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Writing - Thesis Guide for MA students: The Process

The Thesis Process


The purpose of this guide is to assist students writing a thesis for the degrees Masters of Arts in Theology, Biblical Studies, or Catholic Studies.


Master’s-level research is to arrive at an accurate understanding of the current state of scholarly discussion on a topic and to defend a position in relation to it. Therefore, the research will include both an analysis of the current scholarly perspectives on one’s topic and an argument for one of those perspectives thereby presenting a well-written and well-structured document that draws conclusions from the sources. The work will show mastery of the thesis question and how it fits within the larger field of study.


  • Demonstrate a solid grasp of theological/exegetical issues of a particular topic chosen by the student under the guidance of a professor.
  • Demonstrate familiarity with primary and secondary sources.
  • Demonstrate competence with the tools and methods of theological research including the ability to consult, utilize, and evaluate primary texts and scholarly literature.
  • Demonstrate the ability to exercise sound theological judgments involving analysis, comparison, and/or criticism; and to draw appropriate and accurate conclusions.
  • Demonstrate the ability to communicate according to scholarly conventions by producing a work in good form and style.


  • Research a topic in one area of the curriculum.
    • For MAT, biblical studies, Christian living, historical theology/church history, systematic theology or some combination of these areas.
    • For MAB, research a topic in some area of biblical studies. Requires some use of either Hebrew or Greek.
    • For MACS, research topic in some area of the Catholic intellectual tradition. (Note that MACS students need not complete a thesis to earn the degree. A written comprehensive exam can substitute for the thesis).
  • Write a thesis of 50-70 pages in length (not counting the title page, table of contents, bibliography or other preliminary and end materials). No thesis over 70 pages will be accepted for defense.
  • Register for 2 credit hours of thesis guidance for two consecutive semesters (4 credit hours total), the terms in which the majority of writing and research will be completed.

Orientation to the Thesis Writing Process

Students must attend an orientation, ordinarily held in the evening during the autumn semester. A student should attend the seminar during the beginning of his or her studies (for seminarians seeking the MAT or MAB, the autumn of their second theology year; for seminarians seeking the MACS, the spring of their first year of pre-theology; for lay students, by the time they have completed approximately 10 hours of coursework). The purpose of the seminar is to outline the process for writing the thesis.

Choosing a Topic and Thesis Advisor

After attending the thesis orientation, the student chooses a field of study (Biblical, Systematic, Moral, Sacramental, etc.) as well as a thesis advisor. Since potential ideas for the thesis often occur through coursework and prospective topics are best explored by consulting professors in a particular area of interest, at this stage the student should contact a potential thesis advisor. An advisor should ordinarily be a full-time member of the Athenaeum faculty who teaches in the area in which the student wishes to do research. If the student has difficulty finding an advisor, the Special Studies Dean will provide further direction.

The thesis advisor provides guidance to the student on the content of the thesis. The advisor meets with the student (responsibility for pursuing meetings rests with the student) to help the student develop the topic and frame the question with an appropriate scope. After initial exploration of a topic, the advisor helps shape a bibliography, reviews and provides commentary on drafts of the chapters, and ultimately decides when the student’s thesis is acceptable.

For the seminarian, a topic and advisor should be chosen by the end of his fourth semester of classes (spring of second theology year); for the lay student, by the time he or she has completed approximately 15 hours of coursework. A proposal form (available from the Dean's Office) indicating the topic/advisor with the student’s and advisor’s signatures is submitted to the Special Studies Dean for approval. If the student is a seminarian pursuing a second degree (in addition to the M.Div.), he also completes the application for entrance into the Master’s program at this time.

Relationship between Student and Thesis Director

The role of the thesis director is to provide guidance to the student regarding the content of the thesis, and to safeguard the accuracy, objectivity, and academic integrity of the work. The thesis director is not necessarily a proof-reader, nor is he or she envisioned to be the generator of the ideas or the content of the thesis. For this, the student must demonstrate a capacity for clarity of thought and expression in writing the thesis. Nevertheless, the director ensures that the student recognizes any deficiencies in the argument and/or in the mechanics of writing and directs the student to correct these accordingly.

It is the responsibility of the student to provide the thesis director with his or her written work in a timely and incremental manner. Ideally, the student will provide the director with his or her work one chapter at a time. The director should then, in turn, provide the student with timely feedback that does not unduly impede or delay the student’s progress. More information about this is specified below in the section entitled “Thesis Development and Completion Deadlines.”

Thesis Seminar

Once a topic and advisor have been approved, each student writing a thesis must enroll in a 1 credit-hour pass/fail Master’s thesis seminar. For seminarians seeking the MAT or MAB, the seminar is taken in the fifth semester of classes (the autumn of their third theology year); for seminarians seeking the MACS, the seminar is taken in the autumn of their second year of pre-theology; for lay students, the seminar is taken after they have completed approximately 15 hours of coursework or judge themselves ready to begin thesis research and writing.

This seminar is primarily methodological. It treats of the nature of a master’s thesis and the manner of presenting the written work. Over the course of the semester, the student will be required to:

  • Develop a thesis statement;
  • Complete initial research and compile an initial bibliography under the supervision of the thesis advisor and submitted to the seminar facilitator (mid-semester);
  • Create an outline approved by the thesis advisor and submitted to the seminar facilitator (mid-late semester);
  • Create a written summary of the thesis and a timeline approved by the thesis advisor. The written summary (précis) and bibliography will be presented in the seminar along with an oral presentation of the proposed work (end of the semester).

Thesis Proposal

The thesis proposal is the foundational document that provides the blueprint upon which the thesis will be constructed. Subsequently, the proposal should treat the following principal components of the student’s research: 1) the ‘state of the question’ (status quaestionis); 2) the aims of the research; 3) the objectives of the research; 4) the limits of the research; and 5) the resources to be utilized (bibliography). A template of the "Master's Thesis Proposal" is available on the Maly Library Thesis LibGuide.


  • Should be direct and distinctive, encapsulating the main theme of your thesis.


  • What is the “state of the question” regarding your topic? What have been the findings of recent scholarship?
  • This section is intended to give the reader a sense of why the chosen topic is important and what other authors have said about the themes that the student intends to develop. The status quaestionis should be comprehensive but need not be exhaustive. It should include all the major works that are pertinent to the topic, both those with which the student is in agreement and those with which the student is not. This section provides an objective and academic examination of why the topic being treated in the thesis is important to current scholarship and should not merely be a proof-text of the student’s own views on the matter, something that will be specified in the “Aims.”


  • Why is the student writing this thesis and what are the goals that he or she hopes to achieve?
  • This section is intended to give the reader a sense as to what the student hopes to add to the material found in the status quaestionis. In other words, this section will highlight the particular contribution that the student’s research will make to the “state of the question.” Here the reader should find the student’s particular thesis statement.


  • This section explains how the student is going to achieve the aforementioned aims.
  • The student should specify the particular research methodology that he or she will employ (e.g. exegesis, text/source criticism, historical, etc.) as well as the disciplines that might be involved in writing the thesis (e.g. Scripture, Patristic Theology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, Sacramental Theology, etc.).
  • When composing this section, the student would also be will include a general outline of the thesis (e.g. “In Chapter One we will examine the foundations for the role of the Paraclete from the standpoint of John 16:4-11. We will accomplish this by […]. In Chapter Two we will then move on to discuss […].”).


  • What the student is not planning to cover in the thesis. For example, “I will limit my research only to the role that Berengarius of Tours’ highly Symbolic Eucharistic Theology had on the future clarifications found in the succeeding Ecumenical Councils. Therefore, I will not treat in any real depth the theological discussions between the Realists and Symbolists leading up to Berengarius’ time;” “I will limit my research to the post-Reformation period, leaving aside the late Medieval period so as to avoid overextending the argument;” “Although important sources are found on the topic in German, I will only make use of primary sources in English and Latin, partly due to the constraint of time and partly due to my own lack of proficiency in the German language.”    
  • This is an opportunity for the student to “cover his or her bases” to make sure that the reader knows what the student is planning to include and what he or she is planning to leave out. A well stated “Limit” section can serve a researcher well, ensuring the clarity and integrity of his or her argument.


  • This should be an alphabetical list of research sources in Turabian format, with a concise summary of each source and some assessment of its value or relevance to your thesis.
  • For the thesis proposal, the bibliography should include the principal works with which the student is planning to dialogue.
  • Entries for secondary sources should, as much as possible, focus on recently published journal articles and academic works, i.e., those that are no more than ten years old. Exceptions would be older works that are still considered the “standard” for the area of research the student is treating, as well as primary source material.

The purpose of the proposal is to provide the student of Masters-level research with a plan of action to maintain a consistent focus in the initial stages of his or her thesis writing. The goal of doing this remote preparation is to help the researcher produce a work that is objective, academic and well-founded.

Appended to this written proposal, the student will also complete the “Thesis Summary Form” found under Documents on the Thesis LibGuide. Once the proposal is completed, the director will sign off on the proposal via the summary form. Both the proposal and the summary form should then be submitted to the dean.

Registration for Thesis Advising

In the semester following the thesis seminar, ordinarily the student should register for thesis advising through the Registrar’s Office. The student registers for advising for two semesters (2 credit hours for each of 2 semesters; 4 credits total). Ordinarily, one registers for thesis advising for consecutive semesters, the semesters in which the majority of writing and research will be completed. For the seminarian seeking the MAT or MAB, he enrolls in thesis advising during their sixth semester (spring of their third theology year) and seventh semester (autumn of their fourth theology year). For the seminarian seeking the MACS, he enrolls in thesis advising during both semesters of the second year of pre-theology. During these semesters, the student will work closely with his or her advisor to develop the thesis. The advisor assigns a grade at the end of the semester based on the quality of work and completion of timeline goals.

Thesis Development and Completion Deadlines

During the two semesters of thesis advising, the advisor and student will meet on a regular basis to evaluate the progress of research. They will agree upon a timeline of research and chapter submission. The student will submit pages or chapters to the advisor on a regular basis. The advisor will suggest revisions to drafts of the text throughout the process. It is the student’s responsibility to regularly proofread the pages, avoiding typographical errors or errors with respect to citation and references.

For students seeking the MAT or MAB, a complete draft of the thesis should be submitted to the thesis advisor and second reader by October 15 of the academic year in which the student hopes to graduate (for seminarians, during the students’ seventh semester, or autumn of their fourth theology year). After receiving comments and corrections, the student is to submit a corrected draft of the thesis to the advisor and readers by November 1. The readers’ comments are submitted to advisor and student by November 15. For MACS students, this timeline may be adapted.

The advisor is responsible for evaluating if the thesis is suitable for defense and giving final approval for submission. Once deemed acceptable by the advisor, three printed copies of the final defense-ready thesis must be submitted to Special Studies Dean by the last day of the autumn semester (for seminarians, the seventh semester, or autumn of their fourth theology year; for lay students, the final day of the semester in the semester prior to graduation).

Nomination and Role of Second and Third Readers

In addition to the director, the thesis examining board consists of two readers: the second reader and the third reader. The readers assist the director in evaluating the content, writing, and overall quality of the thesis and the defense of that thesis.

 After the thesis proposal has been submitted to the dean at the beginning stages of the process, the second reader is nominated by the dean to work in tandem with the student and director. The second reader is envisioned to be an additional critical lens by which the student can refine his or her work in the process of researching and writing. Once a chapter has been approved by the director, the student forwards it to the second reader for review. After having reviewed the document the second reader provides the director with any comments or suggested revisions that he or she feels would assist the student’s chapter. After consulting the director, the student is free to either apply the second reader’s comments and suggestions, or not. Once a chapter has been reviewed by the second reader it does not have to be reviewed again unless the student and director request otherwise, and the second reader is able and willing. This process is repeated for each successive chapter. Ultimately the director will judge whether the thesis is suitable for defense and giving final approval for submission to the dean.

 At the time that a complete draft is submitted to the dean for defense, a third reader is then nominated by the dean. The third reader examines only the completed thesis in anticipation of the thesis defense. Ordinarily the amount of time that the third reader has to read the thesis is two weeks prior to the scheduled defense.

Thesis Defense

After having received approval of the paper from the thesis advisor and second reader, the student will approach the Special Studies Dean to arrange for a public defense of the research. The student supplies three copies of the thesis to the dean who provides copies to the examining board. The examination board is encouraged to meet prior to the defense to discuss the thesis.

The Special Studies Dean will work with the student and examining board to find a mutually agreeable date and time for the defense. The thesis defense does not need to be held at the same time as the written part of the comprehensive exam. The defense will ordinarily take place before February 15 of the student’s final semester before graduation.

The defense begins with the student offering a 10-15 minute summary of his or her findings. Then he or she answers questions that the panel has about the thesis. Typically there are two rounds of questions from faculty members with each faculty member spending five to ten minutes per round examining the student. The defense will be about an hour in length.

At the conclusion of the defense, faculty members confer to discuss whether the student has successfully defended the thesis. All faculty members sign the grade sheet which is submitted to the registrar. The Special Studies Dean conveys the result to the student.

Time Limit and Extension

Students are required to complete the degree within five years from the time of admission. This five year period includes the writing of the thesis. An extension may be granted by the Admissions and Degrees Committee.