Should MA Students Write Theses?


Sherri Irvin (University of Oklahoma) writes in asking what PhD admissions committees think about master’s theses. Her query is below. Please share your thoughts.


Our MA program at the University of Oklahoma is increasingly serving as a stepping stone for students who are trying to get into PhD programs (our own and others), especially now that we have started to offer some funded MA slots. We are divided about something: should we advise these students to complete master’s theses? In our program, students have a choice between taking 12 courses plus a comprehensive exam, and taking 9 or 10 courses plus writing a thesis.

Some of us tend to recommend against writing a thesis on the following grounds:
(1) The thesis is too long to serve as a writing sample for PhD applications.
(2) The thesis is completed at the end of the program, so the writing sample that could be extracted from it is not ready in time for applications (unless the student wishes to take a gap year after the MA).
(3) Students who do the exam option complete the program in 4 semesters (if studying full time), but students who do the thesis option often take longer even though they take fewer courses.
(4) Students who do the exam option take more courses, and thus tend to get somewhat broader training.

Those of us who tend to recommend writing a thesis do so on the grounds that pursuit of a sustained research and writing project can only leave one better prepared for the main work one will do in a PhD program.

Our question is this: do PhD admissions committees tend to look more favorably on MA students who have written (or are writing) a thesis than on MA students who are doing a non-thesis program?

Thanks for your help!

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Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
7 years ago

I made the jump from no-name liberal arts school to MA program to top PhD school. At the MA program I was in, we were regularly advised not to take a thesis option (in fact, no one who was there when I was did) and instead to focus all of our energy on the writing sample and PhD applications. I believe that was good advice. As an MA student whose goal it was to get a PhD and ultimately a job, I needed my main focus to be on getting to the next level, and thus needed to devote my time and energy to polishing a writing sample. A thesis would not only have not helped my application, it would have diverted needed time and energy away from it. There’s plenty of time to learn how to carry on sustained research while studying at the doctoral level.Report

Matt DeStefano
7 years ago

As another grad student in roughly the same situation as the grad student above (going from unknown state BA to a good PhD program), I want to register a bit of disagreement.

While you do have plenty of time to learn to carry on research projects at the doctoral level, doing a thesis allowed me to develop my research skills under the close supervision of my thesis advisor and the others on my committee. Since my advisor and others on my committee were my letter writers, it was undoubtedly helpful to get feedback on developing these types of skills – and possibly allowed them to write stronger letters. It also gave me some (small) insight about what it will be like to write a dissertation.

Of course, the relative merits of writing a thesis would have to be weighed against how search committees think about them, which I’ll be interested to hear.Report

William Blattner
7 years ago

I’ve been involved in one way or another in graduate admissions at Georgetown for many years. I think I can say with some confidence that whether an MA student has written master’s thesis is not salient in our considerations. Aside from the quality of the MA program, we look to the range of courses a student takes in the program, incl. whether they prepare him or her for his or her chosen field of study. The biggest factor in admissions is always the writing sample the applicant submits. Sometimes the samples submitted by MA students are drawn from their theses, if they’ve done one, but rarely are they the theses. MA theses are typically in the 50–100 page range, which is too long for a writing sample. So, I would say that an MA program should make a decision on whether to have a thesis requirement based on the inherent pedagogical virtues of the exercise, rather than on the role it would play in admissions to PhD programs.Report

Mark Wrathall
7 years ago

I’d second Bill Blattner’s comments. I’ve directed graduate admissions at UCR for a number of years (although I’m on sabbatical leave at the moment). I can’t remember a single instance in which the admissions committee even noticed, let alone discussed and considered, whether an applicant had completed an MA thesis. I think it’s irrelevant to the admissions decision. I would be interested to learn, however, whether students who have completed an MA thesis end up performing better in a Ph.D. program than those who have not. If there was some basis for thinking so, we might start paying attention to it in the admissions process. Anecdotally, I have seen at least one case where a student started our program before completing the thesis in the previous terminal MA program. This proved a significant distraction, and made it harder to get off to a good start in the doctoral program. But beyond that, I have no sense of the relative merits of the thesis versus exam options.Report

Peter Lewis
Peter Lewis
7 years ago

I’d prioritize coursework over a thesis for PhD admissions. At U. Miami we see the role of an MA program as broadening a student’s coursework — especially where the student doesn’t have much background at the undergrad level. What’s more, MA coursework can count towards our distribution requirements and shorten the coursework component of the PhD. So more coursework is good. A thesis might be good for generating a writing sample, I suppose, but (as Sherri says) a thesis is generally (a) too long and (b) too late for January applications.Report

jrnagel
jrnagel
7 years ago

Here at the University of Toronto we also focus on the writing sample, and I agree with the others who have spoken up so far that the MA thesis isn’t a good tool for that job. Also, hurray for coursework.Report

Ted Sider
Ted Sider
7 years ago

My sense is similar to what has been expressed: the MA thesis is irrelevant.Report

Brian Weatherson
7 years ago

I agree with the consensus here. Applications are filed over Christmas – before the thesis would be written. I can’t remember even thinking about whether someone’s plan for the Winter/Fall semester was to do 3 more courses or to write a thesis, so in that sense it is basically irrelevant to PhD applications.

There is one thing I’d say in favor of a thesis-like option though. Term papers make terrible writing samples. A writing sample with 2 or 3 citations, especially if those are the obvious readings for a course on that subject, is not going to help a candidate. Even if there are 6 or 8 citations, again if they are the obvious ones, it isn’t great. Something that feels a bit like self-directed research (like a senior thesis at undergrad level) is, I think, much better.

So maybe there’s a third option for the MA – insist on 1 or 2 of the courses, in either the 2nd or 3rd semester out of 4, be some kind of independent study leading to a substantive (25 pages or so) paper, that engages heavily with both the classical works on the relevant question and the contemporary literature. That will get most of the benefits of a thesis, and will generate a better writing sample – which seemed to be the main instrumental value of a thesis.Report

Nick
7 years ago

I greatly appreciated the unique opportunities afforded by the MA thesis: excuses to (a) do experimental research [that I might never have done otherwise], (b) research in certain areas of philosophy that were not well-represented in my department, (c) correspond with academics from other departments and institutions, (d) receive feedback from multiple committee members, (e) attempt to defend my work publicly, and (f) compose, in retrospect, a list of “things to not do” when working on a dissertation/paper in the future. So, the MA thesis not only gave me a much better idea of whether and how I would want to do a PhD, it broadened my academic perspective dramatically.

I wonder if any of those who’ve commented on their admissions experience did an MA thesis. If they haven’t I wonder if those who have completed MA theses would answer differently.Report

Jonathan Schaffer
Jonathan Schaffer
7 years ago

I second (third? fourth?) all those saying that the MA thesis is irrelevant vis-a-vis admission to PhD programs.

Let me just add: Sherri also mentioned (without endorsing) an argument in favor of the MA thesis, namely “that pursuit of a sustained research and writing project can only leave one better prepared for the main work one will do in a PhD program.” I disagree with this argument. No doubt students can learn something from the MA thesis, but one has to compare the thesis option to what the students would do instead. If the alternative is more coursework with seminar papers, I would say that the alternative leaves one even better prepared for the main work one will do in a PhD program, since coursework with seminar papers is precisely the main work one will do in a PhD program. Indeed at many PhD programs now the thesis itself can just be a collection of several distinct papers, in which case an MA thesis will be especially unhelpful as a form of training, when compared to the alternative of more coursework with seminar papers.Report

Philip Kremer
7 years ago

In my experience doing grad admissions, whether an MA student has written or is writing an MA thesis is pretty much irrelevant to PhD admissions. (I directed grad admissions at Toronto for three years, and was a committee member a couple of other times.)Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

I did an MA with a thesis option and successfully applied for PhDs during the thesis year. I agree with the posters above, but would make an exception for fully-funded MA programs, which are more common outside the United States. In the case of a fully-funded MA, I think a thesis option can, instrumentally, be a very good thing. MAs with a thesis option are typically two years long, with the second year devoted to writing and defending the thesis. So rather than doing a one-year coursework MA and then applying next season, possibly while having to work outside the academy, the student can instead apply during their second year of studies while still receiving full financial support. And writing a thesis affords you a lot of flexibility with allocating your workload — if you spend most of the first semester applying, you can theoretically pick up the slack in the second semester once the applications are in. At least in my program, the teaching/grading duties that went with my stipend weren’t an overly burdensome commitment. So in cases where MA students are funded to the extent that their cost of living is fully covered, then thesis can be better for them to do than the alternative.Report

JG
JG
7 years ago

Former MA student here, now at a Leiter top 20. I can’t comment on search committees, but in my experience there’s a kind of practical dilemma here: writing a thesis will make you a better philosophy grad student, but at the expense of making you a worse applicant.

I wrote a thesis (and indeed, a thesis on a topic outside of my AoS), and I think it was good for lots of reasons: developing professional skills and habits, learning an area in detail, showing I could do good work in multiple areas. I felt much more prepared for grad school that many of my peers, and was able to spend the time they spent learning how to develop a project, do research, etc., submitting papers to conferences and journals. I would attribute much of this difference to writing a thesis rather than taking MA courses, though of course any MA experience probably contributes somewhat.

For what its worth, I was advised against doing a thesis for the reasons the Sherri mentions. I tried to ameliorate them by writing the thesis over the summer and into the fall of my second year. This plan basically worked, and so I was able to submit a truncated version of my thesis as my writing sample. I was then able to just take regular courses during the spring while I was worrying about visits and waitlists and whatnot. If you can make this timeline work, then you can get many of the benefits of writing a thesis without incurring the costs of (2), (3), and (4) above. Save time for editing and you’ve got (1) covered as well.Report

JT
JT
7 years ago

At my MA (I’m now in the first year of my PhD studies), one could do a thesis that consisted of a literature review + article. FWIW, I really enjoyed it and felt that I got both a good writing sample, and valuable experience designing and pursuing a larger, dissertation-like project out of it. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether I would’ve been better off either as an aspiring philosopher or as a PhD applicant if I had done more course work instead.Report

Alan White
Alan White
7 years ago

Whether a thesis or non-thesis option for the MA, if one goes that route seems to me that the stress must be on producing at least one peer-review-quality (even if short) publishable or actually published work. Those in PhD-only programs have certainly got that message. But this isn’t the case for just PhD-bound philosophers in an MA program but even those seeking community-college jobs with only an MA in hand. Way back when philososaurs roamed the earth, the only reason I got an interview was because my MA thesis produced a publication, and I must think that is only more true now.Report

Marc Moffett
Marc Moffett
7 years ago

There is something a false dilemma in the claim that writing an M.A. thesis comes at the cost of working on a solid writing sample. I almost always have my students write a thesis — focusing on their writing sample during the summer and the first semester of their second year. The writing sample then forms the core material for their thesis. The reason I take this approach is that it frees up time for students to work on their writing sample in the first semester, which is really the single most important period. Their final semester is then aimed at helping them hone their skills as they prepare for a PhD program by really getting into the details of their thesis.Report

Andrew T.
Andrew T.
5 years ago

I was actually able to knock out the first two courses of my MA over the Summer Term, which allowed me to finish the degree half a year early. As it happened, Yale’s priority filing for the PhD program was January 15th–this meant I was able to apply with the completed MA *and* tout a thesis. I used a peer-reviewed journal article as my writing sample, and was sure to mention my thesis in the personal statement. I received my BA from a no-name state university, staffed with no-name professors–I’m certain that the MA helped me, and my thesis was directly mentioned in my acceptance letter.Report