Your MAPH Thesis & You! Differences between MA & Ph.D theses

I received notification a couple days ago from Robert Pippin, my thesis adviser, that he had “read and enjoyed [my] final draft” and didn’t “have anything to add” to the comments that he had made on my earlier first draft.  Now, Professor Pippin’s initial comments amounted to two challenges: 1) Why is the author necessarily in the best position to comment on his own intentions for a given work and 2) Couldn’t the intuition that some acts of appropriation are inappropriate be grounded in something other than some form of intentionalism.  So, the radical rewrite of my final draft that took place in the last couple weeks before the final version was due had been rewritten with those two questions firmly in mind.  I had initially taken Pippin’s extremely sparse commentary to suggest that I was in deep doo-doo–that he was so uninterested in the arguments that I was making that he hadn’t even bothered to repudiate them or that he was so frustrated by my lack of attention to his two potential challenges that he gave up doing a careful reading and just scrawled his complaints on the last page.  I’ll let you know how things turned out in a bit…


Wander around the Hyde Park neighborhood for any length of time and you are likely to discover that many people that you run into, even the majority of people, are preparing to write, are writing, or have recently written their thesis.  However, as you converse with these folks you will quickly discover that all theses are not created equal.  I will never forget the look of horror on one particular woman’s face when I answered her question about how I was progressing relative to my Spring graduation by rattling off this bon mot: “Oh, I haven’t actually started writing my thesis in earnest…  My final due date isn’t for another six months.”  This exchange is the difference between a Masters thesis and the Doctoral thesis in a nutshell.  There is no shame in an MA student commenting that he really hasn’t got a firm grasp on his topic with only a few months to go, while for a Ph.D. student such an admission would be tantamount to announcing in polite conversation that one had contracted genital warts.  Still confused?  Here is the explanation:

1) Ph.D. theses are much longer than MA theses.  My MA thesis is fairly long at 11,719 words or thirty-three pages.  The perception that it is “long” is justified in comparison to the average length of a Ph.D. applicant’s writing sample at twenty to twenty-five pages.  For comparison’s sake, the “normal” length of a Doctoral thesis is around 100,000 words or between nine and ten times longer than my thesis.  Now, as many a MAPHer would be quick to point out: the average Ph.D. student has six and a half years–and up to ten years–to write and defend their thesis where a MAPH students has less than six months.

2) Ph.D. theses are written and judged–specifically–as original contributions to their discipline.  Now, the vast majority of folks in my precept group and those that I have inquired after wrote their theses arguing for a perspective they believe to be “original” and “substantive.”  However, there are at least a few who took the “Creative Writing” alternative or actually only succeeded in producing a literature survey with occasional hints at new ideas.  But, even where myself and others have attempted to produce something new, ground-breaking, and substantive, the fruit of our labors has not been judged according to that rigorous standard–as it would if we had been writing Ph.D. theses.

3) The Ph.D. thesis cannot end with the paper admitting that, after careful research and study, it was wrong, but an MA thesis can.  This fact is closely related to the originality demanded of a Ph.D. thesis in that the purpose of an MA thesis can be merely to demonstrate the student’s familiarity with and ability to employ the tools of scholarship in their discipline, but the Ph.D. thesis must also make a positive contribution.  In contrast, an MA paper–especially in the MAPSS program–can actually fail to prove its claim and still be judged “successful” in that it follows the methodology of its discipline and successfully shows why its initial claim was wrong.

4) A Master’s thesis may be a literature review and little else, but a Doctoral thesis must include both original claims and a complete literature review.  The difference between a thesis that alludes to the literature already written on a particular subject and a thesis that pulls all those allusions together to form a cohesive, theoretical  narrative might seem subtle, but the former is a nice thing to do in a Master’s thesis and the latter is an absolute necessity in a Doctoral work.  Part of what a Ph.D. thesis should demonstrate is that the author has a mastery of all the material cogent to his or her topic, while in a MA thesis the point is merely to have familiarity with that same material.

5) A Master’s thesis is graded, but a Doctoral thesis is defended. A doctoral dissertation is usually evaluated by one mentor and two readers.  Together these three individuals constitute the student’s dissertation committee to whom a student will present and then defend their work.  In the aftermath of a defense a student’s thesis will either be a) approved as presented, b) approved with revision, c) failed.  However, even if the outcome of the defense is blanket approval or slight revision, in many programs–although the UofC is not one of them–doctoral dissertations are sent to professors at institutions other than the student’s home school and asked to evaluate a student’s work and make a recommendation on whether they ought to graduate, graduate with honors, or even be eligible for special awards over and above honors.  In contrast, a Master’s thesis is graded by the thesis adviser–the person with whom the student is understood to have been working closely with throughout the process.  Presumably, by the time that a MA adviser reads a final draft, all their concerns have been dealt with–worked out gradually through the stages of presentation and revision–and no other perspectives or concerns have any bearing on a student’s thesis being considered sufficient for graduation.  The final grade awarded to a MAPH student’s MA thesis appears as the grade received in the Spring quarter called “Thesis Workshop B”–as opposed to “Thesis Workshop A” which is a pass/fail “class” (it does not contribute any hours to a students degree, or use up one of the three slots available the MAPH students in the Winter Quarter, but does have mandatory attendance requirements).

6) A Master’s thesis must conform to academic standards for written work including correct citation methodology and professional tone, but is not a “publisher-ready” document unlike a doctoral thesis.  Now, I’m not suggesting that a Master’s thesis is not expected to be a clear, concise, largely error-free document held to very high standards of academic writing but, because it does not get published with copies filed away in the University library, there are not strict pagination, style, or tone requirements.  That is, no one goes through a MA thesis with a ruler and makes sure that all text and diagrams maintain a 15/16 inch margin at the edge of the page.  Further, no one will hassle an MA student about whether they ought to use “greater,” “larger,” or “bigger” in a particular application.  While an MA thesis should demonstrate a student’s great desire, valiant attempt, and deep concern to produce a  grammatically and stylistically perfect paper, most if not all will have a few mistakes here and there.  In contrast a Ph.D. dissertation will be published by the University for its collection and with minimal changes ought to be ready for publication by an academic publisher.

All of this is to say that Ph.D. theses really are some of the most scrutinized, most evaluated, and most difficult to write texts out there and necessarily require, not months, but years of work to complete successfully.  I have worked very, very hard for a few months on my own thesis–and I would say that the result is a very solid document–but a thesis on the same subject would take much more time, effort, and energy produce.  Writing a MAPH thesis remains more akin to writing a paper for a very, very demanding professor, than to writing a doctoral thesis–which is why, when doctoral students hear about the limited time frame in which MAPH students are expected to produce a “thesis,” they are horrified–but also how it is possible that wave after wave of MA theses are successfully produced.

Now, I’m not suggesting that some MA theses aren’t on par with with some less-than-stellar Ph.D. theses being successfully defended in less rigorous institutions or that certain MA theses couldn’t even be Ph.D. theses with a minimal amount of extra effort, but on the whole my claim is merely that: as hard as the MA thesis in the MAPH seems, spare some pity and appreciated for those Ph.D. candidates who have or will be defending in time for Spring graduation–because they deserve it.


As things turned out, my own fears about Professor Pippin’s less than copious marginalia were unfounded–as Bill correctly deduced–as Pippin kindly recommended to the MAPH program that I receive an “A” on my thesis and be allowed to graduate–pending the successful completion of my Spring classes.  So, I won’t say that I say it coming, I had real fears about how my thesis adviser felt about my paper–especially given our very, very limited contact over the past six months–but I am relieved.  So, let this post be both a comfort and a prod: a comfort in that the MA thesis is not nearly so demanding as the Ph.D. but a prod in that there is no real reason why it can’t do everything a Ph.D. thesis does–albeit in miniature.


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