M.A. Thesis: What is it and what does it need to do?
The purpose of a M.A. thesis is to demonstrate a student’s capacity to develop an original historical argument based on original research. Given the significant amount of work and effort that—beyond classwork—goes into completing and defending a thesis, students on the thesis track should seriously consider why is it that they want to write a thesis and discuss their reasons (and their intellectual and professional trajectory more broadly) with the History or Public History advisor early on, preferably during their first year in the program. Students should start thinking about possible topics and committee members (one chair and two readers) early on as well.
The Thesis “Pipeline”
Students generally start developing their thesis topic during the third semester, as they enroll in the General Research Seminar (GRS) and Thesis A (see the Graduate Student Handbook for details). In consultation with the instructor of record and the History or Public History general advisors, they will select a paper advisor for the course, knowledgeable in the student’s field, who will very likely fulfill the role of thesis director and committee chair for the student after the GRS. During the Seminar, students will be working on research, methodology, and historiography which will serve as the basis of the thesis. To get credit for Thesis A, moreover, students will have to defend a thesis proposal (5-8 pages) before a committee, which will recommend that the student continues with the project or switches to the Comps track.
Students must be able to assess the value of their source base—which can include textual primary sources, material culture, the built environment, oral interviews and oral histories, digital media, musical examples, and visual images—demonstrating the ability to critically evaluate and engage with several archival and non-archival sources. Students then must place their research into conversation with the existing literature on the topic. They must show their ability to summarize the recent historiographical trends on the subject, and then must illustrate the ways that their research contributes to, contends with, or challenges current trends. In other words, the original research needs to be put into a larger intellectual framework. This framing involves the skill to utilize the research of other scholars to help build students’ argument and analysis. Since the historical profession is built on acknowledging the contributions of other scholars, it is vital that the M.A. thesis integrate existing scholarship throughout the thesis.
Another feature of a thesis is that, although the thesis can be structured chronologically or thematically, the argument must address change over time. To effectively do this, the M.A. student must first set up the historical context, thereby establishing the “problem” that will be solved. Lastly, an M.A. thesis must comply with the academic conventions of historical writing. This includes using the Chicago/Turabian citation method, offering a clear and effective organization, and writing in a clear, concise, and readable style.
Public History students must incorporate a Public History component in their thesis. Types of components are categorized and described, with accompanying examples, in a separate guide.
M.A. History theses are typically comprised of an Introduction (~10 pages), 2-3 chapters (~20-25 pages each) organized chronologically or thematically, and a conclusion (~10 pages). To form an idea of the Department’s expectations, students are encouraged to peruse previous theses at the library’s website. Students are also encouraged to consult the Graduate College Guide to Preparing and Submitting a Thesis BEFORE beginning the writing process, as the guide provides templates with the proper formatting that will make the final submission a much easier endeavor.
Alternatively, and with the approval of the thesis committee and/or the History or Public History advisor, preferably before taking Thesis B (see the Graduate Student Handbook for details), students can opt for an article-length thesis, which will include a 9000-to-12,000-word standalone article chapter of publishable quality and, to satisfy Graduate College requirements, a thorough introduction chapter and a comprehensive conclusion chapter. Students considering a Ph.D. in History are particularly encouraged to discuss this option with their advisors, for an article chapter would provide a strong writing sample, which will enhance the student’s chances of gaining admission. In consultation with the thesis committee, students working on an article-length thesis should identify suitable publication venues and keep their scope and formatting guidelines in mind during the writing process, so that they can submit their work for consideration after the defense.
As with all M.A. History theses, the committee is the sole arbiter of the quality, scope, and length of all parts of the document.