Should You Write a Master's Thesis?

Here is what writing a master’s thesis won’t get you: a gasp of admiration from a PhD admissions committee. It doesn’t matter how long a thesis you write or how brilliant you think it is. It frankly won’t even be seen by (busy) admissions committees, who certainly don’t want applicants mailing a hundred-plus pages of text as part of their applications. No, writing a thesis doesn’t give you an immediate leg up on other applicants.

Furthermore, many programs, including those at elite schools, don’t expect theses from their own master’s students or even have a thesis track for their master’s degrees. Check out the Big Names: Many offer only MAs by coursework and, perhaps, examination.

So why go to the considerable trouble of a master’s thesis? Here’s why.

There is nothing short of tackling a doctoral dissertation or writing an actual book to acquaint you with what it means to conduct frontline academic research and to write a complex academic report on it. If you want a “discernment exercise” to know whether an academic career is for you, try a master’s thesis. If it goes well, then you’re a good candidate for everything the PhD and the professoriate can throw at you. If it doesn’t, now you know: Get out and get going on something else for which you are more suited and in which you’ll be much happier!

It doesn’t matter how high your GPA is or how many big papers you’ve written. There is a kind of “quantum break” between papers and the master’s thesis that sorts out who is suited for an academic career and who isn’t. It’s like the break between single-celled and multi-celled organisms. Once you’ve crossed that gap successfully, a dissertation or a book is just a bigger version of something you have already done. And until you have crossed that gap, you don’t really know how you’ll do in the Big Time. Many are the bright, high-GPA, high-GRE students who have foundered at the thesis or dissertation level: It’s just that different a challenge.

Another benefit to writing a thesis is that most of us cannot expect to have expert supervision of our work more than a few (more) times in our career, and especially on a big project. If you elect a master’s thesis, you get one or two (or even more) experts poring over your work and giving you detailed advice. You get that again on a doctoral dissertation. And then that’s it.

You’ll get some advice in future from more-or-less talented editors. You’ll get whatever advice you can obtain from friends in the guild who, in the midst of their busy lives, consent to the considerable favour of critiquing your article or book manuscript. But you’ll never, ever be able to pay an expert to take pains over your text once you’ve graduated. So if you can, take advantage of the opportunity the master’s thesis gives you. I got to have Mark Noll put my Wheaton master’s thesis through the wringer. Did that help me become a better researcher and writer? What do you think?

Finally, once you’ve completed a master’s thesis successfully, it’s just not that big a deal to write the doctoral dissertation. Yes, I found my dissertation much bigger and much harder, but it was a bigger, harder version of something I had already done. It wasn’t a huge version of something quite unfamiliar. So I researched and wrote it rather quickly, albeit with some awfully good advice from my doctoral supervisor along the way (Martin Marty), and got it finished before I grew old and died–always an important objective in PhD work.

So I strongly urge students who have PhDs and academic careers in view to write a master’s thesis. As I said, it won’t get you into a PhD program–with one exception, to be sure: If you wait until your thesis is done before you apply, your examiners can then sing your praises on the basis of that finished thesis. But I wouldn’t delay applying with that possibility in view unless you really need your thesis to wow these examiners when your previous coursework hasn’t.

No, writing a thesis is an excellent idea for the other reasons I mention. And I gladly supervise ten or so thesis-writers here at Regent with great enthusiasm for their undertaking this major assignment.

I’d be interested to know if my readers agree–especially those who have, in fact, written theses and thus are in a position to test my assertions!

0 Responses to “Should You Write a Master's Thesis?”

  1. Brent Wittmeier

    I’m one of those Regent students who successfully completed a thesis as part of my “vocational discernment,” as they tend to call things there.

    At the end of the process, I felt immensely proud in completing it (and with how it was received), but really unsure of the point of it all. It certainly was a challenge (and occasional joy) to thread an argument together on that scale.

    I can heartily testify to the downsides of the project: it tends to take longer than the equivalent course work, it’s isolating, and it’s arcane. Plus you constantly have to weasel out of the question that people ask but for which they don’t really want an answer: “What’s it about?”

    Regent’s thesis has additional drawbacks. It’s a longer thesis than most other masters programs. Plus it’s insanely expensive: at $5000+, not including the time you put into it, it wouldn’t stand up to any cost/benefit analysis (not that any theological education would for that matter). Most supervisors will not give you as much time as they promise/you need; they tend to be stretched thin enough with other requirements.

    For me, it made me question why I was trying to be an academic. I’ve chosen journalism as an alternative, so remember that there are plenty of other options for you if you want to write and are passionate about ideas.

    I think I would prod masters students to focus on publishing and presenting academic articles at conferences instead (especially if professors encourage you). But I’m curious what you might say to this, John.

  2. Russ

    Mileage varies – I was told by one of my professors that my MA thesis, which I sent after my application to a PhD program, moved me from borderline to accepted with funding.

  3. David Guretzki

    Thanks, John. Some great advice here that I similarly give to my master’s students who are contemplating a thesis. I will likely point them here in the future.

    One qualifier: In my experience, a chapter of my MA thesis was actually assessed once I got into my PhD program and I was given, retroactively, one year of advanced standing in the PhD. As far as I could tell, my co-students who were non-thesis MAs had to start at ground level PhD. Not all students with a thesis got advanced standing either, but some, like me, did.

    But overall, yes, a PhD thesis for me was much the same as the MA–only bigger and more, as you say!

  4. Robert H.

    By way of corroboration with your first paragraph: At a forum entitled “Applying to Doctoral Programs in Religion” held last fall (2007) at Harvard for both FAS and HDS students, Profs. Diana Eck (head of the PhD admissions committee that year), Francis Schüssler-Fiorenza (head of the ThD admissions committee that year), and Parimal Patil at all agreed that a master’s thesis affords a student no advantage in the admissions process. (When the question was posed during the Q&A session, Prof. Schüssler-Fiorenza’s exact response was, “No, not at all.”)

  5. Charles

    In my experience, applications to British schools were given greater weight when accompanied by a significant writing sample, but that may reflect the differences between British and American programs.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Replying to Brother Wittmeier, I’ll leave aside his cri de coeur about his lousy time writing a thesis at Regent and respond just to his last point about writing articles for publication.

    First, if you’re heading for a discipline in which publishing articles is the main form of discourse (e.g., most of the social sciences), then by all means get cracking on learning how to do it. But if you’re heading for a discipline in which writing books is at least as important (e.g., history, theology, ethics), then it doesn’t matter how many papers you write: you will be disadvantaged when it comes to writing books–just not the same thing.

    Second, regardless of your discipline in theological studies, you have to write a PhD dissertation. So my advice stands about the usefulness of a master’s thesis toward that (crucial) project.

    Third, very, very few master’s-level students do publish articles. Why? Well, partly, at least, because they have not come to grips sufficiently with a particular field in order to contribute something creative to it. Guess how one first does that? Perhaps via the research necessary for a thesis! (That’s how I published my first one.)

    It’s not the only way to proceed, of course, and some fields lend themselves to article-writing more than others (philosophers, for instance, can write a whole article dedicated to one mistake one of their peers made in another journal article; any new archival evidence a historian turns up might justify an article, even if the historian doesn’t interpret it all that well). But article-writing really doesn’t substitute for a thesis since, again, it’s the difference between a single-focus project and a multi-focus project.

  7. Should you write a masters thesis? : The Daily Scroll

    […] An answer from John Stackhouse, Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College: “There is nothing short of tackling a doctoral dissertation or writing an actual book to acquaint you with what it means to conduct frontline academic research and to write a complex academic report on it. If you want a “discernment exercise” to know whether an academic career is for you, try a master’s thesis.” […]

  8. Ryan

    I also recently completed a thesis at Regent College (and under the supervision of our host) and have been mulling over the process since finishing in June.

    It was indeed a demanding process and it pushed me harder than I’ve ever been pushed before in academics but I sort of expected that when I signed up for the thing. It was a long project (150 pages or so) and it was only after I left Regent that I realized that this isn’t exactly the norm. I was recently asked to proofread an MA thesis for a student out of a seminary in Manchester – hers was less than 50 pages (including bibliography)!

    I can absolutely concur that thesis-writing does sharpen one’s thinking and writing skills. Having skilled writers and critical thinkers poring over your text can be a humbling thing, but it is an excellent learning experience. It gives you a taste of what professional writers face from their editors, and teaches you how to discipline your writing and manage your time. At the end of the day, there is a significant sense of accomplishment in knowing that you made it through a fairly significant task, and that you can survive (even thrive) in a rigorous academic environment.

    I found Regent to be very up-front about the challenges of thesis-writing. I knew it was going to be the hardest thing I had ever done academically. It was. I survived. And I’m glad to have gone through it.

  9. Jon Coutts

    I have no idea if my MA thesis will help me get accepted somewhere for PhD studies, but I wouldn’t trade the experience of writing it for the world. I actually am not even sure I’d be interested in PhD studies if not for the thesis experience. It allowed me to try on for size something that I’d only ever imagined about. If it hadn’t fit at all I’d have steered in other directions. As it is it felt good enough to give PhD apps a go. I’d like to hope the thesis helps in getting accepted, but if not I’ll at least be glad I tried.

    Thanks for your blog entries on this topic here and in the past. They’ve been helpful for me as I’ve waded through the application and discernment process this year.

  10. Rob

    From a technical perspective, I think it’s probably a good idea as well. Not only for the reasons listed above, but also for the simple fact that one can then present more information on a particular application. For example, not only can you include a GPA, but also a statement like: “Completed a thesis titled ‘… something descriptive here …'”. While it’s true that it probably won’t get read, technical papers use titles that make actually reading the document superfluous anyway. The program that I attended required a thesis, so it’s not like I had a choice, but I would definitely recommend it. As Prof. Stackhouse alluded, it’s just one of those hurdles that is unlike any other academically. When someone sees that you’ve completed a thesis, they will assume that you have completed a comprehensive, robust study of a subject. You can then be considered to be somewhat of an expert. It’s scary…

  11. Jono

    I agree with Jon Coutts. I too elected to do a Thesis as part of my masters work, and, as a result am now considering a PhD. This is something I never would have dreamed of before, since I never thought I would be able to do it.

    Though it was a lot of hard work, The Thesis helped me see more clearly where I wanted to go with my education, as well as what I was capable of (which are not alwways the same thing unfortunately). I would encourage anyone even considering a PhD to do a masters Thesis.

    It may not help with your acceptance into a program, but It will help you immeasurably with actual work involved.

  12. April French

    Thanks to Professor Stackhouse and all who commented for this very helpful dialogue. I’ll be writing a rough, preliminary thesis proposal in the next week, so it’s always helpful to read such thoughts from those who have gone ahead.

  13. Derek Langille

    I have an Master of Divinity, no thesis, from Acadia. I am wrestling with doing more education, but am reluctant to explore the D.min. route. I have a young family and no credit. I am curious about an MA in Spiritual Formation. Does a thesis serve any purpose other than equipping one in pursuing doctoral studies?

  14. John Stackhouse

    A thesis is, as I’ve said, a fine exercise in academic research, project management, and writing. If you intend to write serious nonfiction, writing a thesis could be a valuable experience.

    That said, however, its main purpose is academic training and that’s what it’s best for.

    If you have a MDiv already, an MA would be appropriate, but the natural degree would be a ThM, as we and other Christian graduate schools and seminaries offer for post-MDiv training. But that involves a thesis, as a rule, so if you just want more courses, then a course-based MA would suit you better.

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