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What is a Masters’ Thesis All About?

February 24, 2020 :: Jacob Allison

What does a master’s thesis look like?

A master’s thesis is the culminating work of a student’s master’s degree. This piece of written research is meant to demonstrate a student’s expertise and interest in a particular subject within their field of study. Exact requirements are specific to the program, but a master’s thesis is generally 80-100 pages in length, including an extensive bibliography, and contains several chapters.

The master’s thesis in its most common form is comprised of pre-existing research and data that a master’s student has collated and synthesized into a hypothesis that either challenges an existing argument in the field, or presents a new argument to the scholarly debate. This argument is generally presented in the following format:

1. Introduction

The introduction is meant to convince the reader of the academic value or justification for the research that the thesis presents. This justification is generally achieved by stating a problem in the writer’s particular academic field that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed. For example, and student studying for a master’s in International Relations might write their master’s thesis on the topic of the failure of international cooperation to solve the impending climate change crisis. Once the topic has been introduced, the writer will then discuss what their thesis intends to contribute to the solution of this problem, “the research question.” In this particular example, the research question could be: “Is the lack of enforcement power given to international organizations such as the United Nations an impediment to international cooperation on the issue of climate change?”

2. Literature Review 

After the problem and research question have been discussed in the introduction, the master’s thesis will move on to the literature review section. This section of the thesis involves a discussion of the existing scholarship that relates to the specific topic and research question being posed. This is not a comprehensive description of the existing ‘literature’ on the topic (that would take up too much time and space), but is instead a description of the most important, compelling, and controversial research that has been done on the topic. For the literature review to be useful, it should include research that presents multiple methodologies, viewpoints, and contrasting opinions. 

The literature review will also identify any shortcomings in the existing literature on the thesis’ topic, including biases, flaws in methodology, or failures to address the problem at hand. Once these shortcomings in the existing research have been identified, the researcher can propose how they would like to address these shortcomings through their own work.

3. Methods

Once a researcher has identified where the existing research has fallen short in answering the thesis’ research question, they will need to tell the reader how they intend to address this shortcoming and advance the field’s understanding. Looking at our hypothetical “UN failure on climate change” master’s thesis again, a researcher may have found that existing literature on the topic does not substantially investigate or cite some type of primary source document. The author could then outline how their research method involved an extensive discovery of existing primary source documents, and a description of how they traveled to several different UN facilities around the world to collect those documents. 

This section would also describe how the researcher used existing methodologies to analyze the data and information that they collected. Every academic field has standardized methodologies and best practices for analyzing its own field’s ‘types’ of data. While most people have an idea of how scientific data like health data and poll data would be analyzed in a standardized manner, social sciences also have standardized methodologies for less quantifiable information sources, including the handling and analysis of primary documents.

4. Results 

Now that the author has described how they conducted their research and the methodologies they used to analyze that research, they inform the reader of what new information or discovery they have unearthed through their work. For example, perhaps by furthering the study of primary source documents produced in and around the signing of UN climate treaties, including the notes of participating parties and discarded drafts of agreements, our hypothetical master’s researcher discovered a pattern of concessions that were made to medium-sized developing economies, but were never publicly announced or written about in major international news outlets.  

5. Discussion

In the thesis’ final chapter, the findings of the author’s research are provided context in relationship to the existing research. The author will identify how their work has answered, or added some new form of nuance, to the existing answers to their original research question. For example, our hypothetical researcher could posit that concessions to medium-sized emerging economies, while not made public, still influenced larger nation’s decisions to disregard their climate treaty obligations. 

Additionally, the author will discuss any shortcomings in their own research, and what future researchers could do to answer their particular research question even more thoroughly. In our example, perhaps the author could suggest that future researchers take their exploration of the primary source material and compare it to existing sociological studies regarding perceptions of fairness of outcome and cooperation.

What does a master’s thesis teach you?

Writing a master’s thesis is the capstone of a graduate student’s program, and is meant to give the student an opportunity to develop their expertise in a part of their field that they are most passionate about and interested in exploring further. If a master’s student enjoys the process of conducting their thesis research and finds that they are passionate about making their arguments in the wider academic community, then writing a master’s thesis could help them decide to pursue their studies further through other graduate degree options such as a PhD program.

Most master’s students write their thesis under the guidance of an academic supervisor, who helps them pick a compelling topic, choose the appropriate methodologies, connects them with relevant research and resources in their field, and proofs and critiques their work. Working closely with an expert can teach a master’s student many important lessons in how mentorship should and shouldn’t work, and what kind of supervisor they would someday like to be. 

What does a master’s thesis do for your career?

Writing a master’s thesis is often a requirement for admissions into a PhD program, as it demonstrates a student’s acumen in their particular field, their quality as a compelling writer, and their commitment to thorough and precise research. It is also a more accurate and comprehensive way of assessing a student’s abilities as a future academic in comparison to the one-dimensional picture that a transcript provides.

If a master’s student isn’t thinking about pursuing a career in academia, and is instead looking to secure a professional role in the private or public sphere, a master’s thesis conducted on a particularly salient issue of the day might also give an applicant a leg up in the hiring process. For example, if a student wrote their master’s thesis on the latest applications of data mining in the field of retail marketing, they might have a significant advantage over other candidates when applying for a head analyst position a digital marketing company.

Do I have to write a master’s thesis? 

No, not all master’s programs require a thesis in order to graduate. Specialist master’s programs like the MBA, the MS in Finance, are particularly unlikely to ask for one. Additionally, some social science degrees offer non-thesis tracks, but require other kinds of capstone projects that are more experiential, such as a student teaching apprenticeship or a residency. 

Our MBA admissions consulting experts say that writing a master’s thesis offers students the opportunity to explore a subject that they’re passionate about. It’s a way to boost their profile as a professional academic, researcher, or future specialist in their field, and is a useful process for determining which route a student should take after graduation.