Master's thesis

Most students find that the thesis takes longer to complete than they first estimate. The best advice we can offer is to plan your work carefully and not to delay starting your thesis.

If you follow the Thesis Completion Timeline below you are much more likely to finish in the time expected. Note that there is some time between your thesis submission and the defence (the External Examiner is allowed 20 business days to read the thesis).

Timeline

MA Timeline for One-Year Completion

September: Individual consultation with Graduate Advisor

October: Develop a preliminary thesis and a working plan

November: Working plan and thesis committee in place

December: submit 5-page thesis proposal to your supervisor

January: complete background research

February: expand your thesis proposal

March - April: develop your analysis

May - June: preparing the final draft

July: revise final draft and prepare for defense

August: defense

November: convocation!


Preliminary thesis proposal and work plan:

Your preliminary thesis proposal (3-5 pages) explains the problem you want to investigate and sets out the methods you will be using in the investigation. If possible, present a hypothesis: i.e., explain what your investigation is likely to reveal given what you know now. You may be trying to prove that something is true or you may simply be trying to explore a puzzling phenomenon and describe it in its full complexity.

The hypothesis or idea with which you start is just a preliminary formulation that helps you get oriented toward your work, and enables you to sort through what you have to do to complete the project successfully. You should be developing your preliminary thesis proposal in consultation with your supervisor.

Develop a work plan with your supervisor (for example: thesis proposal by January 15; first chapter by February 15; second chapter by March 15; remaining chapters by June 15; thesis defence in August). Remember, you also need to have a thesis committee, and you need to allow the committee four weeks to read your final manuscript before you can defend it!

Thesis proposal:

Submit your 5-page thesis proposal and time-line to your supervisor and then to the Graduate Advisor. Give a copy to the graduate secretary for your student file.

Background research

Having worked out what you need to read in order to understand the problem you are investigating, you will need to begin collecting material, scanning it, and identifying what you will have to read more closely. Figuring out what you don't have to read is extremely important. You must be selective, and focus on the crucial material. At this time of the year, you will be trying to finish papers for your courses and to do marking in your relation to your TA assignment, if you have one.

If you are astute, you will have chosen essay topics for your courses that will give you reason to read some of things that you need to read for your thesis. You should also have an opportunity to work out some thesis-related ideas when you write your course papers. However busy you are, you must remember that your thesis counts for six courses, and that you should be working on it constantly. Before you begin reading or writing anything, ask yourself how the work might contribute to your thesis.

Expand thesis proposal:

See the Graduate Studies website for other thesis resources to help prepare your thesis, including the thesis checklist and thesis formatting guidelines.

By this point, you should be ready to move from a 5 page preliminary proposal to a 25-30 page paper that explains your problem in more detail, sets out relevant analytic perspectives on the problem, and indicates how you propose to get at the truth (or at least get a bit closer to the truth) about the matter at hand. The detailed proposal should be written in such a way that you can incorporate a sizeable chunk of it into the final version of your thesis.

If you find yourself writing a proposal that encompasses six or seven chapters, this is a sign that you have not yet crystallized what you are doing. A chapter is likely to consist of a short introduction, two or three sections of substantive material, and a concluding/transitional section. A typical chapter is likely to be in the 25-30 page range. At most, you can write three such chapters, preceded by a short introduction and followed by a brief conclusion.

In fact, if you write an introductory chapter explaining your problem, reviewing the relevant literature, and showing how you are planning to proceed, you will probably need 15-30 pages for that purpose. If you write two more chapters of 25 pages, you will already have 65-90 pages. We want less than 100 pages in total, so you may have to bring your thesis to a conclusion after you have written just a couple of solid chapters. You are likely to be trying to show that "this" rather than "that" is the more adequate account of the matter at hand. You will be using a foil: an account or set of accounts that seem plausible, but are not quite adequate.

In one main chapter, you may be showing why the extant accounts are incorrect. In the next, you may be setting out what you think is the more adequate account. Or, in one chapter you may be reviewing the facts, and in the next sifting through the various possible analyses of those facts. Or, you may be considering one theorist or mode of analysis in chapter A and a different theorist or mode of analysis in chapter B. Or, perhaps, one dimension of a thinker's work in this chapter and another in the next.

Whatever: think in twos and threes, not sixes and sevens when you come to conceptualize your project. If you were to deal with six or seven main things properly, you would have to write a very substantial book.

If you plan to do field work, you will almost certainly have to put your proposal before the University's Ethics Review Committee. You will need to allow a couple of months for this process of ethical review, so you won't be able to start your field research until mid-April or later. Keep that in mind when you develop your thesis proposal. You may decide to abandon the field research component simply because it is too difficult to do the field research in the time you have available.

Develop analysis:

Your proposal will set out an analytic plan for your thesis, which will tell your supervisory committee what issues you will be addressing and in which order. Try to keep to the plan. You may need to reorganize your material after you have finished writing your first draft. You may sense before you are finished that a major reorganization is necessary. (If you get to that point, you should talk to your supervisor.)

Nevertheless, it usually makes sense to continue with the original plan until you get the first draft done. Don't worry at this stage about whether it all fits together. You need to be generating material on the various issues you said you were going to address. Start with the ones that you understand best, and about which you can write most easily. (This may mean that you start writing in the middle of Chapter Two rather than the beginning of Chapter One.)

Above all, start writing. Don't leave the writing until you have done all your research. Draft material as you go along. You may end up discarding a good deal of what you have drafted, but the drafting helps you sort out your analysis. If you have your proposal (which serves as your draft introductory chapter) and about half the body of the thesis written by mid-April, you will be in good shape.

Final draft:

This is the crunch period. You should have all your course work out of the way by mid-April. This gives you two months to focus entirely on your thesis. You ought to have been revising your work plan constantly to take account of your accomplishments (which may well be more modest than you had hoped). You need to be very strict with yourself at this point. You have to push yourself to keep to your plan, and keep churning out more and more of your analysis. You may hate your thesis by this point. That is normal. You have to treat it as a job to do. Set yourself strict deadlines. Write out your analysis even if you know it is highly imperfect.

Keep pushing yourself until you have a manuscript that is more-or-less complete and that more-or-less makes sense. Your supervisor should be giving you comments and advice on bits and pieces of your work as you go along. This will help you to keep on track and to get through the inevitable crises that come when you think, "I don't know what to say." Your aim is to have a manuscript that your supervisor thinks is more or less OK by mid-June. That's the sort of manuscript on which the other members of your committee will be able to comment in detail.

Revision:

This is the point at which your draft thesis will be in circulation among the members of your supervisory committee. You will be receiving comments back from them. Your supervisor will be helping you to work out what to do with the various comments.

You have to focus on the essential revisions. You will probably have ideas of your own about how to revise the thesis in order to make it stronger. You may find yourself doing a great deal of re-writing at this stage. The ultimate thesis may be quite different in its argument and even in its focus from the one you set out in February. (For instance, you may decide that your original analysis of the problem was mistaken, and that a theory that you had initially discarded is actually the correct one. You may have turned up facts that you did not anticipate finding. You may decide that what you were trying to show originally is just too difficult to demonstrate, and that your evidence and argumentation can only sustain a more modest claim. You may need to prune tangential arguments. Fair enough. That's what happens when you do research and develop a fuller understanding of the matter you are investigating.)

The draft you have in mid-June should reflect this shift, but you are likely to find that you have cobbled things together in a way that is not entirely satisfying to you or anyone else. So, be prepared to re-write your introduction, cut out sections that now seem redundant, and add material that you didn't think was necessary for your analysis. If you have a complete draft and are getting pertinent comments from your committee members, you are likely to find that you can make extensive revisions very quickly. The writing will flow, because you finally understand what it is you have to say. You will be working very intensely at this point, but the work is likely to be quite satisfying, since things will fall into place in ways that you could only hope to happen a month or two before.

Submit your thesis to your supervisor and submit the Application to Graduate Form (deadline is July 15 for November convocation and February 15 for June convocation).

Prepare for defense:

When the members of your supervisory committee are satisfied that you have a defensible thesis, they will sign a Request for Oral Examination. Grad Studies needs a month to organize the exam and to arrange for a Chair for the Oral.

At least 20 working days prior to the oral exam give a copy of your signed request form and a copy of your draft thesis to the graduate secretary, submit the original form to Graduate Studies with a copy of your thesis. Your supervisor will select an External Examiner who has not been involved in the supervision of your thesis. Your committee members may sign off on your thesis at a time when you are still doing some final revisions; however, you will need to have the examination copy of your thesis ready for the External Examiner when the Request for Oral Examination form has been submitted. Once a copy of your thesis goes to the External Examiner, then you cannot make further changes before the defense.

Oral defense:

With your supervisor, plan a date in August for the oral examination when all the members of your committee will be available. The defense will last about 2 hours. You will make a 15 minute presentation in which you summarize your thesis, offer any thoughts that might help to contextualize it, and comment on related lines of research that could be taken up at another stage. This is also an opportunity to explain why you did not do something that you originally intended to do.

There will be a first round of questioning in which each of the examiners, starting with the External Examiner and ending with your principal supervisor, asks questions about your thesis and pushes you to elaborate on your ideas or defend them against possible criticisms. Expect 15-20 minutes of questions from each examiner. There will be a second, much briefer round of follow-up questions. You will then be asked to leave the room while your examiners deliberate on the result.

Expect to be asked to do some revisions after the examination. You yourself may have noticed a few things you want to change. If you're lucky, the changes will all be "editorial": very minor revisions to correct grammatical errors, clarify particular statements, etc. You may be asked to do more substantial revisions (minor or major), but if so you will be given very specific directions about what you have to do. Only when these revisions are done to the satisfaction of the examiners will you get your degree.

November: graduation

The University has two graduation dates: one in June and the other in November. You are aiming for November. Good luck.

Expectations

The first thing you should do is to moderate your own expectations. A thesis is an academic exercise and that it is designed to teach you things that you cannot easily learn in any other way. Normally, you are not writing for publication -- although an exceptionally good Master's thesis may provide the basis for an academic article or short book, as some UVic Political Science students have achieved in recent years.

A thesis is your own project. In the end, you have to design it and execute it yourself. You will likely be writing something longer and more complicated than anything you have previously attempted; you will learn to work with and organize your material in the way that an academic researcher would. Don't make the process harder by setting yourself the task of re-writing the discipline or solving the most difficult political problems of the age. It's enough for now to master the process of academic research and writing.

Most Master's theses are between 75 and 100 pages long; we set a limit of around 100 pages and you will be asked to shorten it if it exceeds this maximum. The Department and the library keep copies of all Master's theses that have been completed here. It is worth looking at a few to get a sense of what is considered to be acceptable work. Copies can be accessed electronically in the Library.

Many people who have strong undergraduate records have trouble accepting that a good Master's thesis cannot be written in one draft, and it cannot contain everything that a student writes on the topic addressed. You have to give yourself time to summarize literature that you need to understand, to work out various ideas on paper, to try different lines of approach to your subject, and generally to experiment with what you want to say. This means that you will be writing three or four times as much as you will ultimately use.

What is more, you will certainly discover near the end of the process that there are matters which demand consideration in your thesis that you did contemplate writing about in the first place.

You are not likely to be as a concise as a more experienced academic, so that your thesis will actually be something smaller than what is contained in the average academic article. You lack the experience to do more than a little bit in your Master's thesis. The point is to do that little bit as well as you can, and to learn what you need to know, in order to do more serious research and writing in the future.

The latter might consist of a doctoral dissertation, a policy report, or a long piece of investigative journalism. Whatever you are going to do next, you need to hone your research and writing skills, and that is what you will learn as you write an MA thesis.

Scheduling your work

Each new student is assigned a supervisor or in some cases two supervisors. Please speak with your assigned supervisor(s) about your interests and your program. Furthermore, you should make an effort early in your first term to talk to all the professors who seem to share some of your academic interests. Get a sense of what faculty members in the department can offer.

You will have entered the program with some ideas about what you might do in the way of thesis research. Talk these ideas over with your assigned supervisor, and get their suggestions about the way that your proposed topic(s) might be formulated as a manageable thesis project.

Be prepared for advice to the effect that you will have to leave out much of what is of interest to you in the proposed topic, if you are ever to finish your thesis. Also be prepared to think about other possible topics that may be closer to your prospective advisor's current interests or that may be more feasible at UVic. (This is a provincial capital, and some forms of primary research are easier to do here than elsewhere. Research that would require you to consult the National Archives in Ottawa or to go to Hong Kong for field-work is probably not practical.)

Once your ideas have begun to crystallize, write out a two to three page proposal, and show it to a prospective supervisor. The process of summarizing your own thoughts will help you to get clear about what you are proposing to do, and it will give the professor concerned the means for advising you on the next step.

Ideally, you should have settled on a proto-topic with your supervisor by mid-October. You should have an approved thesis proposal by December 15. Please have your supervisor approve your thesis topic and give a copy of it to the Graduate Advisor who will place a copy in your file.

You will need to do a good deal of background reading to prepare yourself for your thesis research. Often, you can do this reading under your supervisor's guidance, write some preliminary papers, and get credit for the work as a Directed Readings course.

If you do the proposal and necessary background work during the fall term, you will be in a position to begin your actual thesis writing when classes start in January. Six months work from then is enough to bring your thesis to a successful conclusion.

Finishing on time

Remember that a Master's program is designed for full-time students. If you are going to finish in 12 months, you will certainly have put in many hours throughout this period and work concentrated towards the end goal.

Remember to start working on your thesis sooner rather than later, and to stay in regular contact with your supervisor!