What should I know about writing a thesis?

All students selecting the basic Master of Arts in English may wish to consider writing a thesis. Students also completing a technical writing certificate may opt to do so in lieu of their allied field coursework and should consult with the Director of Technical Writing about the advisability of doing so. The teacher certification programs generally cannot accommodate a thesis; such students will need to complete a Capstone Project instead.

The Thesis (Plan I)

Writing a Thesis

The decision of whether or not to write a thesis is up to you. From a professional standpoint, there is little or no difference between an M.A. degree that includes a thesis and one that does not. The only exception might be if you were planning to go on for a doctorate, in which case the experience of writing a thesis could be desirable (though some PhD programs may prefer the additional coursework, as you will not have locked yourself into a particular area of focus prematurely). Writing the thesis gives you the opportunity to engage in sustained research with the guidance of an expert in the area, and can be a very rewarding, albeit challenging, experience.

The challenges of producing a good thesis are probably as much psychological as intellectual. Unlike a term paper, a thesis is something that you will be living with for months, rather than weeks. Instead of responding to an assignment, you will choose (in consultation with an advisor) the topic. But like most freedoms, this one also comes with responsibilities: you will have to define issues and organize large amounts of material in ways that you probably have not done before. The project also requires a good deal of self-discipline when it comes to setting up a research and writing schedule, and sticking to it. Large projects often outlive one’s enthusiasm for them, so be prepared to exercise self-discipline in doing the work—for it will be work.

The procedure for doing a thesis goes something like this. At a time no later than the completion of 18 hours of coursework, you approach a member of the faculty, and ask whether he or she would be willing to serve as advisor to the project you have in mind. Bear in mind that faculty members will generally only wish to commit to the project if it lies within their area of interest and if they are confident that you have the work ethic and ability to complete the project. Additionally, faculty members who anticipate sabbatical leave during your thesis or who have already committed to too many other such projects may be unable to accept you as an advisee. In large measure, faculty members advise theses as a professional courtesy; they do not receive release time or additional compensation for the work—but of course, each of us received a similar courtesy from our own advisors, and so doing so functions as a professional obligation. In addition, thesis supervision can be rewarding for faculty members as well as students.

Assuming the answer is yes, you then write a short proposal (4-6 pages) in which you:

  • identify your topic
  • indicate the present state of scholarship on the topic
  • discuss what contributions your work will make
  • offer a tentative chapter by chapter outline
  • provide a tentative bibliography

The deadline for that proposal, as well as the point at which that proposal is "acceptable," depends strictly upon negotiation between you and the thesis advisor--there are no official deadlines nor specific criteria. Some advisors may ask for a proposal a semester before you begin, while others may be satisfied with receiving it at the beginning of the term you start writing. Similarly, some advisors may ask for revisions on the proposal, while others will ask only that their concerns be addressed in the thesis itself. Other deadlines and procedures will be worked out between you and your advisor, so made sure you understand clearly your advisor’s expectations.

In addition to the proposal, you will also register for “thesis hours.” To graduate you must have six thesis hours in your program, though you do not necessarily have to complete the thesis in two consecutive semesters. Be aware, however, that you must enroll in--and pay for!--thesis hours during any semester when you receive any advisement from a faculty member, which includes the actual thesis defense, and review of the thesis by the Liberal Arts and Graduate Deans. Generally, you may not take all six thesis hours in a single semester. A thesis is understood to be a more sustained project than such a schedule would presume.

Before you begin writing, make sure to obtain a copy of UAH Thesis and Dissertation Manual, which is available from the bookstore, or may be downloaded and printed from the Graduate School Thesis & Dissertation Manual page. This document provides an overview of the approval process and specifies University standards for formatting and documentation.

By this time, you and your advisor should also decide on your thesis committee, which consists of the advisor plus two other faculty members. The proposal will then be circulated among the committee members for approval and / or revisions. Throughout the writing process you will keep your committee apprised of your research and writing. Draft sections of the thesis should be submitted chapter by chapter (not all at once within a week or two of the deadline!), with sufficient turn-around time for committee comments and your revisions.

Although there are no hard and fast rules, theses in the English Department typically run anywhere from 50 to 100 pages; of course, quality is more important than quantity. A thesis might be divided into three or four chapters of 15-20 pages each, along with short introductory and concluding sections. (You can ask the graduate advisor to show you some recent examples.)

Graduate School—not the English Department—sets all the deadlines for theses defenses and submissions, and these can also be checked at the Graduate School Thesis & Dissertation Dates & Deadlines page. At a time no later than the end of the semester before you plan to graduate, set up an appointment with the graduate advisor to review your POS and set a date for your thesis defense. Keep in mind that the deadline for a defense is usually about six weeks before the end of the semester. What this means is that you will have only about half of that final semester to actually work on the thesis. (Of course, it is possible to do the defense after the completion deadline for a particular semester. In this case the conferring of the degree will take place in the following semester; e.g., if you defend in November or December, you will be considered a Spring semester graduate.)

You also need to file an Application for Advanced Degree and pay a fee at Charger Central by September 1st, February 1st, or June 1st for Fall, Spring, or Summer graduation, respectively.

The Thesis Defense

For those students writing a thesis (Plan I) the last major requirement before graduation is the successful oral defense of their work. Because you have probably been involved with your project for several months, the defense does not usually require extensive preparation. On the occasion of the exam, which lasts about an hour and a half, you begin with a 15-20 minute extemporaneous presentation of your research. This presentation is then followed by about 20 minutes of questioning from each member of the thesis committee. At the end of the exam, the committee deliberates for short time to decide whether or not the student has performed satisfactorily. If not, a second examination may be scheduled. At that time, if the committee suggests minor changes, you may be asked to make those changes prior to submitting the document to Graduate School according to their policies.

Note: Since most faculty members are on nine-month contracts and thus not employed by the university during the summer, it is usually not possible to schedule thesis defenses between mid-May and mid-August