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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, Theology (MAT) or Master of Arts, Biblical Studies (MAB). This guide will also serve those who are writing a major research paper for the Master of Arts, Catholic Studies (MACS).


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.
  • For MAT and MAB students:
    • Write a thesis of 50-70 pages in length (not counting the title page, table of contents, bibliography or other preliminary and end materials). Ordinarily, no thesis over 70 pages of written text will be accepted for defense.
    • Register for 2 credit hours of thesis guidance for 2 consecutive semesters (4 credit hours total), the terms in which the majority of writing and research will be completed.
  • For MACS students:
    • Write a major research paper at or around 25 pages in length (not counting the title page, front matter, and bibliography).
    • Register for 2 credit hours of major research paper guidance during the term in which the majority of research and writing will be completed.

Orientation to the MA Research and Writing Process

Students must attend an orientation, ordinarily held on a work-week evening during the spring semester. A student should attend the seminar during the beginning of his or her studies (for seminarians seeking the MAT or MAB, the spring of their second year of Theology; 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/major research paper. The date of the orientation, usually scheduled for an evening in March or the beginning of April, is established at the beginning of the academic year and listed in the Athenaeum’s academic calendar.

Choosing a Topic and Director

After attending the orientation session, the student chooses a field of study (Biblical, Systematic, Moral, Sacramental, etc.) as well as a thesis/major research paper director. Since potential ideas for the thesis/paper often occur through coursework, prospective topics—and directors for those topics—are best explored by consulting professors in a particular area of interest. A director 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 a director, he or she should inform the Dean of the School of Theology (hereafter in this document referred to as “dean”) who will be able to offer suggestions.

Ideally, a research topic and director should be identified before the start of the next academic year following attendance at the orientation session. Once a topic and director have been secured, the student will begin the process of drafting the thesis proposal (see “Thesis/Major Research Paper Proposal” below). For MAT/MAB students, this process will be part of the required MA Research Seminar (see “MAT/MAB Thesis Seminar” below). MACS students will work individually with their director to develop a proposal to guide their research.

At this time—before the start of the next academic year following attendance at the orientation session—students should apply for admission to their degree program if they have not already done so. For a seminarian, the MAT or MAB would be considered a second degree in addition to the MDiv.

Relationship between Student and Director

The role of the thesis director is to provide guidance to the student regarding the content of the thesis/major research paper, and to safeguard the accuracy, objectivity, and academic integrity of the work. The director is not necessarily a proofreader, nor is he or she envisioned to be the generator of the ideas or the content of the thesis/paper. For this, the student must demonstrate a capacity for clarity of thought and expression in writing the thesis/major research paper. 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 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/Major Research Paper Development and Completion Deadlines.”

MAT/MAB Thesis Seminar

MAT and MAB student must enroll in a two-credit pass/fail master’s thesis seminar, MA 696. 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 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. (The thesis seminar is not required of MACS students.)

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 director and submitted to the seminar facilitator (mid-semester);
  • Create an outline approved by the thesis director and submitted to the seminar facilitator (mid-late semester);
  • Create a written summary of the thesis and a timeline approved by the thesis director. 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).
  • Prepare the official thesis proposal in consultation with the thesis director and submit to the dean upon completion.

Thesis/Major Research Paper Proposal

The MAT/MAB thesis proposal/MACS major research proposal is the foundational document that provides the blueprint upon which the thesis/paper 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). The following can serve as a guide for the student and director in crafting the proposal. Ultimately, it is up to the director to judge whether these components are sufficiently evidenced in the student’s proposal even if this template is not strictly followed.


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


  • 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.
  • For the MACS major research paper, the status quaestionis should be comprehensive but need not be exhaustive, especially considering the limited nature of the research paper.


  • 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.”


  • 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.


  • For the proposal, the bibliography should include the principal works with which the student is planning to dialogue.
  • The entries for secondary sources should 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 works.

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

The MAT/MAB student will append this written proposal to the “Master’s Thesis Proposal Summary Form.” Their director will sign off on the proposal via the summary form, and both the proposal and the summary form should then be submitted to the dean. The MACS student will complete the “MACS Major Research Paper Summary Form,” obtain their director’s signature, and submit the form to the dean. The MACS proposal does not need to be appended to the summary form.

Registration for Advising and Writing

Following the thesis seminar, MAT and MAB students are required to enroll in a two-credit directed research course (MA 697). For the seminarian, this would be during his sixth semester (spring of third theology year). During this time, the student will work closely with his or her director to develop the thesis. The director assigns a grade at the end of the semester based on the quality of work and completion of timeline goals.

Typically during the subsequent semester (autumn of fourth theology year for seminarians), students enroll in MA 698 (two credits) during which the thesis will be completed. The thesis director, in consultation with the second and third readers, will assign a final grade for the thesis, usually at the time of thesis defense.

For students seeking the MACS, only one major research paper course is required, i.e., CS 698 (two credits). Enrollment should take place during the second year of the program or whenever the student has completed half of the degree coursework. Throughout the process of researching and writing the paper, it is anticipated that the candidate will work in close collaboration with his or her director.

Thesis/Major Research Paper Development and Completion Deadlines

While enrolled in thesis/major research paper advising, the director 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 director on a regular basis. The director 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 the MACS candidate, once the student and director have deemed the major research paper satisfactory, the director will evaluate the paper and communicate a grade to the dean. The director will use the MA thesis grading rubric (see “Grading Rubric for MA 698 – Thesis” below) as a guide to evaluation. The superlative “With Distinction” will be granted to those who receive a grade of A- (3.75) or higher. This distinction will be noted on the student’s transcript and diploma.

As a general rule, for students seeking the MAT or MAB, a complete draft of the thesis should be ready for final review by the mid-term of the autumn semester 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).

The director is responsible for judging whether the thesis is suitable for defense and giving final approval for submission. Once deemed acceptable by the director, three printed copies of the final defense-ready thesis should be submitted to the 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).

MAT/MAB Thesis: 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.

MAT/MAB Thesis Defense

After having received approval of the paper from the thesis director, the student supplies three copies of the thesis to the dean who, in turn, provides copies to the examining board (i.e., the director and two readers). The student should also print a copy for him- or herself to have at the defense if needed. The defense copies should be printed double-sided, but do not have to be bound. The examining board is encouraged to meet prior to the defense to discuss the thesis.

The 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. If a student hopes to graduate in that given academic year, the latest date in which the defense can be scheduled is two weeks prior to the date of graduation. Exceptions can be granted by the dean, but only for just and reasonable causes.

The defense begins with the student offering a 10- to 15-minute summary of his or her findings. What then follows is a round of questions by the examining board. Each member of the board has up to 15 minutes to comment on the thesis or ask questions of the candidate. This may be taken in one round, or divided into two rounds, depending on the preference of the examining board. The defense will be about an hour in length.

At the conclusion of the defense, the examining board confers privately to discuss whether the student has successfully defended the thesis. All of the members of the examining board sign the grade sheet which is then submitted to the registrar. They also sign a document indicating whether the thesis is to be deposited to the library as is or deposited only after revisions have been made. The dean conveys the results of the defense to the student.

The superlative “With Distinction” will be granted to those who receive a grade of A- (3.75) or higher on their written thesis. This distinction will be noted on the student’s transcript and diploma.

Time Limit and Extension

Students are required to complete the MAT, MAB, or MACS degree within five years from the time of admission. This five-year period includes the writing of the thesis/major research paper. An extension may be granted by the Admissions and Degrees Committee.