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 options for courses of study, or tracks. 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 comprised of coursework. This curricular approach is common in 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 meet graduate students who cannot decide if they want to pursue the thesis or non-thesis track. Here are five questions I ask students in these situations to help them resolve the issue. If you are grappling with the same concerns, they may help guide you as well.

Do you know what a thesis is? (And are you familiar with your department’s expectations for thesis projects?) For some students, a definition and explanation of the process alone is all the information they need to decide. A master’s thesis refers to a master’s student’s research project. Broadly, if you want to complete a master’s thesis, you will have to do three things: 1) conduct a study, 2) write it up and 3) defend it via presentation (thesis defense). You will also need to seek out faculty to advise you throughout the process, like a thesis chair and thesis committee members.

That said, programs and disciplines can vary widely when it comes to thesis requirements. Some departments permit theses that are stand-alone literature reviews or a deep analysis into a theoretical or policy issue, while others do not. When you are considering writing a thesis, you might want to look at theses of your program’s former students, which are often available online through your university’s library. That can help you get a sense of page length, style and content.

You also might want to talk to your fellow students who are writing theses and ask them about their experiences, their process and their timeline. I also suggest seeing if your department or graduate school has a student handbook that discusses thesis projects—there are probably 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 norms and expectations around theses and inform your decision.

Do you want to write a thesis? That may be the most important question of all in this process. After you have familiarized yourself with what a thesis is and how to go about it, how do you feel about completing one? Some students simply feel as though writing a thesis represents an integral part of the master’s experience, so they invest and commit to the project. And that’s OK. I’d also add it’s common for graduate students to have a love-hate relationship with writing research papers or to have varying levels of enthusiasm at different parts of the thesis project. But if the thesis process sounds dreadful to you, and your program provides alternatives, you should probably seek them out.

Can you work independently? Writing a thesis differs from taking a class in that you don’t have the same built-in structure and accountability. For instance, theses aren’t graded, the only meetings will be the ones you schedule and the only real consequence for not doing the work is prolonging your own graduation. Faculty have different mentorship styles, and you will always have to deal with some things outside of your control. But ultimately, you—not your chair or committee—will drive the pace of the project. That includes taking the initiative to rearrange your committee if you have faculty members who go MIA or drag their heels. So consider: Can I motivate myself to do this work? If I need something—feedback on a draft, 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 thing as writing or researching in solitude. One of your needs may be writing with others, including writing in community with fellow graduate students. If that’s the case, you may want to ask yourself: If I need social accountability or support, can I either find it or create it?

Do you want to be a researcher? A thesis requires you to do research and get feedback from experts as you go. If you are interested in working at a research institute or a think tank, a thesis would be a great way to establish your skill set 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 start their careers by publishing their master’s theses. I would also recommend writing a thesis if you are considering pursuing a Ph.D. and/or want to be a university professor. The thesis parallels what you will do for a doctoral dissertation, and the ability to do independent research is a major pillar of academe, if that is your chosen path.

Do you want to collect and analyze data? One of the defining features that separate the thesis from the nonthesis options is collecting and analyzing data. It’s a common misconception that it’s the volume of writing that makes the difference. While that certainly may be the case, extra coursework comes with extra papers, and capstone assignments often involve a heavy degree of writing. But you can likely navigate both without collecting and analyzing data.

Sometimes social science students think that in order to do a thesis, they will have to land a multimillion-dollar grant and survey several thousand people. While an exciting prospect, that’s not actually necessary for a thesis. In my department, thesis data can be quantitative, qualitative or both. We also allow graduate students to use primary data (e.g., a convenience sample of fellow graduate students) or secondary data (e.g., publicly available data sets from government and nonprofit entities). It’s important to think about where your data might come from, and this can make for an important conversation with current or potential thesis committee members. (See also the first question about department norms and expectations.) But if collecting data isn’t of interest to you, a thesis may not be, either.

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

If you are still stuck, I’ll end with a link to this visualization exercise from Kerry Ann Rockquemore at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. The context in the exercise is deciding whether to participate in an upcoming session of the faculty success program. However, as Rockquemore points out, this technique can work well when we are faced with ambivalence over just about any decision.

I hope this advice helps you decide what is best for you.

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