Writing a Masterful Master’s Thesis: Demystifying a Graduate Program Right of Passage

pp1Ah, the good old Master’s thesis.  Nearly every college and university Master’s program requires students to write an acceptable Master’s thesis before they can graduate with a degree. While many graduate students shudder at the thought of researching and writing the mandatory Master’s thesis, they needn’t fear it.  This form of academic writing exists as a culmination to the Master’s program; its goal is to encourage original thought and research to investigate an issue useful to the discipline in which a student is earning a degree.  Unlike other forms of academic writing, the Master’s thesis is more intense and demanding.  It requires time and attention to detail: procrastinators need not apply!  Most universities set aside credits specifically for the Master’s thesis.  It exists as a class with a faculty mentor assigned to guide the student through the arduous process of forming a viable Master’s thesis, conducting research, organizing a logical argument, and ultimately presenting the paper during a thesis defense.  A well-constructed Master’s thesis takes the better part of a semester if not longer to finalize.  Just getting started on this academic undertaking?  Here are the basics to help demystify the aspects of a masterful Master’s thesis.

Define Thesis

So how do you define thesis?  At its simplest, a thesis is a sentence sharing a well-developed argument.  It typically appears at the end of the introduction and works as a transition to the body portion of the paper.  A thesis is an idea presented in an academic paper which must be defended through reliable, verified, and cited sources.  These sources are researched and vetted by the student and then organized in the paper to defend the idea being presented.  Need a more detailed thesis definition?  No problem!  A well-written master thesis should contain both an original, arguable idea and a roadmap of how you plan to prove it.  It should appear as a complex sentence.  The argument should appear first followed by the roadmap.  While different professors may call the roadmap by alternative names, it’s important to know that a roadmap shows the audience how the writer plans to support his or her idea throughout the paper.  It typically appears as a list of proof that an idea has merit.  Subsequent body paragraphs work to offer support solidifying the idea appearing in the thesis.

Master’s Thesis

pp2Is a Master’s thesis different from a senior thesis?  Yes.  A senior thesis is the kind of argument that one might put forth in undergraduate work.  Such a thesis is typically not as rigorous or as original as a Master’s thesis.  At a graduate level, the professors are seeking original thought and expect students to write papers that synthesize information rather than merely regurgitating it.  With this expectation, students must develop a Master’s thesis which proposes an original idea.  But what qualifies as an original idea?  Good question.  An original idea should be one that focuses on viewing an aspect in a new light.  It should not be an idea directly appearing in any research or classwork you’ve read explored in class.  For a literature-related Master’s thesis, one may explore how a particular culture could view a famous literary work while for a science-related Master’s thesis, one could conduct an original experiment and explore the ramifications of the results for different populations or the scientific field in general.

Thesis Meaning

In a Master’s thesis, the beginning of the paper should start with an introduction.  The purpose of the introduction section, which can be several paragraphs or pages long, is to provide the audience with any necessary background information pertinent to understanding the argument being presented.  This may include discussing time periods to provide a reference framework or defining relevant scientific terms to the area being explored.  All of this background information prepares the audience to understand the thesis, and the direction of the argument being presented within the paper.  So what is the thesis meaning?  In short it’s everything.  A Master’s thesis is rather like the old fairy tale of Goldilocks.  If it’s too broad the paper will flounder.  If it’s too narrow there won’t be enough evidence to support it.  If it’s too wordy, the audience will become lost and confused.  If it’s too short, the audience will lack enough information to understand the argument being made.  Therefore, the thesis meaning is of utmost importance: this sentence exists as the gatekeeper for the rest of the paper.  It needs to set the audience along the correct path and provide them with the tools to stay on the path.  Then, as the paper progresses, each paragraph works to support the idea by presenting research the student found in support of his or her idea.  At this academic level, writing should be masterful and demonstrate a clear understanding of grammatical and mechanical conventions as well. 

Thesis Defense

pp3It is a longstanding tradition that students must engage in a thesis defense.  This process involves standing before a thesis committee, often comprised of three or more professors, and verbally defending the paper submitted to the main professor.  During the thesis defense process, professors may question sources, intellectual connections made within the paper, and/or research methods used by the student.  A student is expected to enter the room as an expert and convince the professorial panel that the idea presented in the Master’s thesis is valid, supported, and ultimately correct.  In some thesis defense sessions students may be expected to only enter the room and answer questions.  In other sessions, students may be allowed to bring visual aids or other beneficial assists to support their defense of the argument presented in the paper. Additionally, it may just be the student and the professors, or a small audience may be present.  It’s a good idea to know what the graduate program allows and disallows when it comes to the thesis defense.  It is imperative to be prepared; work with classmates and hold mock defense sessions to increase your confidence and reaction time to questions regarding your idea and research.

The most important aspect to writing a good Master’s thesis is to begin early:  ask the professor when you need help, and practice your thesis defense.  Do the research, ask classmates for critical reviews, and revise as necessary.  You’ll do great!


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