Writing a thesis paper in college or graduate school is daunting but is also deeply satisfying when you are really into the subject you are exploring. Basically, a thesis paper is a long essay that poses an interesting research question and persuasively answers it. Along with an introductory paragraph providing background information on a topic you are examining, you will write a thesis statement that includes your own personal stance on the topic.

For instance, you could tackle an issue like gun control or legalizing marijuana and logically present evidence to support your opinion. Instructors want more from students than regurgitation of other writers’ work. Writing is about finding your own voice and expressing original ideas supported by credible facts and verifiable data. A thesis paper also helps you sharpen your critical thinking skills. You may even find the research process fun and exciting once you get started.

Tip

A thesis paper is a comprehensive research paper often written in consultation with a faculty adviser. Most thesis papers are written at the graduate level.

What Is a Thesis Paper?

A thesis is the main idea of an academic paper that expresses the writer’s position on a topic. In other words, if you are writing about the death penalty, you would state your viewpoint upfront and introduce the arguments you will be presenting in defense of your stance. Having a clear, unmistakable thesis shows strength and confidence in your beliefs.

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The thesis is typically located at the end of the introductory paragraph of the thesis paper. All research papers need a thesis to grab the reader’s attention and signal where the paper is heading. Length can vary from a one-page English composition essay to a Ph.D. dissertation that is hundreds of pages long. Everything included in the paper should directly and succinctly relate to the thesis. Extraneous material weakens a paper and detracts from the point you are trying to argue.

One of the biggest mistakes students make is jumping into a writing assignment before narrowing their topic, writing a thesis and developing an outline. A thesis that is too broad is unmanageable. A good thesis is clear and precise. An outline helps to ensure that the paper is cohesive and easy to follow. Ironically, a paper can take three times as long to write if you make it up as you go instead of developing major talking points when you first sit down at the computer.

The research process is easier to comprehend when you remind yourself that the goal is to test theories, find new knowledge, introduce different perspectives and gain deeper insight. Reviewing literature will help you formulate questions and figure out what you hope to achieve with your study. Your research questions will then lead you to a testable hypothesis. Next, you will write a thesis statement. The thesis statement presents a claim, proposal or opinion that can be supported or refuted with rational arguments.

Controversial subjects can be very interesting to research, but you must keep your emotions in check and objectively assess the credibility of sources. Academic research is scholarly and rational in tone and style. A thesis statement that is bombastic or judgmental is difficult to prove or disprove. For example, a thesis statement asserting that human genetic modification is evil and morally wrong is a matter of somebody’s emotional opinion that may or may not be swayed by facts. A better approach to such a topic would be to make the claim that further study is needed on the ethics and health implications of human genetic engineering.

When Do You Write a Thesis Paper?

At the master’s level, you write a thesis after taking core classes during the first half of your program. As part of your studies, you will submit several shorter papers that will help you develop the research skills and writing proficiency needed to write the long thesis required for graduation. Reading journal articles, attending professional conferences and meeting individually with professors can help you identify a topic, develop a thesis statement and organize the chapters of your paper.

The thesis paper is the culmination of your learning. A well-constructed thesis shows that you can comprehend and apply the theories, principles, practices and ethical codes of your field of study. The thesis paper is typically wrapped up and submitted the semester you intend to graduate. The thesis must be approved by your department before you will receive a master’s degree even if you have perfect grades in all your course work.

At the doctoral level, writing a dissertation is a serious undertaking done in stages throughout the program. You may even be asked to identify tentative topics for a dissertation at the time of application to the doctoral program. Graduate faculty look for students who share their particular research interests. Similarly, you will likely apply to schools conducting the type of research you hope to experience. You will also need to ask qualified instructors and professionals to serve on your thesis committee to monitor and evaluate your progress on the dissertation.

You start by drafting a thesis proposal outlining the who, what, when, how and why of your proposed research project. Once that is approved, you complete a review of the literature, conduct original research, analyze your results, discuss findings and make recommendations for future study. As you might guess, all that can take months or years to finish. If your dissertation committee says your study is too broad, believe them and adjust accordingly if you want to graduate with your cohort.

How to Write a Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is a sentence or two in the beginning of a paper that poses a research question, offers a hypothesis, presents supporting evidence, acknowledges counterarguments and draws conclusions. Writing a thesis statement is difficult for most people. A critical first step is identifying a topic with which you will not get bored over the course of several months or the next few years. Practice the steps of thesis writing until you get a thesis statement that sounds doable.

Example:

  • Topic: Standardized tests in the schools
  • Your opinion on topic: Standardized tests narrow the curriculum
  • Supporting argument: Art education budgets are being slashed to fund STEM programs
  • Supporting argument: Children no longer receive a well-rounded education
  • Counterargument: Schools can still offer art
  • Thesis statement:  Even though schools can still offer art, standardized tests have narrowed the curriculum as evidenced by art education budgets being slashed to fund STEM programs, thus depriving students of a well-rounded education.

You may want to choose a topic related to your career goals to help you develop skills and competencies that will be advantageous in a job search. Conduct exploratory research to see how much has been written about your topic already. Ask faculty for suggestions. Avoid longitudinal studies unless you are sure you can collect and analyze data without having to extend your intended graduation date.

When crafting a thesis statement, you must honestly ask yourself if your research findings would matter to anyone. Your research will be dismissed or even ridiculed if professionals in your field do not care what your findings might show. The introduction of your paper should pique the reader’s curiosity and reinforce a desire to read your thesis paper in its entirety. Place the thesis statement in the last paragraph of the introduction. People expect to find it there.

Dissertation vs. Thesis

Generally, students in a master’s degree program write a paper called a thesis, whereas doctoral students write a dissertation. Master’s degree programs and thesis papers are typically shorter than Ph.D. programs and doctoral dissertations. Expected length varies considerably by program and school. Some schools call the dissertation a doctoral thesis.

Both types of papers entail fretting over a topic, reading tons of articles, proper attribution of sources, seemingly endless writing and thesis committee oversight. The purpose of the thesis is to help students develop skills, expertise and a reputation in their field. When writing a master’s thesis, graduate students analyze and synthesize journal articles, books, interviews, government reports and copious amounts of data. Students may also be required to present and defend their findings to peers and faculty.

Students hoping to teach, research or work in public policy enroll in a combined master's/Ph.D. program or directly enter a doctoral program after finishing their master’s degree. The dissertation probes deeper into the subject matter. The goal of the dissertation is to add new information to what is currently known in the literature about the topic. Evidence of scholarship and original thinking must be demonstrated orally and in writing to the student’s academic department before the dissertation committee will sign off on the document.

The topic of either paper should be intriguing to you and other academic types in your field. Look for any gaps in the literature that your research might help close. Manage expectations and buffer perfectionism knowing that dissertations do not morph into bestsellers. Even if you dedicate your paper to your parents, don’t expect them to read past the introduction of a paper on enterotoxin-positive spores, for instance. On the other hand, peers may be fascinated by your claims, choice of methodology, statistical computation and conclusions.

Choosing an unwieldy topic can indefinitely prolong thesis completion. Many doctoral students finish their courses but not their dissertation and are considered ABD, which stands for “all but dissertation.” Also, use your best judgment when tapping sources. Consider the implications and inferences of an author’s claim. Separate fact from opinion, especially when writing about a topic with emotional hot buttons.

Types of Theses

Research terminology can be a little confusing because certain words like "thesis" can be used to describe a master’s-level thesis paper or a doctoral dissertation. Further complicating matters, there are different types of theses. Most often, the word "thesis" refers to a long research paper organized around a central idea. Supporting research can include everything from lab results, statistical data and predictive models to field notes, photographs and diaries, depending on the type of observation used in your study. A research thesis paper offers a critical assessment and interpretation of quantitative or qualitative sources. Guidelines for the length of the paper may be specified in a graduate student handbook or obtained from faculty.

Some programs offer graduate students the option of producing an artistic thesis instead of the more traditional research paper in partial fulfillment of a Master of Arts degree. The artistic thesis is comprised of a creative work such as a student-produced film, screenplay, novel, poems, paintings or dance performance. Students may also be required to submit a research essay along with their creative work explaining the genre or their technique.

Another type of thesis is the project thesis, also called a capstone project. Graduate programs that focus on applied research frequently offer this alternative for students who prefer experiential learning in real-world settings. Students working on a project thesis undertake research and then apply theory to practice with the goal of innovative problem solving. For instance, students in social work, education or public administration could design and launch a pilot program that takes a different approach to addressing community issues like homelessness and food insecurity. Graduate students may also be required to submit a thesis essay grounded in research that describes their project, goals, outcomes and effectiveness.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students whose job includes student conduct, leading the behavioral consultation team, crisis response, retention and the working with the veterans resource center. She enjoys helping parents and students solve problems through advising, teaching and writing online articles that appear on many sites. Dr. Dowd also contributes to scholarly books and journal articles.