Thesis vs. Non-Thesis

Students interested in doing a thesis must demonstrate graduate-level skills in writing, statistics, and research methods. If students do not have these skills, they will complete the non-thesis track.


Non-thesis track
Most students in the MA program take the “non-thesis” track, which means they do not have to do a thesis at the end of their coursework. Instead, they take one additional elective course and a 2 credit “comprehensive exam” course to help them prepare for a comprehensive exam. As a general rule, the only students who do a thesis are top students those who want to go on to a PhD or want a career which requires extensive experience in statistics, research methodology, and report writing.  Non-thesis students still take statistics and research methods classes; however they are not required to actually do a thesis. The focus of the non-thesis track is to train students in various aspects of the criminal justice field and related fields so as to provide extensive knowledge useful in the student’s future career.


Non-thesis students take a comprehensive exam based on their required coursework. Students can take up to 6 hours and can use a “study guide” they developed for the exam.


More information on the comprehensive exam can be found here.



Thesis track
As a general rule, the thesis is very closely related to the research interests of the thesis advisor. Thus, prospective students should consult professors prior to applying to the program about what research the professor is currently conducting, and whether the professor is interested in supervising the student.

Faculty research interests can be found here.

The student must demonstrate to the professor that s/he has graduate-level skills in research methods, statistics, and writing. Although the student works closely on a project related to the advisor’s interests, the student is responsible for coming up with a unique, publishable research idea that contributes to the Criminal Justice literature. The student will develop a theory-based research proposal, including testable hypotheses, appropriate sample, and general methodology. The student is responsible for collecting or finding data that will test the hypotheses that derive from the theory and past research. A committee of three professors must all approve the thesis proposal. Students collecting original data must do ethics training and apply for permission to conduct the study with the IRB. Next, students will analyze the data using appropriate statistics. Finally, students are responsible for assessing the implications and conclusions of the study based on the statistical analyses. The student must learn to write in the writing style and use the citation style of the APA manual. The student must write the entire thesis and also defend the thesis to his or her committee in a 2-hour oral defense. The committee determines whether the student has “passed” or “failed” the thesis based on both the written and oral components of the thesis. After the defense, students must make any changes any of the committee members want, format the thesis to meet the graduate student requirements, and file the thesis for publication with the graduate school. Most students will continue to work with faculty to publish the thesis in a professional journal.

The thesis is, as the name implies, a statement made by the author on a given subject. This statement must be 1) based on existing research or theory, and 2) supported or refuted using data. A proper thesis must contain certain elements. First, it must begin with a focused literature review. Following the literature review is typically a section in which the author makes predictions about the outcome of the research. This section is where the author lists a hypothesis, or several hypotheses. These hypotheses must be 1) supported by the literature review; and 2) testable using the available data (or data the student collects). Following the hypotheses is typically a section wherein the author describes the methodology which will be used to collect and/or analyze the data. Following the methods section is typically the results section, or in some cases the results and discussion sections. In these sections the author describes to the reader what was found, the meanings of the findings, explanations for the findings, limitations of the study, and future directions for study. This thesis ends with a brief overall conclusion section. The thesis must conform to the APA manual of writing and citation style.  After the conclusion of the thesis, the professor may ask that the student continue to work with the professor to publish the thesis in a professional journal.

Although the length of a thesis is variable, it is common for a thesis to be approximately 50-80 pages including Tables, Figures, Stimuli/Survey Materials, and other Appendices. Although the number of sources is variable, it is common students to read 50-70 articles, chapters, and books which are the foundation for the thesis.

As with any professional paper, many revisions are necessary. A thesis generally takes about 6-14 months of intense work to complete, including many rounds of revisions and editing both before and after the oral thesis defense.