With the increased interest in graduate studies, it seems inevitable that calls for transparency in assessing these programmes and even in grading masters and doctoral dissertations have increased as well. Some faculty members may be armed with departmental guidelines for grading students’ dissertations but sometimes such standards are more tacit than explicit. What follows is a very general sort of distinction that may be useful to faculty members and will hopefully be useful to students who need to understand what is expected of them.
Many students still think that the answers to research questions exist out there in the world and need to be found, when research at the university level really involves both discovery and creation. An assessor wants to know not so much that the student found the correct answer but rather that the research used existing information to create or creatively extend the set of viable approaches to a problem—hopefully a problem shared by more than just a few people in the world. Graduate research does not just summarise; it also creates.
Students still need to show the utmost respect for the information that already exists, meaning the creative solutions of previous researchers. The evidence and applications made available by previous researchers must therefore be well documented. Any reader of research dissertations and articles should be able to check the evidence presented for controversial claims (meaning those claims not agreed upon by everyone or almost everyone in a given field).
What is the difference between a masters and a doctoral thesis then? I take the masters thesis to be ‘journeyman’ work, meaning work that shows the student’s ability to work at a certain level but which is not yet ‘ready for sale’, as it were. As a guideline, a masters thesis ought to show a good familiarity with aspects of the problem that are defined by the student whereas a doctoral dissertation aspires a more complete knowledge understanding of the given problem. The idea of ‘completeness’ is very much a relative matter: one will never really ‘complete’ the answer to the best questions, but a strong performance will feel complete to a reasonable reader. One can say with confidence about an excellent doctoral dissertation, “This student set up the question well and looked at all the relevant evidence that was available.” A masters thesis has a lower standard. One should be able to say with confidence, “The student looked at enough primary and secondary material to demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of the problems at hand.”
To help students understand the difficult-to-describe tacit notions about the level of work expected of them, it may be useful to advise them to round up the last two years’ theses from the department. Graduate training involves the internalisation of such standards, which should be compared to learning a language rather than memorising a particular set of rules. I like to tell students that they are learning to enter a particular sort of conversation, and they must learn, at least when first trying to enter, to abide by unspoken rules. No one posts a set of rules when having real conversations. Learning this etiquette takes time, and students will learn more efficiently if they can work out the differences between masters- and doctoral-level work. It helps to set aside a bit of time in graduate seminars to discuss such matters explicitly.