Tips and Advice for Thesis Authors

Prepared by Dr. Stephen Owen and Dr. Tod Burke
Radford University Department of Criminal Justice

So, You Want to Write a Thesis…

Students choosing to pursue a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice are required to prepare and defend a thesis – an original piece of research conducted wholly by the student. But who should do a thesis? And how should it be done? These are questions that are often neglected, sometimes leaving students uncertain about or wary of the thesis experience. Here are some thoughts and general guidelines about thesis writing.

Who Should Write a Thesis?

Obviously, all students who plan to graduate with a Master of Arts degree. But what is the advantage to pursuing a thesis – and the M.A. – instead of completing two extra courses for a Master of Science? Broadly speaking, the thesis is most beneficial to the following students:

  • Those who plan to work in a research setting and would like hands-on experience in formulating a research question and gathering and analyzing data

  • Those who plan to enroll in a doctoral program and would like to get an idea as to what is involved in the dissertation process. In addition, students may use their thesis to serve as the foundation for a dissertation. This saves research time in the dissertation writing process.

  • Those who would simply like to integrate their coursework and pursue a topic of interest in an in-depth fashion

The Costs and Benefits of Thesis Writing

It is important to note that a thesis can be a labor-intensive, but rewarding, endeavor. Thesis preparation can give students a taste for real-world research and be useful for those pursuing research or academic careers. In addition, students working towards a M.A. in criminal justice are exempted from written exams if they complete a thesis.

However, a thesis also requires certain resources.

  • TimeA rule of thumb is that completion of a thesis, from beginning of the proposal to final defense, takes about a year as a full-time student. If your main goal is to complete your degree as quickly as possible, the thesis may not be an option for you. Likewise, if you plan to leave the area or transfer to another school, you may not wish to take the thesis option.

  • FocusTheses may take longer if students are also trying to balance the demands of job, family, etc. It is important that potential thesis-writers understand the process and workload involved with the project.

  • SkillsWriting a thesis requires – and will help you hone – good writing, analytical, and data-analysis skills.

  • Indirect Costs. The costs associated with preparing a thesis are the responsibility of the student. These may include, but are not limited to, photocopying, postage, phone calls, etc.

I’ve Decided to Write a Thesis…Now What?

The sooner you decide to pursue a thesis, the better. The more time you have to plan and prepare your project, the less intensive and chaotic the project will be. Remember, you can always choose to take six credit hours of classes and drop the thesis. But if you have any interest in writing a thesis, start planning early!

It is important to choose a topic. Some students come into the program with a topic in mind, others are introduced to exciting new ideas in classes, and others still discover topics through outside reading, current events, and so on. The most important thing is that you are interested in, and even passionate about, your topic. It will make the your writing much easier! You should use your first year to narrow down your ideas to one well-specified topic.

As you work to specify a topic, you should be guided by two questions:

  1. How can I narrow my topic so it is manageable? For instance, "community policing" is simply too broad! You may, however, find a passion for research about foot patrol.

  2. What can I contribute to an understanding of this topic? In a thesis, you will be making one or more specific hypotheses. For instance, "Citizens in communities using foot patrol will report higher levels of satisfaction with the police than citizens in communities that do not use foot patrols." Don’t re-invent the wheel - you want to contribute something new to the field! While replications of previous studies are acceptable, it’s good to have a new twist or angle to your research topic. This will help make your thesis a meaningful contribution to the literature and will increase the chances that you can later get it published or turn it into a dissertation.

In Your First Year: Reading, Writing, Discussing

You should use your first year of classes to learn more about topics that interest you and explore potentially interesting research questions. You can accomplish this in several ways:

  • DiscussionsDon’t be a lone ranger! As you’re thinking about your topic, discuss your ideas with faculty members. Consult your graduate manual for specific topics of interest to each faculty member in the department. However, be advised that many faculty have a wide range of interests and are willing to discuss topics other than those listed in the manual. Discussions with faculty members can help point you in the direction of relevant literature, help you focus your research, and help you determine if your research ideas and methods are feasible per your time schedule and resources. Consult with several faculty members with different perspectives – remember, eventually you’ll have to work with a committee of three faculty who may not share the same insights or opinions (more about this later)! As you work with faculty members, you’ll want to identify one professor that you feel comfortable serving as your Thesis Committee Chair. This professor must be a full graduate faculty member, and you will work closely with him or her as you prepare your project.

  • ScholarshipBecome a scholar. As a graduate student, you are concerned with the critical examination of the discipline of criminal justice. This is especially true if you are pursuing a thesis, since the outcome of a good thesis project is the contribution of new knowledge to the discipline. So, try to get involved with the two major professional organizations – the American Society of Criminology (ASC) and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) – by participating in their annual conferences. At the very least, you should get into the habit of perusing the major scholarly journals in criminal justice on a regular basis, including Criminology, Justice Quarterly, and so on. (Note: The ASC and ACJS offer special student membership fees that include organizational membership and subscriptions to the organization’s respective journals and newsletters).

  • Reading. Read about your topic. A lot. Pay particular attention to material in scholarly journals. You may start a bibliography of key pieces of literature about topics that interest you. Reading now will save you time later, when it’s time to write your literature review!

  • Take Advantage of Your Classes. Use class assignments to write about your topic (so long as it fits within the parameters of the assignment, of course!). In research methods classes, as you learn about hypotheses and methodologies, think about how to narrow your topic to a realistic hypothesis and what methods would best serve to investigate that hypothesis. If possible, use research methods assignments to develop a possible research design. This will all help you think about your topic. Also, these assignments will be graded and you will be given feedback about your ideas. So, the exchange of ideas that will lead to a thesis proposal has already begun!

Get to Know the Faculty

By the end of the first year of classes, or the beginning of the second at the latest, you should have an idea about what faculty you would like to chair and serve on your Thesis Committee. Ideally, you will have previously discussed ideas with these individuals. Don’t be afraid to get to know the faculty!

As you prepare your thesis, you and your committee will work closely together. It is important that you have a good relationship (i.e., you don’t have to be best buddies, but there shouldn’t be hostility and antagonism either!) with your chair. You should also get along well with the other members of your committee. Obviously, you are the best judge as to how well you get along with various faculty members.

Working With a Committee

The importance of working with the faculty on your committee, and especially your committee chair, can not be over-emphasized! A thesis is really a collaborative project in which the student, as an apprentice, is guided by the faculty, as mentors. As you prepare your proposal, seek the advice and counsel of your faculty mentors!

Constant communication is essential. As you complete sections of your proposal and thesis, run them by your committee chair for commentary. After making revisions from your chair, run them by the rest of your committee. Do not wait until the very end to give the thesis in its entirety to your chair or committee! Constant communication is essential and will allow you regular progress checks instead of massive revisions at the end!

Have realistic expectations of your committee. It takes at least one week to review written drafts. Do not expect overnight service for reviewing drafts!

What Do You Mean, "Rewrite It"?!

It is basically a given that you will have to do re-writes, in the proposal stage and as you prepare your final thesis project. This is normal. Do not be offended. What you may believe is important to your project, your committee may not, and vice-versa. A thesis is not a one-shot project (at least, it shouldn’t be!). Rather, it is a continuous learning activity in which drafts are circulated and ideas are exchanged. The purpose is for you to produce a solid and sound piece of research, generally suitable for publication consideration. Be assured that your professors had to do rewrites when they wrote their theses and/or dissertations! Be prepared to do extensive editing of your thesis! When you are asked to re-write something, keep these considerations in mind, and remember that you are not being singled out as "unsatisfactory." Here are some of the main reasons why you will probably be asked to re-write.

  • The faculty want your research to be the best that it can be. Sometimes, faculty members may think there is a better way to say something, or an alternative method of examining something, that you may not have considered. It always helps to have a second, third, and fourth pair of eyes read over something to look for ways it can be strengthened.

  • This process will help you! Editing is part of the learning process. Making revisions will help you fine-tune your writing skills, as you work to express your ideas as clearly and powerfully as you can. Also, this is a good experience for those of you moving to research or academic careers. In order to get published in academic contexts, your work will be reviewed by outside reviewers. This is a time-tested process in academe. Your thesis is your first exposure to it.

  • Your thesis is a reflection on you. You should take pride in making it as strong as possible. Your reflection is also a reflection on your committee, on your department, and on Radford University. Your faculty do not want to be poorly reflected through an underdeveloped project.

  • Above all, remember that your committee wants you to succeed.

The Proposal

You should begin preparation of your proposal immediately after selecting a committee. Your proposal explains, in detail, what your project is about, what questions you will try to answer, and how you will gather data and answer them. The Graduate College requires you to submit a one-page thesis proposal form. Be advised that this is not a "real" proposal – the proposal form simply informs the Graduate College that you intend to complete a thesis.

Your full proposal should essentially include Chapter One (Literature Review) and Chapter Two (Research Methods) of what will become your final thesis. Your literature review should be focused only on that body of literature that has direct bearing on your topic. It should set the background for your project, explaining why your topic is important and why your question is interesting and valid. The Research Methods chapter should explain, in detail, how you will collect and analyze your data. Consult your faculty mentor as you prepare this section of your proposal. Also, think about your own time and resource constraints (i.e., can you really afford to send a survey to a 5,000 police officers across the country?). Your research methodology may make use of quantitative and/or qualitative research analysis and methods.

You will most likely be required to defend your thesis proposal. In a thesis proposal defense, you should plan to make a presentation outlining your topic, why it matters, and what questions you want to answer with what research methods. You and your committee will then discuss the proposal. Expect revisions! It is important that you not start gathering and analyzing data until your committee has approved your proposal! You don’t want to be in an uncomfortable situation of having loads of data that were gathered using an unapproved methodology!

Human Subjects Review

If you plan to gather data by interviewing, surveying, or observing people (really, by any method involving any form of interpersonal contact), you must seek approval from the Radford University Institutional Review Board (IRB). It may also be necessary to seek approval from other institutions’ review boards for human subjects research, such as Department of Corrections or Department of Juvenile Justice. Information on the Radford University IRB is available on the web. Work with your advisor to gain approval. In some cases (such as survey research) it may be possible to qualify for an abbreviated review process. Essentially, what the Board will ask for is a description of your research method, which will be examined to ensure that you will not be causing harm to any of your subjects. Again, specific requirements and forms are available on the RU IRB website. As you budget your time, be advised that (in most cases) the IRB meets only once a month. However, if you have a sophisticated design that involves substantial invasion of privacy, surveys of children or prisoners, deception, and so forth, the approval process may take longer. Research may notbegin until the Institutional Review Board has approved it! It is best to submit your project for review as soon as your committee has approved your research design.

The Thesis

After completing your proposal (and securing IRB approval), you should be finished with your literature review and research methodology. All that remains now is for you to collect data, analyze it, and discuss the results. Remember to stay in constant contact with your chair and committee members!

Towards the end of the semester (please familiarize yourself with publicized requirements and due dates), you will be required to defend your thesis. This is a presentation that is open to the public. Expect to see people other than your three committee members! Here, you should prepare a presentation summarizing your project and the findings. You will then be asked questions from your committee, other faculty, and/or anyone in the audience! Following the defense, you may be asked to make more revisions before your committee signs off on the thesis. This is a common practice.


You can save yourself much heartache and stress by properly formatting your thesis from the beginning. The Graduate College distributes a Thesis Preparation Manual, containing details about such things as margins, tables of contents, appearance, and so on. Learn it, live it, love it! This guide contains the formatting regulations and other guidelines that you must follow in the preparation of your thesis. Your thesis may not be accepted if it does not conform to these guidelines!

First Year of Classes

  • Determine that a thesis is right for you.
  • Identify possible topics. Learn as much as you can about them, by reading, writing about them in course papers, and discussing them with faculty.
  • With the assistance of faculty, narrow your topics to one well-specified subject. Identify interesting questions to ask about that subject.
  • Identify a Thesis Committee.

Don't Waste the Summer!

  • If possible, use the summer to get some work done. In consultation with your committee, work on the literature review and the research methods section.

Second Year of Classes

  • Plan to defend your proposal shortly after the mid-point of the semester.
  • Plan to have Institutional Review Board approval before Winter Break.
  • Use the spring semester to gather and analyze your data.
  • You must be finished three weeks prior to commencement! Consult with the Graduate College for important thesis-related dates.
  • In addition to the copies required by the Graduate College (described in the Thesis Manual), please make an additional copy of your thesis for the Department of Criminal Justice, so we can keep a record of your accomplishment!