Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing


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Traditionally in academia, the two main purposes of master’s-degree and doctoral
projects are (a) to provide graduate students guided practice in conducting
and presenting research and (b) to make a contribution to the world’s fund of
knowledge or to improve the conduct of some activity.

The practice aspect goes well beyond the demands of a typical term paper or
individual-study assignment, since the aim is to equip students to do research
and writing of respectable, publishable quality in the future.

The contribution-to-knowledge aspect is intended to make the student’s study
more than just a learning exercise by using this opportunity to produce valued
information or to introduce a point of view not available before. This aspect
is what usually distinguishes a master’s thesis from a doctoral dissertation,
in that the contribution of the dissertation is expected to be of greater magnitude
than that of the thesis.

Sources of Guidance

“If I’d known he’d be too busy to be of much help, I would have tried to
find a better advisor.”
At the outset of your project, it is well to identify potential sources of help
and to recognize the advantages and limitations of each. Those sources of most
value are usually academic advisors, fellow graduate students, experts outside
of your own department or institution, you yourself, and the professional literature.


Policies for assigning faculty members to supervise students’ thesis and dissertation
projects can vary from one institution to another and even across departments
within the same institution.

In some cases, the advisor who guides a student’s general academic progress
automatically becomes the supervisor of the candidate’s work on the thesis or
dissertation. Under such a policy, students are relieved of the responsibility
of choosing a mentor, but they may unfortunately end up with less than optimal
help. In other cases, an academic advisor will not automatically be assigned,
but he or she will be only one of a group of several faculty members from whom
a student can choose a guide.

Under these circumstances, before students announce their choice of a mentor
they can profitably collect several kinds of information about the professors
who form the pool of potential advisors. Included among the sources of information
are fellow students, the professors within the pool, other faculty members,
secretaries, research assistants, and the professors’ publications.

Institutions and departments can also differ in the number of faculty members
assigned to supervise and evaluate a student’s research. One common pattern
at the master’s level is to have a three-member committee for each thesis, with
the committee chairperson acting as the candidate’s principal supervisor. However,
in colleges and universities with large numbers of master’s degree students,
the entire master’s project may be directed and assessed by a single faculty
member. At the doctoral level, the supervising committee often consists of three
to five professors.

In the following paragraphs, we describe kinds of information to seek about
potential advisers. We then suggest useful sources of each kind.

Click here to read the complete version of Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing at

Kinds of Information to Collect

In learning about the professors in your pool of potential mentors, you will
likely find it helpful to discover their (a) fields of interest and expertise,
(b) style of advising, and (c) attitudes about appropriate research topics and
methods of research.


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