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!