Liberal Arts - 32 Campus Drive
Missoula, MT - 59812
The Master´s 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 professional paper option.
The traditional thesis 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.
The publishable paper option, in conforming to the expected length for a scholarly article in a typical literary journal, will result in a shorter thesis – perhaps something in the range of 30–45 pages. Ideally, the finished essay for this option will be just some additional revisions and a cover letter away from being a plausible submission to a journal for publication consideration. As such, this thesis option, although shorter, places greater demands on writers to craft a precise and arguable central claim, to surround the argument with pertinent and robust research, and to burnish the writing to an economical and polished state through strenuous and exacting revisions.
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! Wahoo!
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.