54 Steps in Writing a Thesis or Dissertation

Students must complete and submit an Advisory Committee Form during the first semester in which they register for thesis or dissertation hours if they have not taken ENGL 6909 (Master’s Readings) or ENGL 7909 (Doctoral Readings). Forming a committee and submitting the Advisory Committee form should be part of completing these Readings courses prior to registering for thesis or dissertation hours.

Each thesis or dissertation is unique, and the preparedness of each student also differs widely, so the following list of steps is provisional, not absolute. The director may ask the writer of the thesis or dissertation to follow a different set of steps from those listed here, but this list will provide a general idea of what to expect.

Step 1: Proposal

The Proposal is a preliminary overview of the student’s research interest, 1-2 pages in length, plus a selective bibliography in an appropriate professional style format (such as MLA or Chicago). It should address the purpose and rationale for the research and comment on the significance of the study to the field. The Proposal should be professional in its presentation and carefully proofread. Students would be well advised to bring this statement when approaching the potential director and readers.

Step 2: Masters or Doctoral Readings

The Masters (ENGL 6909) and Doctoral Readings (ENGL 7909) courses should be taken in the semester before initial enrollment in thesis or dissertation hours. These courses are designed to allow the student to conduct preliminary research and study in the topic of the thesis or dissertation, establish a thesis or dissertation committee, and write an introductory chapter (M.A.) or prospectus (Ph.D.), thus reserving actual thesis or dissertation hours for focused writing. The 6909/7909 course may count as elective coursework toward the degree and may be taken only once.

Step 3: Dissertation Prospectus

The dissertation prospectus should outline the background, research question, argumentative thesis, and planned methodology for addressing the topic, and it should discuss the potential contribution that the work will make to advancing scholarship and/or pedagogy. Ph.D. students may use the Doctoral Readings (ENGL 7909) course to prepare and present the prospectus before registering for dissertation hours, but if they do not take the Readings course candidates are required to present the completed prospectus to their dissertation directors and committees before completing their first semester of ENGL 7640 (Dissertation Research). If the proposed project is weak or there are flaws in the proposed methodology, the director or committee may require revision—perhaps multiple revisions—before the prospectus is presented. This step may generate a written outline of further requirements from the committee. The approved prospectus is publicly presented and then disseminated via email to the department’s graduate students and faculty at large. A prospectus is not required for the M.A. thesis.

Step 4: Provisional Table of Contents, and Working Timeline for Completion

The table of contents provides a broad, general outline of the plan to develop the argument. The timeline for completion will almost always change as one gets into the actual writing (it almost always takes longer than originally planned), but students should try to be as realistic and as honest as possible.

Step 5: Reading, Research, and Drafts of Chapters

This process makes up the bulk of the time and is often cyclical and recursive. The director should see some sort of progress on drafts of chapters each semester before turning in the requisite grade of S or U for that semester. The student should discuss with the director and readers when to send the drafts to the reader(s): some want to see the chapters as they are completed; others prefer to wait until a draft of the entire thesis or dissertation is complete.

Step 6: Revision

Students should expect to have to make several revisions of each chapter, and they are expected to address the directors’ and readers’ comments on previous drafts in their revisions. Directors may require revision according to their comments on a chapter before sending it on to the reader(s), whose comments will probably require another revision. If there are conflicts, the director’s responsibility is to guide the student in negotiating with other committee members about which comments are most important to address and why. The director and all committee members must approve all revisions before the student produces the completed draft.

Step 7: Completed Draft

The entire committee should be able to read the whole, revised and polished text at least a couple of weeks before the defense. If there are any doubts about the quality of scholarship or argument at this point, the oral defense may be delayed until the student addresses the concerns of the committee. Completion of a draft does not automatically mean that the draft will be approved by the committee.

Step 8: Final Copy

The argument should be sound and the text should provide ample proof supporting the argument. The writing should be sophisticated and clear and should present the ideas in an interesting, orderly, and persuasive manner. The thesis or dissertation should be carefully proofread and polished and should conform to all of the formatting requirements of the University Style Guide. In short, it should be a polished, professional work. Students should bear in mind that theses and dissertations are automatically made available online through ProQuest. “Good enough” should not be the first impression people have of one’s work.

Step 9: Oral Defense

The oral defense is an examination conducted by the committee on the material covered by the thesis or dissertation and its contribution to the field of study. The defense is announced ahead of time and is open to anyone who cares to attend. The student and all members of the committee must be present at the defense. Generally the oral defense will generate further “fine tuning” revisions necessary before the student turns in the polished copy to ProQuest. Depending on the nature of such revisions, the director may or may not want to see this copy before final submission.

Step 10: Final Submission Process

Since several individuals must read and approve graduate theses and dissertations, the submission process involves several steps and several deadlines which occur fairly early in the semester in which a student graduates. The relevant dates are posted by the College of Graduate Studies on the Graduate Studies Calendar and by the graduate program each semester.

  • Thesis: The thesis must be submitted to ProQuest by the date indicated on the Graduate Studies Calendar. This is a hard deadline—no extensions will be permitted. [Note: The Graduate Program in English requires submission of all finished theses to the Director of Graduate Studies approximately one week before the defense.] Once the thesis has been successfully defended, the student submits an electronic file of the thesis to ProQuest and an approval page form with the required signatures to the College of Graduate Studies.  (These details are provided in the guidelines located at mtsu.edu/graduate/student/thesis.php.) Any thesis not meeting the standards of the College of Graduate Studies may be rejected by the graduate dean, delaying graduation.
  • Dissertation: The original dissertation in electronic format must be submitted electronically through ProQuest and the approval page form containing signatures from the committee and graduate program director should be submitted to the College of Graduate Studies by the deadline found in the Graduate Studies Calendar and the current semester’s schedule of classes. Any dissertation not meeting the standards of the College of Graduate Studies may be rejected by the dean, delaying graduation. Note: The Graduate Program in English requires submission of all finished dissertations to the Director of Graduate Studies two weeks before defense.



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