Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thesis or Coursework?

One of my former students is moving on next fall to Comprehensive Research University, having been admitted to their Ph.D program in philosophy. He was asking me for advice on a dual track they have at CRU for fulfilling the requirements for getting your M.A. degree.

The first option is extra coursework. Instead of taking 6 courses (18 credits), you have to take 10 (30 credits). Basically, this means almost four semesters of coursework compared to two.

The second option is 6 courses, but in addition an 80 page master's thesis.

I already told the student my own opinion here, but given that I'm not looking to argue or defend them, but rather garner extra perspectives, I'll leave off posting them here (for now). Instead, as I said, I'm curious what other people think about this. If there are opinions that differ from my own, I'll pass them along to my student so that he has a full range of opinions.

Some other information that may or may not be helpful:

1. The student is planning on staying at CRU, so he isn't planning on leaving after his M.A. to go to a different school for his Ph.D. But if he did want to leave -- would it make a difference?

2. The student is leaning towards a desire to teach at a four-year college as opposed to a research university.

Thanks in advance -- if there are other questions that would help you to answer the question, feel free to ask!


  1. Assuming the courses in the MA can be applied to the PhD and that the student wants to stay at the school for their PhD, the coursework option makes more sense.

    I suppose the question I'd ask is when the track must be chosen? If it is the case that after 18 credits, they can decide to register for theisis credits and leave with a thesis and MA, then there is little difference right now.... I think that if they can wait until they are accepted to the PhD program to choose which track they'd like, that would be a good thing.

    On the other hand, I took the no-thesis option at my school and stayed for the PhD program -- so I have nothing to say about the experience of writing an MA thesis or what good it can do.

  2. Factory,

    They can be applied towards the Ph.D. -- of course, that only applies to the home institution, not sure if 30 hours will transfer to every other Ph.D program (if the student jumped ship to go somewhere else).

    Good question on the timing: from the website, it looks like the thesis track must be chosen after one year of residency, so basically after you are done with 6 courses.

  3. I would agree that if the student wants to stay, then getting more coursework done and out of the way is a better option. If moving on is an option, the thesis makes more sense because it can provide a solid writing sample. I would also think that it would take less time to do a thesis of this length than to take another 4 courses, and the added independence is nice as well.

  4. I'd say the coursework makes sense given the individual's goals: Taking more coursework gives you greater philosophical breadth, which is likely to be more useful teaching at a four-year college, whereas the MA thesis is a nice warmup for the dissertation and probably more useful to someone with strong research ambitions.

  5. Thanks for the feedback here, folks. For the record, I advised him to take the extra hours, and not do the thesis. My thinking here was based on a few points:

    1. More exposure to content is a win-win for a person looking to work at a liberal arts school where such breadth may be seen as valuable (not to mention the fact that it is valuable on its own, of course).

    2. Even if he bolted for another school, evidence of 30 solid hours of coursework done in an exemplary manner should solve the "does this student have a sufficient background for our Ph.D. program?" questions.

    3. An 80 page MA thesis, while surely a good experience/practice for the later dissertation, is a bit much. My worry was that the student could get bogged down in a mini-dissertation that would then get in the way of later plans to actually devise and write the actual dissertation itself. This isn't in any way a reflection on the student, who is an extraordinarily hard worker. It's rather that I could imagine any student running into trouble here. A 40 page thesis, perhaps, but 80?

    In any case, thanks again, folks, as usual your input is always appreciated and useful!

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