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Writing the Master's thesis or project

Read good theses and use them as models.

Supervisors can recommend good theses or projects (e.g., those available in the libraries) for students to read, and help them set up deadlines for writing. During the writing process, supervisors should provide constructive feedback. For students, it is a good idea to always have the reader in mind in writing theses or projects, and to form peer feedback groups to receive feedback from fresh eyes.

For students: Who will read your work and how do you get feedback?

Thinking of the reader

As a student, a writer, you should be aware that the thesis is a communication with specific readers – your supervisor, the thesis examiner and scholars in your field. Yet in the writing process, you may be so immersed in sorting out your ideas that you forget that your audience may not be as familiar with your project as you and your supervisor(s) are. So, in writing your Master’s thesis, the following issues are worth your attention:

  • The “what”, “why”, ”how” and ”so what” in your thesis
  • The particular meanings that you have assigned to certain terms, concepts, theories
  • The decision-making lying behind the organization of the thesis
  • The focus, objectives and arguments of the overall thesis and those of individual chapters (Craswell, 2005)

Forming feedback groups

Writing a Master’s thesis or project may be an isolated, lonely process. So it might be a good idea to form a thesis writing feedback group, and meet regularly (e.g., monthly) with your friends and peers (ideally 2-3) who are also writing their theses or projects. You can review each other's work and provide constructive feedback (using, for instance, the questions immediately above). See also the Reading and writing page.

For supervisors: What help can you offer?

Setting completion deadlines

Some students find it difficult to finish. Setting completion deadlines well in advance of submission can help in this regard. As well, ensure that students understand the need to finish writing early enough to be able to step back and critique it as a whole.

Asking students to review recent theses or projects

As a supervisor, you may recommend several good recent theses or projects in the discipline and ask them to review them (not for the content but rather to look at how the text is put together, i.e., the basic composition processes). This gives them a general sense of similarities and differences (what is common and what is unique to each document).

Providing clear and constructive feedback

It is essential that, when students ask for help with their writing, you provide clear and constructive feedback. See Giving feedback. It is also a good idea to ask your students to send you, shortly after each supervisory meeting about their work, a brief descriptive text that summarizes the direction of the discussion. See the Starting out page.

Avoiding plagiarism

Promoting the highest standards of academic integrity means helping students learn what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid unintentional plagiarism. See the Integrity and ethical practice page.

Should supervision differ for Master’s and doctoral students?

The answer may depend on supervisors and disciplines. However, there is research evidence showing that examiners have different expectations for Master’s theses. For example, although Master’s theses are expected to include similar components compared to doctoral dissertations, they do not have to make original contributions to knowledge. Of course, some Master’s theses do make original contributions!

[My supervisor] didn't have a Master’s project in mind. I had my first conflict with him when I asked for a project several times.

It appeared to me that my supervisor had an expectation for my Master’s thesis that was not reasonable for this level of work. This led to my MSc thesis extending beyond 3 years. Also on the part of my supervisor, there was an apparent disregard for the importance of meeting program deadlines (which were not "final" deadlines; however, failing to meet them resulted in me having to pay tuition for two extra semesters beyond 3 years). (2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University)

These quotations, from a student survey at McGill, point to some problems in supervising Master’s theses or projects—namely, how independent students are expected to be in progressing their work compared to doctoral students, and what assistance supervisors might or should provide.

Differences between degrees

The Master’s degree is different from the doctorate. Accordingly, there are different standards for Master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. The Ministerial statement on quality assurance of degree education in Canada [.pdf] may be helpful for supervisors and students to understand the differences.

The non-thesis Master’s project is less research-oriented compared to the Master’s thesis, as a McGill program description states: “It is less research-oriented than the thesis option and suitable for practitioners interested in professional development with a theoretical orientation” (Master of Arts in Educational Leadership).

Supervisors’ roles in different stages

Supervisors play different roles at different stages in student progress. Briefly, it is at the early stage—when students are clarifying the focus and constructing the research design—that supervisors play a key role. This facilitating and guiding role also occurs when students are doing analysis and writing up the thesis or project. In addition, supervisors are expected to encourage students when they feel frustrated in the process. See also the Roles over time page.

Quality indicators for Master’s theses

Examiners tend to use similar frameworks to evaluate Master’s and doctoral theses. These indicators are: contributions (originality, substantive, advance knowledge), literature review (coverage, accuracy, application), methods (appropriateness, effective application), analysis/results (appropriateness, effective interpretation), and presentation (correct expression, communicative competence).

There are over 2,600 masters programs in 75 universities and institutions in Canada; and Ontario and Quebec accounted for over 60% of student enrolment from 1994-2003 (CAGS, 2006). Generally, over 70% of Canada’s Master’s degrees are awarded in professional fields (e.g., management and education); yet, in many disciplines, especially in the sciences, the Master’s degree still serves as a stepping stone to the doctorate.

Regarding supervising Master’s theses, two central issues are the quality of Master’s theses and the role of the supervisor. Bourke and Holbrook (2013), based on the survey results from over 300 PhD and Master’s supervisors, found that supervisors at both levels applied the same indicators in evaluating theses, which were contributions (originality, substantive, advance knowledge), literature review (coverage, accuracy, use/application), methods (appropriateness, effective application), analysis/results (appropriateness, effective interpretation), and presentation (correct expression, communicative competence); at the same time, the data suggested that examiners expect a slightly lower quality for Master’s theses for each of these indicators. Other studies indicated that from supervisors’ perspective, originality is not essential at the Master’s level (Anderson, Day, & McLaughlin, 2006; Pilcher, 2011), although it is what distinguishes “excellent” Master’s theses from “good” ones (Pilcher, 2011).

Supervising Master’s theses may not be considerably different from supervising doctoral dissertations, since research about Master’s supervision has revealed similar characteristics of good supervisors: being patient and approachable, having the ability to supervise a variety of students, having a range of supervisory approaches, and providing constructive feedback (Pilcher, 2011). Anderson et al. (2006) noted that supervisors play different roles in different stages. At the very early stage, supervisors play a key role in assisting students in clarifying the focus and constructing a sound research design; and after this stage, supervisors mostly “draw back” and expect students to take on responsibility for progressing their work. However, at the stage of analysis and writing up, supervisors again take on a central role. They help students with the overall planning of writing and timetabling, crafting with analysis, and occasionally “modelling at paragraph level of the forms of academic writing” (p.160). Supervisors in Anderson et al.’s research also mentioned the affective support (caring for feelings of students). At the last stage, supervisors are critical readers and commentators.

The text of this page was based on:

Thesis guidelines

McGill offers two options regarding the format of the Master’s thesis: traditional and manuscript-based (article-based). See the Thesis guidelines page on the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies website. Also check the general requirements for Master’s and doctoral theses. For information about non-thesis Master’s programs (those that are project-based), please check the departmental websites.

Acknowledgements: Original content by Shuhua Chen, McGill University, July 2013.