The Thesis

The M.A. thesis, at its best, is a work of probing intellectual inquiry, sharp argumentation, and broad scholarly engagement. Although the project tends to dominate the second half of one´s time in our program, students should begin canvassing for possible topics during their first semester: What writer or writers might you be interested in? What literary movements? What theoretical concerns or frameworks? Eras? American? British? Canadian? Transnational? Postcolonial? It´s a big, wide, exciting world, and you need to consider your options and interests. You´ll also need to consider the strengths of the department: what sorts of topics, realistically, can you pursue while you are in our program?

The two options:

M.A. students have two options for completing the thesis requirement: the traditional thesis option and the portfolio option.

  1. The traditional thesis option is often segmented (e.g., two chapters plus an introduction and short conclusion, one chapter with discrete subheadings and sections, etc.), allowing the writer to explore different but related facets of one overarching central argument. Oftentimes, such an approach will find the writer using separate chapters to focus on different major works by the author(s) under consideration, or on different angles of approach to a single major work. For example, one might be interested in assessing the role of memory in Virginia Woolf´s fiction, devoting one chapter to its appearance in To the Lighthouse and another to The Waves; alternatively, the entire thesis may stay rooted in a single work, such as an investigation of Joyce´s Ulysses that devotes one chapter to exploring the discourses of national identity in the novel, and another to the negotiations of individual identity within the collective. The requirements of the argument and the depth of the secondary sources will dictate the length of the final document, but nevertheless the traditional thesis should result in at least 50 pages of writing, with the more typical and expected outcome being in the range of 60-80 pages.
  2. The portfolio option includes two components, written and oral.
    • Written component:
      • The portfolio consists of three revised papers, originally written for graduate course work. Each of the three papers should amount to approximately fifteen to twenty double-spaced pages (including endnotes and bibliography).
      • The portfolio requires a preliminary prospectus (approximately 5 double-spaced pages) that describes the necessary and projected revisions, such as (1) expanding the argument; (2) engaging with additional sources; and (3) responding to the feedback of the professor who made the assignment, etc. The introduction is written after the committee-chair's approval of the revised papers. It should amount to approximately 10-12 double-spaced pages.
    • Oral component:
      • This is an exam during which the student responds to committee members' questions concerning the three portfolio papers (and the process of revisions that led to their final form) as well as the introduction. The exam will last approximately one hour.

Process and Timeline (Traditional Thesis option):

Regardless of the option that is chosen, the thesis–writing process is a challenging and daunting one for everyone, but one that usually provides great rewards and satisfaction, ultimately. The sooner students start canvassing for ideas and thinking about their projects – and certainly this should be happening early in the second semester of coursework – the better the chances will be for a methodical and manageable trajectory. Ideally, students will leave themselves well–positioned to do significant research and organizational work (and maybe even some writing) during the summer after their first year of coursework; this is the time, in advance of the resumption of coursework and teaching rigors in the Fall, for reading widely and deeply, for taking careful notes, for beginning to sketch and outline one´s argument.

Having narrowed the topic and begun contemplating a specific question–at–issue and central claim, ideally by the middle or late stages of the Spring semester of the first year, students should also begin talking to professors with whom they might like to work. Sound them out: Does this sound like a promising and workable topic? Who, if it is, might I ask to be on my committee? Who seems like the natural Chair? By the end of the semester, you´ll need to have worked through this process and reached some important decisions: My topic is X! My Chair is Y! Now you´re committed, and it´s really time to get to work. You may even, at this point, select your second committee member – or you could wait until the Fall of the second year.

By the time the Fall semester begins during your second year, you are really embarked and will feel the headlong rush of time, especially if, as we hope, you aim to complete the degree by the Spring or summer of your second year. Based on an oral defense date of May 15, here is a sample timeline for your thesis work in the second year:

November 25: complete a full draft of your first chapter and submit to your Chair. Depending on the advice of your Chair and the desires of your other committee members, you may also choose to make copies for your second and/or third readers, as well. Begin working on your second chapter (or perhaps even your introduction, which many writers find easier to write after they´ve written some or all of the body of the thesis).

February 10: complete a full draft of your second chapter and submit to your Chair (and, again, possibly to your full committee). While you wait for this material to be returned to you, consider carefully the comments you received on your first chapter and work hard on the revision to this chapter (as well as the introduction) in the next two to three weeks.

March 15: perhaps just before Spring Break, submit a revised copy of your entire thesis to your chair and your other committee members. This will allow at least three to four weeks for your committee to get back to you with comments and suggestions, and thus still allow you up to a couple weeks to make further revisions in advance of the next benchmark/deadline.

April 20: turn over a revised copy of your thesis to your Chair (and your committee) for final review. They will use the remaining week(s) to make sure that the argument and the overall document are indeed ready to be declared "defendable."

May 3: a full, properly formatted copy of the thesis must be submitted to the Graduate School (in .pdf format) by the Chair. This submission, which must take place at least one work before the defense date, indicates that the document has been deemed by the Chair and committee as being worthy of an oral defense. Check your email frequently during the intervening week in case the Graduate School writes to say that some fixes need to be made to the document´s formatting.

May 10: oral defense. A 90–minute session in which, after a 10–15 minute set of remarks offered by the candidate, the committee members (and, eventually, perhaps other attendees like other graduate students, faculty, and/or friends) will ask questions of the candidate. When this process ends (and it invariably becomes a future–oriented conversation with an eye towards subsequent iterations of the thesis inquiry), the candidate will be asked to leave the room, at which point the committee will discuss whether the candidate has passed and whether the document needs any additional revisions before being sent along to the Graduate School.

Mid–June (check Graduate School´s website for precise date): final archivable version of your thesis is submitted as a .pdf file by your Chair to the Graduate School. You´re done! 

Process and Timeline (Portfolio option):

  1. The student requests a faculty member to direct his/her portfolio. This faculty member serves as the chair of the committee and should be someone with whom the student has already worked.
  2. In consultation with the Chair, the student chooses three papers to be included in the portfolio and two additional faculty members to serve as readers and examiners on the committee. Ideally, one of the selected papers will have been written in coursework for the Chair. In addition, in the best scenario, the other two committee members will likewise be those for whom the two remaining papers to be included in the portfolio were originally written. A fourth committee member outside the Department will be added for the oral defense as per Graduate School policy.
  3. The student asks the two chosen faculty members to serve on the committee. At this time, the student explains that he/she is including in the portfolio a revised version of the paper he/she wrote for that professor. The committee should be in place by the end of the semester before the students begins work on the portfolio.
  4. The student enrolls in 3 thesis credits with Chair of committee for the Master’s Portfolio Project.
  5. The student meets with the committee chair to discuss the revision plans for the entries. The revision plan for each entry is based on its initial reader’s critical commentary. During this meeting, the student will, in consultation with the committee chair, determine the following deadlines: date of submission of each individual paper (in its final version) to its assigned reader; date of submission of the examinable portfolio to all committee members (the Chair must have approved the final versions of the three papers before the portfolio is delivered to the other committee members); date for oral exam.
  6. The student revises each paper in accordance with its corresponding reader’s critical commentary. (If the reader in question has not supplied the student with ample critical commentary, that professor needs to be consulted by the student and requested to do so.) The student meets with each committee member however many times it proves necessary for each given paper’s successful revision. The student will need to make sure that faculty members on the portfolio committee have at least two weeks to read and comment on each new version.
  7. After each paper has been approved by its assigned reader for successful inclusion in the portfolio, the student meets with the chair who then evaluates the portfolio as a whole. When the written component is approved, the oral exam is scheduled.
  8. After the chair deems the portfolio examinable, the student writes his or her introduction to the portfolio. The introduction explains why each paper was chosen for portfolio-inclusion, how each paper was revised, and what was learned in the process of revising. The introduction should also consider the portfolio as a whole. In other words, do the papers connect or differ in terms of methodology? How do their ambitions compare? (Note: The committee members, including the chair, need not have read the introduction before the portfolio is submitted. This should be the one element of the written component to the portfolio that is fresh and that has not been subjected to prior review.)
  9. The introduction and portfolio completed, a copy is given to each committee member. The portfolio defense should be scheduled at least a week after all faculty members have received the final version.
  10. The student sits his/her oral exam by beginning with an introduction (a recapitulation of the written introduction, with further reflections) and then fields questions from committee members.
  11. The exam results sheet is signed by the committee and the Graduate Director who then submits this report to the Graduate School.
  12. The student submits a copy of the portfolio (spiral-bound or enclosed in binder) including any changes or revisions suggested by the committee to the Graduate Director.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Independent studies can provide a valuable (and practical) venue for rehearsing and researching potential thesis material. Know only that a faculty member´s willingness to sign on to an independent study can depend on a range of variable factors, most especially his or her workload in any given semester; an independent study is often easier to accommodate when the subject matter runs parallel to some extent with that faculty member´s teaching assignments for that semester.
  • This will vary depending on the faculty member and his/her workload at the time of chapter submissions, but expect that your Chair and/or other committee members will need 2–4 weeks to read and respond thoroughly to a full thesis chapter. Keep this in mind, especially, as you enter your final semester and start to feel motivated by target dates for a defense and completion of your project.
  • Assessing the advice of both your Chair and your second and outside readers, you will decide how you plan to rely on the full committee in terms of reading and commenting on the various stages of your writing. In some cases, only the Chair will read and comment on the early drafts of your material, with the balance of the committee not wanting the document until it´s in its essentially finished state a month (or so) before the defense; in other (probably more ideal) cases, one or more of your additional committee members will read and provide comments/suggestions on your writing as you proceed during the year.