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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