Today is something of a milestone for me – I officially finished a final draft of my thesis and sent it, in its entirety, off to my supervisor and committee member. The process is by no means over; I anticipate that I will have further revisions to make, and will then look into setting up a public defense. However, the bulk of the writing is done and I feel physically lighter; the pressure to sit down and focus is (temporarily) over.
Some of you may be wondering what a Master’s thesis and program is all about. Let me explain the details within a Canadian (and specifically, Ontario) context.
A Master’s program can either entail a Research Paper or a Thesis. A Research Paper has lower requirements for graduation and is shorter in duration; typically, the student will be in the program for one year and will balance course work with writing a major, in-depth paper on a topic of interest to their faculty. Original research, with primary data collection, is less commonly done in this process and the degree conferred has different implications (especially with regards to pursuing subsequent doctoral research). According to the University of Ottawa guidelines, a Research Paper is defined as:
The research paper (or report), is shorter than a thesis, and consists of extensive research and a strict methodology. The student must show the ability to work independently in a scholarly manner, just as with a thesis. In some disciplines…the research paper may be either a case study or take the form of a more theoretical paper.
A Thesis is a much more involved undertaking. The degree is typically two years in duration when pursued on a full-time basis, and the degree conferred prepares the students for further academic research. In my case, and in the case of many others in my situation, I spent the first year doing course work in my topic area while at the same time working with my thesis supervisor to prepare a thesis statement, design the methods for gathering data, and get approved ethics clearance. According to the University of Ottawa guidelines, a Thesis is defined as:
A thesis is a significant original body of work produced by a student and put in written form… A master’s thesis must show that the student is able to work in a scholarly manner and is acquainted with the principal works published on the subject of the thesis. As much as possible, it should be an original contribution… A good thesis is thoroughly researched; demonstrates rigorous critical thinking and analysis; presents a detailed methodology and accurate results; and, includes tenacious verification of knowledge claims.
Gaining ethics clearance allows the student to collect data from human or animal participants, and is not universally required across all Master’s-level programs. Science students, for example, may conduct their work entirely in a lab on the university campus and thus do not require ethics clearance.
Another major difference between the Research Paper and the Thesis is the academic committee that takes on the job of reviewing the student’s work. For a Research Paper, the student generally only needs a supervisor and one other faculty member (Graduate Studies, University of Waterloo). The Thesis requires that the student build a three-person committee to review and approve their work (Graduate Studies, University of Waterloo). This committee can take on multiple permutations, including but not limited to;
- Supervisor, Committee Member, and “Reader”
- Supervisor, Co-Supervisor, Committee Member
- Supervisor, Co-Supervisor, “Reader”
A student works closely with their supervisor and committee member (and co-supervisor, is applicable) until the day of the verbal defense. A defense is scheduled as a way for the student to publicly present his or her thesis project and the project’s results to the committee and other interested attendees.
The reader is a senior faculty member selected by the student’s supervisor to provide a third-party review of and feedback on the thesis before it is published. If the student passes the verbal defense, the committee suggests some further revisions which the student must make before the document is published in paper copy and electronically on the university’s website (Graduate Studies, University of Waterloo). All of these steps are meant to contribute to a rigorous academic experience for the student.
Personally, I felt that the thesis process was beneficial for a whole host of reasons – it encouraged me to be a deep thinker, got me to work out the details of a full research project, forced me to write and record my thoughts throughout the data collection process, and it was fully funded by internal (e.g. Teaching Assistantships) and external (e.g. SSHRC) sources.
Further, I have had access to some of the most diverse and stimulating career-building opportunities of my life while in graduate school. During my undergraduate years, I worked full-time during the summer as a maintenance student at a conservation area; work which was a lot of fun but resulted in very few personal development opportunities. In graduate school, I maintained a busy schedule of teaching assistant work, took on the role of administrative assistant with a research organization, assisted my faculty’s Teaching Fellow, and had a full-time summer internship. On the side, I met new people, wrote papers for academic journals, worked informally as a house and pet-sitter, and thought intensely and in new ways about the world.
Graduate school has thus been the door which has opened up many new personal development opportunities for me. And submitting this final draft of my thesis is a big milestone which brings all of these adventures and learning experiences to a gentle close. Whether or not this closure is temporary or long-term is a decision that I will have to make in the coming weeks.