Thesis and Comprehensive Exam
- Should I consider writing a thesis or project ?
- What should I do first?
- How do I select a topic?
- How do I proceed?
- How do I know when I have reviewed enough literature?
- What should I keep in mind about working with my chair?
Cal State LA's Academic Senate is responsible for setting the University's policies regarding all matters of the curriculum, including those governing the production of theses and projects. These policies are set forth in the University's Catalog and are further elaborated in the publication, Guide to Preparation of Master's Theses and Project Reports, prepared by the Office of Graduate Studies and Research. Both documents are available for reference in the J.F. Kennedy Library and for purchase in the book store located in the Student Union. In addition, the Charter College of Education Assembly has enacted a set of policies which are described in a handout, Guidelines for Students Preparing Theses or Projects, available in the TESOL Program office (KH C-2098). Students are also advised to consult the Charter College of Education's Student Advisement Handbook for Master's Degree Programs (1995).
The Catalog and Graduate Studies guide provide details about the University's policies regarding what constitutes a thesis or a project report, procedures for submitting the final product, and certain style and format requirements. The Charter College of Education documents describe additional policies regarding style and procedures. Finally, the TESOL Program has certain program-specific policies and procedures regarding the preparation of theses and project reports, and that is what this handout details.
Students are cautioned, however, that the University and the Charter College of Education guidelines are the official words on theses and project reports. Anything contained in the present handout which is found to be at variance with the Academic Senate guidelines should immediately be brought to the attention of a TESOL adviser.
It goes without saying that not every student is a good candidate for writing a thesis or project report. On the other hand, some students are very well-suited for the task. Students who match one or more of the following descriptions, for instance, may be considered likely candidates.
You have a good idea for a research study, and you are interested in conducting original research. Of course, what one person considers a good idea may not be such to someone else. Talk over your idea with a professor or a trusted colleague. Try to remain open to their critiques and suggestions for improvement. Above all, make certain that you are interested in actually doing the work that will be required. The glamour of a published final product belies the many hours involved in researching a topic, collecting and analyzing the data, and writing and re-writing (and re-writing) the thesis itself.
You have been working on an innovative curricular project, and you want to refine it or prepare it for publication. There are many kinds of activities that would be appropriate for a project report, including teaching materials, videotapes, and computer programs, to mention just a few.
You are good writer, and you enjoy doing it. Of course, being a good writer is not enough. You must also have a good idea which you wish to pursue. Needless to say, if you know you are not a good writer or if you know you do not enjoy writing, you should not undertake to prepare a thesis or project report.
You have ambitions to pursue a doctoral program. Although not a requirement for admission to most doctoral programs, it is a good idea to submit a thesis as evidence of your scholarly writing ability as part of your application dossier. In general, the more competitive the program is, the more they will tend to rely on such evidence in making their selection decisions.
You have developed a good working relationship with a professor who is involved in a qualitative or large-scale study. It is often the case in large-scale research projects that large amounts of data go unanalyzed due to a lack of time and resources. Professors engaged in such work often will give capable students access to portions of their data. Of course, they will be reluctant to do so indiscriminately, and it is considered poor form and, therefore, is ill-advised for students to approach professors with whom they have had minimal or no contact and request access to their data.
The preceding descriptions are not exhaustive. There may be other aspects of your background that would make you a good candidate. If so, talk with an adviser, but be prepared to be dissuaded. In general, students will be discouraged from undertaking a thesis or project report, because unless they are good candidates for such a task, they likely will not finish their degree programs. For instance, the following students would not be considered good candidates.
You are not a self-starter. It takes a considerable degree of self-discipline to write a thesis or project report. Remember that once you undertake the task you will be largely on your own. There are no scheduled class meetings, nor will your thesis chair give you assignments and check your completion of them on a regular basis. You will be expected to work independently and to consult with your professor only periodically. Therefore, if you recognize that you often tend to procrastinate on academic assignments or if you know that you depend a great deal on someone else's directions and/or deadlines to complete such tasks, you probably are not a good candidate.
Your primary motivation for pursuing a thesis or project is your fear of the Comprehensive Exam. Some students develop unrealistic fears regarding formal examinations, especially important ones like the Comps which provide entry into another career phase or salary step. In fact, most such fears are unfounded. The pass-rate on the Comps in the TESOL Program is fairly high. Usually, upwards of 85% of students are successful in it. On the other hand, the completion rate for theses and project reports is probably about the same as the Comps pass-rate. Many of those who never finish writing a thesis should never have undertaken the task because their principal reason for doing it was to avoid the Comps.
When should I begin thinking about it? As early as possible in your degree program, but only after you have determined that you are a good candidate for a thesis or project report, begin discussions with a professor about your ideas. Remember that you must find a faculty member who is willing to chair your supervising committee. Therefore, you must determine early on that a professor is interested in assisting you with your ideas. Utilize the research class(es) and other courses you take as testing grounds for your ideas. Most important, conduct a thoughtful self-analysis to determine for yourself whether you feel you should pursue this course.
First, you should obtain all of the pertinent guidelines and forms, and read them very carefully. They include the following:
- The University's General Catalog (read the graduate section);
- The University Guide to Preparation of Master's Theses and Project Reports;
- The Charter College of Education Guidelines for Students Preparing Theses or Projects;
- Form EGS-12, "Request for Thesis/Project Committee"; and
- Form EGS-14, "Request for Approval of Thesis or Project Proposal".
Prepare a projected timeline for yourself. Be realistic, and determine whether you are prepared to spend the time it will take to complete your work. If you are in a rush to complete your degree, you should take the Comps instead.
After you have read the documents cited above and have prepared a timeline, you should consult the faculty member you wish to work with and determine the following:
Does this person have an interest in your topic? Not every faculty member is an expert in every aspect of SLA or TESOL. Make certain that you have a good match between your area of interest and the area of specialization of the faculty member.
Is he or she willing to supervise your work? University professors are not required to undertake the supervision of theses or project reports unless they are interested in them. A difference in philosophy or perspective may prompt a faculty member to decline your request to chair your committee.
Will he or she be able to fit you into his or her workload? The supervision of a thesis or project requires countless hours of consultation with individual students as well as reading and editing of preliminary drafts. There is a limit to the number of students any one professor can accommodate. Make sure early on that the faculty member is able to give you an adequate amount of time.
Is he or she able to accommodate your timeline? Professors periodically earn sabbaticals or leaves of absence for research or other purposes. Typically, these are scheduled several quarters in advance. Make sure that the faculty member understands your projected timeline and that it coincides with his or her plans.
Next, make sure you submit the Advancement to Candidacy form. This form should be prepared as soon as possible after you have completed 16 units of coursework in your program. Note that you will not be permitted to enroll in the thesis/project course sequence unless you have been advanced to candidacy.
Visit an adviser to formally modify your degree program. This involves changing your original degree program by deleting the Comprehensive Exam and adding the 599ABC thesis/project course sequence. Work with the adviser to carefully plan when you will enroll in the remaining courses, including any additional courses which may be necessary for you to successfully complete your thesis or project report. Note that it is the policy of the SOE Assembly that all students who choose to do a thesis must complete EDFN 452 and 500! Students completing a project must complete EDFN 500.
There are many ways to go about selecting a topic for a thesis or project report. The following list gives just a few examples of how you may do this.
If you already have an idea, discuss it with a faculty member to determine whether or not it is appropriate.
Consult the library or MA in TESOL faculty for information on- TESOL M.A. Theses and Projects. This will give you a sense of the kinds of topics which have been deemed appropriate. Once you have identified some which interest you, look them up in the database in order to get a sense of what will be required of you should you undertake something similar. One word of caution as you review the actual theses. The University's and the Charter College of Education's policies regarding theses and project reports have changed significantly in the last few years. Therefore, do not use the theses in the Library to determine matters of style or organization as you prepare your own writing. Instead, refer to the documents listed earlier. They are the final word on policy and style.
Sometimes, a faculty member will state in class that a certain topic would make an interesting research project. Listen carefully, and pursue a discussion of it with the faculty member during office hours.
You must follow certain steps in completing your project or thesis, and they must be accomplished in sequence.
You must select a committee.
You must prepare a Proposal and have it approved by your committee. This is done during the quarter in which you register for 599A, and you will not receive credit for 599A until your Proposal has been approved and the Form EGS-14 filed with the Office of the Associate Dean (KH-D2070).
Enroll in 599B and 599C.
Note that you must have received credit for 599A before you will be permitted to enroll in 599B; and 599B and 599C must be taken in separate quarters. Thus, you will be making a commitment of at minimum 3 quarters. Because writing is such an individual process and for the majority of students the timeline exceeds 3 quarters, students who are under strict timelines for finishing are advised not to pursue this route.
There is no standard number of references required for a thesis or project. Do not expect your professor to give you a specific number or to provide you with a ready-made list of articles and books. However, the following guidelines should be helpful.
- Consult the theses and projects in the Library for a sense of the scope of a literature review.
- Try to identify the most recent pertinent reference article or book, and use its Reference List as a guide in conducting your library search.
- Concentrate on the most recent research, and limit older entries to landmark studies or works which have had a particular influence on your thinking.
- Once you have conducted this preliminary search, prepare a typed draft of your Reference List and consult with your chair.
Be sure that you work out a tentative time line with your chair when you first begin to work on your thesis/project. Every professor works with several students simultaneously, and they must plan their schedules accordingly. Also, remember that professors periodically earn sabbaticals or leaves of absence for research or other purposes. You need to make sure that the faculty member understands your projected timeline and that it coincides with his or her plans. Of course, you should also let your professor know if you plan to take some time off as well.
The following are some other things to keep in mind about working with your chair.
Please make sure that you have proofread carefully all of the drafts you turn in. Your chair's task is to read for content.
Spelling, punctuation, and grammaticality are your responsibilities. Note that the APA manual has guidelines for capitalization, punctuation, abbreviations, etc. Spend some time reviewing these conventions. Also, professors generally use standard proofreading marks. See the APA manual if you are not familiar with these marks.
It is strongly recommended that you prepare your thesis/project on a word processor or computer. This will facilitate the multiple drafts that are always necessary. If you do not have a computer, note that several CSLA computing facilities are available to students.
Whenever you submit a draft, please follow these guidelines:
Number all pages, even if the page numbering is temporary. Write in the page numbers by hand, if necessary.
Separate the pages of your computer printout, and either staple the pages or use a strong clip to hold it all together. In other words, do not turn in a draft on continuous-feed computer paper until you have separated and reassembled the pages.
With every draft, write a cover note with specific questions/concerns you may have. Do you want your professor to look at a particular section? Do you need suggestions on fleshing out one of the examples? Are you unsure if a literature review is complete? Etc.
With every draft, write your full address and telephone number in case you professor needs to contact you.
Every time you submit a new draft, please enclose the previous draft so that your professor can compare your revisions and save time by not having to review again sections that have already been approved. Remember that you are entitled to disagree with any suggested revisions, but if you do so you should be prepared to defend your position. If you have doubts about an issue, it is best to discuss them with your professor before you write on that issue.
Finally, please submit separate copies of your drafts to your two committee members, unless they ask you not to do so. It is your responsibility to reconcile differences in their comments/feedback. In other words, it is considered discourteous to ask one professor to react to a draft which contains another professor's editorial comments unless asked to do so.
The final stages of thesis/project preparation are very time consuming, and, unfortunately, these final stages typically occur at the end of a quarter, when everyone is extremely busy. Therefore, please allow plenty of time to complete your final revisions and to secure faculty signatures. Be sure to allow plenty of time to obtain permission to reprint published material that you plan to include in your thesis/project (e.g., cartoons, commercial materials, etc.). You will need to make an appointment with the Thesis coordinator in the library to get the specifications for manuscript preparation. Follow these instructions carefully in order to expedite the process. Note that if you have any doubts about the quality of your computer's output or the acceptability of any piece of your thesis/project, it is a good idea to show the librarian samples well ahead of the last few weeks.
Finally, the thesis project is submitted electronically. Consult with your Chair and Committee members whether they prefer to receive an electronic or a hard copy of your final product.