“I have to Write HOW Many Pages?!” Or, Writing a Master’s Thesis

Well, I’m in my final semester of my MA; I’ve completed all my coursework and am just working on my final thesis. Depending on your MA program (or in some cases, BA program), you will most likely need to write a final culminating essay to illustrate some sense of mastery in a specific area in your field. This may be from 20 pages (particularly if you are a BA) to 60-80+ pages. You may need to create your own study, conduct research, or–like me–check out many (MANY) books from your library and read. But what does writing a thesis actually entail? How should you approach it? This post will illustrate how I went about writing my thesis–which isn’t done yet, but is done enough that I can talk about the process.

Requirements

If your thesis is a 60-80+ page research-driven thesis–as mine is–you will most likely need the following components:

  • Title Page
  • Acknowledgments (if you desire)
  • Table of Contents
  • Abstract (may not be necessary, but usually helpful)
  • Introduction
  • Chapters
  • Conclusion (again, may not be necessary, but usually helpful)
  • Bibliography

Most of these things are rather self-explanatory. However, I would like to go over a few things. The abstract, for example, should be succinct–no more than a few paragraphs–stating what will be explored (including any particular texts etc.) and justifying the work. The introduction should provide any necessary background information for your chapters, definitions etc. In some cases, you may want to write your introduction more like a conclusion; if you wait until you write everything else, you can put thoughts you have gained through your process in your introduction. Think of this form of introduction like the one that would come in the beginning of a classic novel. If you opt to not write your introduction in such a way, and focus only on background information, you should have a conclusion as well.

Picking a Topic

Since I’m an English Literature MA, my thesis has to involve literature. However, I have myriad interests, so picking a topic (especially one that would connect to Ph.D. programs later on) was a daunting task. I started by doing research on things that interested me, which was a horrible idea. All I did was create about 10 folders of different subjects on my desktop and toss related PDFs in there and read them. It didn’t help me CHOOSE at all.

In order to start thinking about what I really wanted, I decided to make three lists: The first was “Books I Enjoy,” the second was “Theories I Enjoy,” and the third was “Topics in Literature I Enjoy.” I then sat in front of my book case and started listing books I had there that I enjoyed. I took out anthologies to find poems, excerpts of things, and so forth that I may have forgotten over time. If there were multiple pieces by one author, then rock on. I tried not to make the list TOO extensive, because if you’re writing a paper this long on a text, you need to LOVE it, not just like it. The second list, I took out a theory book and went through it, listing specific forms of literary criticism that I usually enjoy employing with a text. The third list were just tropes in literature that I tend to enjoy and write about. In my case, for example, I had things like “The culture of Catholicism” and “English vs. Irish politics.” If you need help with your third list, try to go through some of your older papers and see if there are some recurring patterns in your topics.

Once I completed all three lists, I cross-checked them. What author fit the theories and topics I enjoyed? Which author has the most texts I enjoy? When I ironed that out, I was able to pick an author and a text to focus on. You do not, of course, need to adhere to one text; you may prefer to put the emphasis of your thesis on your theory or theme of choice. However, this is a good way to get all of your eggs in a basket and sort them out.

So now what? You know your text? Big deal. NOW you research to raise questions about the text/theory/theme. In my case, a simple question turned into my topic. It can be as simple as asking “Why did so-and-so say that about this book?” to “How did this style/structure change the narrative?” Now, a question like that is not my thesis as a whole, but it is the root and other ideas branch from it. Those simple questions may become chapters later on, so be sure to keep track of these thoughts. Also–don’t get discouraged! Once I picked my text, it took me quite some time to iron out the exact thesis. In fact, I annoyed a professor almost twice a week (…more than one week, mind you) for an hour or two each visit to bounce ideas off of him (since it was his field). It takes a lot of time, thought, crossing out, revisiting and whatever else.

By the way, sorry I’m being a tad more vague than usual, but I want to keep my subject to myself. I’m hoping it will stem into my dissertation at a later time.

Prospectus

Even if you do not have to give a detailed prospectus to an advisor, it’s a good idea to write one. Mine was about 13 pages, including a short bibliography (that I made single spaced to conserve paper). My prospectus outlined how I arrived at my topic, how I plan on breaking down my topic into chapters, and then breaking those chapters down into what they will include. Believe it or not, even though I wrote it about six months ago, I still go back to it as I write to make sure I maintain my original goals to a certain extent. It is not THAT difficult to become sidetracked.

Starting to Write

Now that you’re prepared to write, take it one chapter at a time. Instead of going “Oh my God I’m writing an 80 page paper,” view it 20 pages at a time. I generally allot myself 20 pages per chapter, with plenty of wiggle room. The first draft of my first chapter was barely 18 pages, but with my advisor’s comments, it will certainly expand. Write the chapters in whatever order you want, but keep in mind the order they will be listed in the thesis. For example, I skipped ahead to my third chapter because it interested me most after the first chapter. However, I always keep in mind what I have planned for chapter two, so I know I won’t overlap.

The main thing is to not become sick of your topic. In order to do this, you may write random, “floaty” paragraphs that you save in a separate document, you might bounce between chapters, etc. That’s fine. Drafts are ugly creatures. Your advisor will know this too if you send ugly drafts (at least, he/she should know if he/she has published a book!). But every now and then, remind yourself why you picked this topic, look at those lists, and make sure you keep re-sparking the enthusiasm in the later months of your project.

Another important thing is to remind yourself that you are a SCHOLAR in this case. This is something with which I fought long and hard. This is not a research paper, and although you do not need to contribute something new to the field as you would with a dissertation, you need to take control of your claims. You do not need to contend with critics to proveĀ  a point that is your own. In my case, I have over 50 sources–I’m not going to be able to mention all of them. Don’t let the critics clutter your prose. If you feel compelled to mention someone who has a point tangential to your own, mention it in a footnote. You don’t need someone else to back up what you say as long as you can prove it yourself. (Thanks to my advisor for reminding me of this!)

Lastly, consider writing your introduction last, especially if it’s functioning as a conclusion-type thing. You want to fully grasp what your argument will truly be before laying out the landscape that will come before said argument.

The Balancing Act

Now that you’ve done some writing, you will be submitting your work to advisors who will give you advice. You may agree with some advice, you may disagree; you may have two advisors fighting with one another over their opinions, and you may have two that work so happily together that they don’t give you any differing views. Remember, this is YOUR project and while your advisors certainly have experience, they will not see your thesis the same way you do. They may miss the nuances that you want. My advisor wanted me to change my entire chapter order. However, that’s not how I wanted to explicate my argument and thus I have not (as of yet anyway) changed the order. There is a delicate balance you need to maintain to keep everyone happy, but make sure you are one of those happy people.

Final Thoughts

Writing a thesis is no easy task, and I hope this post will be able to help at least some of you. These ideas and methodologies may not be applicable to all forms of study, but there should be some things from which everyone can glean. Good luck!

Posted in Academic Advice.

4 Comments

  1. 1. What are your thoughts on an English Master’s Program that allows you to take a Comprehensive Exam instead of writing a Master’s Thesis? (Students with at least a 3.75 GPA can elect to undertake a Thesis.)

    2 Do you think I should I elect to undertake a Thesis? (I.e., for purposes of it being a better educational experience and also “looking better” to prospective employers and the like? Or, in your opinion, will they be unaware that and/or unconcerned with my writing one in the first place?)

    Thanks!

    Donna

    • Great questions. The structure you’re proposing is similar to how my MA program was structured. There are, however, some things to consider when deciding a thesis vs exam.

      1) You state “prospective employers,” but you do not mention your intended field. If you are planning on educational fields (particularly English), you may be asked to produce a writing sample. You should consider what your current writing samples look like, and if–for your field–you would need an extended form of analytical argument as a writing sample. Since my plan was to start a PhD in English literature after my MA, it was smart to do a full-length thesis. This way, I was able to start research that turned into my dissertation proposal, I got a sense of what it’s like to spend a span of time on one project (I took eight months), and I was able to pick and choose chapters of my thesis as samples to PhD programs. I’m not sure how much writing you plan on doing in your life, so it’s difficult to say exactly without more information.

      2) If the thesis is considered an “honor’s option,” you can put that in your resume/CV and it should be on either your diploma or transcript. THAT part could be beneficial to any prospective employer.

      3) In terms of personal preference, it depends if you’re a “breadth” or “depth” person. A comprehensive exam means you need to know “trivia knowledge” of everything, whereas a thesis means you learn every nuance of one subject. If you find yourself to be a bit more of a generalist, an exam may be better for you.

      4) Consider how you are as a test-taker. I hate tests. I start shaking (especially if it’s a high-stakes exam like the GRE) and panicking. If this is you, a thesis you can do on your own time and in your own way. Yet this also means that you need to be proactive enough and self-sufficient enough to create deadlines for yourself, meet those deadlines, and create an overall schedule. A thesis isn’t like a 20 page research paper. You generally need to do some research before you propose your thesis topic, which then leads to more research, creating chapters that are separate (but unified) arguments, sometimes creating a research methodology, writing the chapters, getting your adviser’s commentary on the chapters, revising the chapters, and defending the thesis.

      5) If you have an idea of what you’d want to write–does the program have a good potential thesis adviser for you? This is crucial to producing a strong thesis.

      I think comps have their merits, but–much like anything in life–has its downfalls. For ME, a thesis felt right and when I turned in the 62 page paper, I felt amazingly proud. When I defended it, I was shocked with how much I actually knew. The thesis can be so intrinsically rewarding, but it’s certainly a lot of work. If you’re considering a field where you do not need to submit a writing sample, and if you do not get the benefit of honors for the thesis, then I would be more apt to consider the exam.

      My particular school allowed a short, comprehensive paper (approx. 20 pp) for students who were not planning on pursuing academia as a career (publishers, etc.). The full-length thesis was only recommended for those who wanted to teach at community colleges or pursue a PhD. In some ways, I feel it belittles the significance of an MA, but in other ways I don’t want my work belittled by students who just “vomit” 60 pages of nonsense to complete the MA. I feel similarly about comprehensive exams–are you really then becoming a “master” in something? It’s hard to say.

      Nonetheless, I hope this response helped you in some way, and please feel free to let me know if you have any more questions.

  2. Thank you so much.

    I don’t think I could’ve gotten this much information from the Chair of the English Department. You’ve helped me immensely!

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