- Should I publish?
While some programs require students to produce a document for peer-reviewed publications, others make this optional. Master’s programs in the arts and the humanities are less likely to have a publishing requirement than are STEM programs. Check your graduate student handbook for any publishing requirements.
- Do I need human subjects?
This largely depends on the type of research you’re doing. If your research puts you in direct contact with other humans in some way, even if it’s interview-based, you may need to complete human subjects forms. Consult your school’s institutional review board (IRB) office for more information.
Submitting Your Proposal
Thesis advisors and committee members often require students to write a thesis proposal to formally begin the process. Proposals get everyone on the same page and define where your project is headed. They are usually 10-20 double-spaced pages, but this depends on departmental norms. You’ll likely need committee approval of your proposal before you carry it out.
Research Questions and Hypothesis
Your proposal must include a clear statement of the problem, which questions you hope your research will answer, and a hypothesis or prediction about the outcome of your research.
This section of your proposal gives a clear picture of what you think your research should investigate and how far it will reach. This forces you to clarify your topic and define its most fundamental terms. Boiling down a large project like this can be difficult, but it’s an important step to help you develop a concise focus.
The purpose of the research statement is twofold. First, it tells your readers why your proposed research and the forthcoming document are valuable to the field. Second, it provides a summary of prior scholarship on your topic to date.
Like peer-reviewed journal articles and doctoral dissertations, master’s theses should offer something new to your field. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but it’s important to illustrate where your research fits into the larger picture of scholarship in your chosen area. The best way to do this is by offering summaries of important works and writers you’re engaging with to produce your work.
Approach and Methodology
How will you do the work? What are the steps you will take to develop a strong argument? These questions speak to your methodology. Every field is unique in its approach to methodology, and you’ll include some research methods and not others based on traditions in your field.
For example, STEM fields often rely heavily on quantitative methods like number-based data, lab work, software-driven analysis, and statistics. Studies based on qualitative methods, which include research-based observations and language and content analysis, are more common in the arts and humanities. You may choose a combination of the two approaches. Whatever your approach and methodology, clearly explain how and why you’re using them in this section.
The outcomes section, sometimes referred to as expected results, allows you to play show and tell based on what you think might happen. Depending on the common practices in your field, you may use charts and graphs to show your expected outcomes.
Alternatively, this section might not include visuals and may instead be a written account of your expectations. You haven’t completed the research yet, so your committee doesn’t expect you to know exactly how your research will play out. The outcomes section does, however, show them your understanding of the possibilities. They’ll also be able to tell if your proposed hypothesis and research methods could lead to your described outcomes.
Research: Backbone of Your Thesis
The research that informs your writing is where you really get to shape your project. Whether you’re using quantitative or qualitative research methods or a combination of both, your research approach drastically impacts the trajectory of your work. It likely sounds daunting, but it should also be exciting.
Sometimes, just starting a large project like a thesis is one of the most difficult parts. Keeping your original project design and stated methodology in mind, consider how the scholars and thinkers your work engages carried out their research. Use their examples as inspiration to help you get started.
Next, think about the materials and equipment you’ll need for your intended research. Do you need notebooks, a sound recorder, a digital camera, lab access? Will you need subscriptions to online newspapers or archives? Make sure you have all that lined up before you begin.
From the beginning, continually remind yourself to keep your research focused and targeted with little to no expansion beyond the guidelines you articulated in your proposal. Research projects can quickly spin out of our control, so stick with the plan to keep your project manageable and be able to finish within your intended timeframe.
Documenting Your Process
Whether you’re conducting library research, doing interviews, or running lab experiments, you’ll need a concise system for notetaking and tracking your processes. Most research projects aren’t just about the results. How you carry out your work is also important, so be sure to document your methods and procedures as you progress.
In addition, you’ll revisit your data later when writing your thesis, so make sure to document your work in a way that’s easily accessible and organized. You’ll save yourself a headache or three during the writing process by making your information easy to find. In addition to the resources below, consider reviewing the methods for data collection and organizing quantitative and qualitative research processes.
Writing Your Thesis
Your thesis document should be broken down into subsections, and the subsections included largely depend on what’s common in your particular field and the type of research you’re doing. This section looks at different aspects to keep in mind before and while you’re writing. It also looks at what your subsections might include.
Know Your Audience
Always keep in mind who’s going to read your final thesis. This likely depends on norms in your field and your home department. Whether or not your thesis will be published in a public medium, use the vocabulary, voice, and tone that aligns with other scholars’ academic work in your field. This iteration of your thesis isn’t for a general audience, though you may eventually adapt it for others. Using the correct language from the outset saves you from additional rewriting for wording your committee deems non-academic. Here are some near-universal audiences to consider when writing your thesis.
- Your Committee
Your committee is your main target audience. They are, in a sense, the gatekeepers in this scenario. They decide who passes this hurdle in the master’s process and receives their degrees. They are also experts who know what a master’s thesis should entail. Meeting their expectations only benefits you.
- Journal Reviewers
If you plan on publishing part or all of your thesis, consider how journal reviewers might interpret your work. Some graduate schools allow students to submit documents with nontraditional formatting to help them cater to journal publication opportunities. Check with your committee about any acceptable options in this regard, especially since you’ll likely need to modify a thesis chapter for a journal submission on your own after you defend it to the committee.
- Journal Readers
If you plan to publish your work in a journal, the same language and type of writing you use for your committee should suffice for journal readers. Journal readers are often educators, researchers, and academics used to writing and reading scholarly texts. If you’re concerned about any aspect of writing with a journal in mind, consult your committee for advice on best practices.
- Other Researchers
Other researchers who read your writing are an informed audience. In other words, they approach your work with either some knowledge of the field or at least an understanding that you’re making a nuanced argument for academic audiences. This means that the way you write for your committee will suffice for other researchers as well.
Introduction, Literature Review & Methods
The first three parts of your master’s thesis will likely be an introduction, literature review, and methods section. Like the role these sections played in your proposal, they offer big-picture contextual information. You’ll expand upon what you wrote on the proposal, however, and offer more detail about what you researched, which academic works you consulted to support your work of those works you “put in conversation” with your work, and how you did it.
While all these sections are important, give ample time to construct a good literature review. This lets your readers know how you think about your work and where it lives within the larger body of knowledge. It also gives you the chance to highlight any interdisciplinary approaches you might be taking in your thesis.
List of Tables & Figures
It won’t make sense for every master’s thesis to include a list of tables and figures. However, they can make a huge difference in the quality of the presentation of some students’ work. This especially goes for students whose research relied heavily on statistical data, surveys, digital humanities analysis tools, empirical data, and lab results. When there’s a lot of data that you quantified, the best way to represent that to your readers is often through tables and figures.
For examples of data visualization for both quantitative and qualitative researchers, check out Auraria Library’s Research Guides.
This section allows you to expand more upon the specific sources you used to inform your research and writing. If you largely used empirical data that is based on your data collection and observations, use this section to explain that. Additionally, point out and explain your use of any established academic theories you use within the thesis. This section is important because it shows readers where your information comes from and how you’re thinking about it in relation to other research completed by other scholars.
The analysis section typically opens with a quick summary of the results of your analysis before giving an in-depth description of your step-by-step process for analyzing and interpreting your data. Think of this section as a place to illustrate your rationale for the particular type of analysis – statistical or discourse, for example – you carried out. You may also include tables, graphs, and maps in this section if needed.
You can also use this section to paint a full picture of your analysis and comparisons, which helps build trust with readers. A thorough description of your analysis process provides a solid lead-in for a strong findings and conclusions section.
Findings & Conclusions
Sometimes referred to as a results section, a findings and conclusions section includes a restatement of your study and what you hoped to find in your research. Most master’s thesis committees expect a summary of each chapter here. After a strong introductory section, move on to the details of your findings and discoveries.
These sections also typically include a proposed plan for future investigation of your topic that is often voiced as if you plan on carrying out the next steps yourself. Alternatively, you can write it in more prescriptive language to help other researchers imagine how to take the next steps on their own.
Formatting Your Thesis
Your department can offer guidelines and expectations for formatting your thesis. However, there are also likely formatting conventions commonly followed in your field, so ask your committee about those as well. In general, though, here’s a look at what to expect in terms of thesis formatting.
Elements & Sections
The following is a list of the sections commonly included in a master’s thesis. The standards and required sections for thesis writers are set by individual graduate schools, so discuss any questions regarding required sections with your committee.
- Title Page
This includes the title of your thesis, your name, your college or university and its location, and the year of completion. You’ll also include a line per your school’s guidelines saying something like this: “Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Arts in Education.”
- Signature/Acceptance Page
This page includes the names of your chairperson and committee members. There are usually two copies of this document; one goes into your actual thesis document and one is signed by your members and sent to your graduate school or department.
Most programs require a 200-300 word abstract that serves as a summary of the entire work. The abstract lets readers know the general scope and purpose of your thesis work.
This page allows you to thank your committee members and any other individuals or institutions that played a role in your work. These are commonly a page or less in length, and it’s okay to use less formal language to make it personal and sincere.
- Table of Contents
A table of contents is always required and includes titles and page numbers for individual chapters and subsections. This helps readers locate information quickly. Be sure to follow formatting requirements carefully for your table of contents.
- List of Figures and/or Illustrations
A list of the figures or illustrations typically goes right after the table of contents. Each figure has a title, which is often taken from the caption you used on the figure in the body. It’s a useful tool for your readers to help them locate information more quickly.
The main body of your text should be uniform in font style, size, and spacing, except in moments where your chosen style guide tells you otherwise. Consistency makes your document easier to read and follow.
- Bibliography/Works Cited
This includes a list of scholarly works, interviews, and other resources you used when writing your thesis. Usually placed second or third to last in the document, often just before appendices and your CV, these pages follow your chosen style guide’s recommendations.
An appendix is optional but includes items like tables, figures, photographs, interview questions, or other materials you think are necessary. Multiple appendices usually have their own labels, such as “Appendix A,” “Appendix B,” and so on.
Your curriculum vitae gives readers a snapshot of your education and accomplishments to date and typically goes at the very end of the thesis. There may be specific formatting requirements, but any information you currently have on your CV can be included.
Academic works typically follow style conventions of Chicago, APA, or MLA for layout, formatting, footnotes/endnotes, grammar, citations, and references. Check with your committee or department staff if you’re unsure about which style to use in your master’s thesis.
- Chicago Manual of Style
This formatting style is most commonly used in publishing, arts, religion, philosophy, and history. Chicago is one of the most widely used style guides in the U.S.
- APA Style
Developed by the American Psychological Association, APA style is frequently used by social science scholars.
- MLA Style
Recommended by the Modern Language Association, MLA is often used by scholars in the humanities, including those within literary criticism, comparative literature, and cultural studies.
Other Formatting Must-Haves
Take special care when following your department’s formatting requirements. Though it can be time consuming, it’s worth the trouble since it not only pleases your committee but also makes your final document as clean and readable as possible. Below are some formatting guidelines to keep in mind, but remember that details and requirements vary among schools, disciplines, and even style guides.
- Font size: Most schools require 11- or 12-point font size. You’ll likely use the same font size for your main text and footnotes or endnotes. Chapter titles and section headings are often bolded and 1 or 2 points larger than the rest of the text. Choose a standard, easy-to-read font like Times New Roman. Script fonts are usually not acceptable.
- Spacing: The main text of a master’s thesis is usually double spaced. Single-space formatting is commonly used in the table of contents, footnotes or endnotes, captions, appendices, block quotations, and works cited or bibliography pages.
- Page number orientation: Usually, you’ll have numbers .75″ from the top or .75″ from the bottom and centered on the page. The title page is often the only page without a page number.
- Footnotes or endnotes: Footnotes go at the bottom of the page where they’re cited, while endnotes are placed at the end of the document in their own section. While this often comes down to personal preference, check with your committee and in your style guide for any departmental preferences on footnotes vs. endnotes.
When It’s Time to Submit
As with other aspects of the thesis research and writing process, there are also timelines and guidelines for submitting, revising, and defending the final thesis document. Your department and committee members will help you stay on track, but here are some benchmarks to keep in mind.
This process looks a little different for everyone. Some students hand in their thesis one chapter at a time or a few chapters at once as they’re writing. Others send in the whole document at once. Your approach should be based on your committee’s preferences.
This first submission, however, is not the end of the process. It’s a rough draft, and often only the chairperson reads it and offers feedback and suggestions for changes. Whether it’s a digital or physical copy is also up to your committee.
The First Draft and Scheduling Your Defense
After you incorporate your chairperson’s feedback, you should have a solid first draft of the thesis. At this point, your chairperson will likely do another quick review before giving you the green light to schedule your defense. You’ll then send the document to the other committee members.
Many departments require following a specific timeline at this point. You may have to wait 2-3 months after you submit your final rough draft to schedule your thesis defense. Also, be sure to fill out all required paperwork to schedule the defense. Be aware that you might need to get signatures from each committee member before receiving an official date and time for the defense.
The Oral Defense
Your oral defense takes place in person or via video conference. It’s common for the chair to give an opening statement so everyone knows the expected order of events. You’ll then give a 15-20 minute presentation summarizing your work and pointing out any notable or interesting outcomes.
Next, your chairperson opens the floor for other committee members to ask questions. Each committee member usually asks at least one question, but the specifics vary among defenses. This questioning aspect of the defense is the actual oral defense of your work. You’ll have to answer on the fly, thinking on your feet and trusting that you covered all your bases. After the questioning, the committee will likely deliberate for 5-10 minutes behind “closed doors” to decide whether you passed.
The Final Revision Process
Even after passing your oral defense, your committee may have additional revision suggestions for you to complete before you submit your final thesis. If they don’t, you’re done with the thesis process.
If you need to make revisions, the committee will usually talk through potential or required changes with you. This group discussion allows you to ask questions as needed. The committee will then likely give you a deadline to complete your final revisions and submit your finished, polished draft. Most graduate students who have gone through the process recommend finishing your final revisions as quickly as possible while everything is still fresh in your mind.
Finding Help on Campus
Knowing where to turn for help is essential for all graduate students working on their master’s thesis. Fortunately, there are a variety of places to find the advice and information you need.
- Your first stop for help should always be your committee members since they’ll know the answers to most of your questions. Asking a committee member is also the best way to know that you’re getting the right information.
- Your academic department will also have valuable resources, including a graduate student handbook. These handbooks usually contain guidelines for writing along with information regarding on-campus resources for additional help.
- Writing centers on campus or thesis workshops provide solid general information for graduate students. Some schools even help organize writing groups with other thesis writers, while others have dedicated programming with writing and research professionals. Check with your graduate school or student support services for a list of options available at your school.
- Most graduate schools offer university- and college-wide resources on thesis and dissertation writing. The University Graduate School at Indiana University, for example, has a dedicated site for thesis and dissertation writers with a list of valuable resources.
- Lastly, connect with other graduate students in your program. While you need to be careful the information you receive complies with any departmental and school guidelines, other master’s students along with doctoral students in your department can be excellent resources. Ask your committee to connect you with any students who may be willing to help.