How to determine if you should write a thesis (opinion)

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At my university, we offer a master’s degree in criminology and a criminal justice program with two study course or pathway options. The first track requires students to take a series of courses and complete their studies by writing a master’s thesis. The second track does not require a master’s thesis and is strictly made up of courses. This curricular approach is common in various social science master’s programs – with one track requiring a thesis project and another track requiring alternatives like comprehensive exams, capstone projects, and/or additional coursework.

As such, I often encounter graduate students who cannot decide whether to pursue the thesis or non-thesis path. Here are five questions I ask students in these situations to help them work through the problem. If you are struggling with the same concerns, they can also guide you.

Do you know what a thesis is? (And do you know your department’s expectations for thesis projects?) For some students, a definition and explanation of the process alone is enough to decide. A master’s thesis refers to the research project of a master’s student. Basically, if you want to write a master’s thesis, you will have to do three things: 1) conduct a study, 2) write it, and 3) defend it via a presentation (thesis defense). You will also need to seek out professors to advise you throughout the process, such as a thesis supervisor and members of the thesis committee.

That said, programs and disciplines can vary widely when it comes to thesis requirements. Some departments allow dissertations that are stand-alone literature reviews or in-depth analysis of a theoretical or policy issue, while others do not. When considering writing a thesis, you may want to consult the theses of former students of your program, which are often available online in your university library. This can help you get an idea of ​​the page’s length, style, and content.

You might also want to talk to your fellow dissertation writers and ask them about their experiences, process, and timeline. I also suggest checking to see if your department or graduate school has a student handbook that deals with thesis projects. There are likely important formatting guidelines and deadlines to note, and you can often find that information there. All of this can help you get a sense of your department’s standards and expectations for dissertations and inform your decision.

Do you want to write a thesis? This is perhaps the most important question of all in this process. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with what a thesis is and how to go about it, how about completing one? Some students simply feel that writing a thesis is an integral part of the master’s experience, so they invest and commit to the project. And that’s OK. I would also add that it is common for graduate students to have a love-hate relationship with writing research papers or to have different levels of enthusiasm for different parts of the thesis project. But if the dissertation process seems daunting to you and your program offers alternatives, you should probably seek them out.

Can you work independently? Writing a thesis differs from taking a course in that you don’t have the same built-in structure and responsibility. For example, theses are not graded, the only meetings will be the ones you schedule, and the only real consequence of not getting the job done is extending your own degree. Professors have different styles of mentoring and you will always have to deal with things beyond your control. But ultimately, you, not your chair or committee, will drive the pace of the project. This includes taking the initiative to reorganize your committee if you have faculty members going MIA or dragging their feet. So consider: Can I motivate myself to do this job? If I need something – feedback on a draft, an answer to a question, access to a resource – can I trust myself to seek it out?

Also recognize that working independently is not necessarily the same as writing or researching in solitude. One of your needs may be to write with others, including writing in community with other graduate students. If so, you might want to ask yourself: if I need social responsibility or support, can I find it or create it?

Do you want to be a researcher? A thesis requires you to do research and get expert feedback as you go. If you want to work in a research institute or think tank, a thesis would be a great way to establish your skills and perhaps make you more competitive for such positions. Theses are also great if you want to publish research in an academic journal. In fact, many academics begin their careers by publishing their master’s theses. I would also recommend writing a thesis if you plan to pursue a PhD. and/or wish to become a university professor. The dissertation parallels what you will do for a doctoral dissertation, and the ability to do independent research is a major pillar of academia, if that is your choice.

Do you want to collect and analyze data? One of the defining characteristics that separates thesis from non-thesis options is data collection and analysis. It’s a common misconception that it’s the volume of writing that makes the difference. While this can certainly be the case, additional coursework comes with additional paperwork, and capstone assignments often involve a high degree of writing. But you can probably navigate both without collecting or analyzing data.

Sometimes social science students think that in order to do a thesis, they will have to land a scholarship worth several million dollars and interview several thousand people. Although this is an exciting prospect, it is not really necessary for a thesis. In my department, thesis data can be quantitative, qualitative or both. We also allow graduate students to use primary data (eg, a convenience sample of other graduate students) or secondary data (eg, publicly available datasets from government and non-profit entities). lucrative). It is important to think about where your data comes from, which can lead to an important conversation with current or potential members of the thesis committee. (See also the first question on departmental standards and expectations.) But if you’re not interested in data collection, a thesis might not be either.

If you were my student and you answered yes or even maybe to any of these questions, I encourage you to write a thesis. In fact, writing the thesis might be the only way to really know what the answers to the five questions above are. One of the best ways to determine if you like research is to do it.

If you’re still stuck, I’ll end with a link to this visualization exercise by Kerry Ann Rockquemore at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. The context of the exercise is to decide whether to attend an upcoming session of the Faculty Success Program. However, as Rockquemore points out, this technique can work well when we’re faced with ambivalence over just about any decision.

I hope these tips help you decide which is best for you.

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