For many students of master’s in communication programs, especially for those who have chosen an academic or research-oriented course of study, the thesis is a cornerstone of their graduate experience. As an extended and independent research project that contributes to the existing scholarly literature on the student’s topic of choice, the thesis can seem daunting at first. Indeed, in our interviews with alumni of master’s in communication programs, many of them noted that the thesis was an intimidating prospect for them. However, these students also described the process of completing their thesis as a highly educational and formative experience.
Chelsea Moss, who is an alumnus of Purdue University’s Master’s Degree in Communication with a focus on Media, Technology, and Society, explained in an interview with MastersinCommunications.com, “To be honest, I was somewhat terrified of writing the thesis. Attending grad school was a big learning curve for me as I was making the shift from a very hands-on, practical undergrad program to a very theoretical, research-oriented master’s program. However, writing the thesis gave me invaluable experience, not only in research skills, but [also] in project management, data collection and analysis, and training […] undergraduate research assistants.”
Sakina Jangbar, Ph.D. a graduate of California State University, Northridge’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, in her interview gave a candid view of her thesis experience and its impact on her career trajectory. “The thesis writing experience was quite difficult for me because it was my first major scholarly undertaking,” she said, “My thesis was 150 pages, as my mentor had high standards in terms of strength of the argument and length of the chapters.” Yet despite the daunting nature of her project, Dr. Jangbar’s thesis prepared her for even higher-level work as a doctoral student, and later as an Assistant Professor of Communication at St. John’s University. “Even though writing my thesis was a challenge for me, I think it was a valuable experience as it paved the way for me to write my doctoral dissertation.”
This guide provides a comprehensive look at the process of completing a master’s-level thesis for a graduate communication program. It delves into the typical structure of a thesis and the necessary steps in the process of researching, analyzing, and presenting one’s results. In addition, it features insights from alumni of master’s in communication programs across the nation who successfully completed their theses and used their project as a stepping stone to an advanced career in their area of interest.
The Structure of the Master’s Thesis
The thesis is traditionally an extended, multi-chapter written project that students complete to answer an advanced research inquiry. While the structure of a thesis may vary, below is a general outline of the chapters of a traditional thesis:
- Chapter 1—Introduction: In the introduction, one discusses the background and context of one’s research topic, including a statement around the problem, question, or challenge at hand and its social significance. In the introduction, one must also outline the purpose and specific objectives of one’s study, and emphasize the target outcomes of one’s research.
- Chapter 2—Literature Review: This chapter contains a thorough overview of the historical background of one’s research topic, as well as key theoretical frameworks that are necessary to set up one’s research question and core hypotheses. This chapter explains how one’s research question contributes to the field by identifying the gaps in the existing literature and how they will be addressed by the research inquiry and study.
- Chapter 3—Research Design: This chapter delves into the research methodologies that one will use in one’s study, including the participants recruited, instruments used (including data analysis technologies), and the concrete procedures and timeline for the research project. This section also provides for any ethical considerations that one has taken into account, as well as the limitations of one’s research.
- Chapter 4—Results: This chapter includes all the results of one’s study, generally without any interpretations or inferences (which will be covered in Chapter 5). The structure of the results report should follow that of the study design outlined in the Research Design chapter, and should speak to the research questions outlined in the Introduction. This section may use figures, charts, or graphs to represent data in addition to text.
- Chapter 5—Analysis: This chapter is comprised of a thorough discussion and interpretation of the results outlined in the Results chapter. It will refer to the Literature Review chapter and discuss the results within the context of existing theories and established data. It is important to tie one’s results to the theories, existing research, and rationales provided in the Literature Review section.
- Chapter 6—Conclusions: This chapter discusses the practical implications of the results, as well as recommendations for further study and any theories or frameworks that may change as a result of one’s findings. This chapter also delves into any limitations of the study’s results, in terms of conclusions that can be drawn and how they impact further research and/or practice within the discipline.
- Chapter 7—Bibliography and Appendices: These sections provide a comprehensive listing of all sources used, as well as any additional information or tables that might be relevant.
As the outline above illustrates, the traditional thesis has a highly formal structure. That said, many of the alumni whom we interviewed for our Alumni Interview Series noted that their faculty advisors allowed them creative license in terms of the subject matter and potentially even the structure of their thesis (although this varies by university). In this way, students often end up creating a thesis that incorporates elements from other types of capstone options like applied projects.
For example, Millie Njezic, who graduated from the University of Northern Iowa’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, wrote a play as part of her thesis project, which investigated the different dynamics of neighbor relations between people in Bosnia versus Bosnian immigrants in Waterloo, Iowa. “I used the autoethnographic method in order to use my own experiences with neighbors back home [in Bosnia] and then I conducted qualitative interviews with Bosnian refugees in Waterloo, IA. The data from both areas was analyzed using poetic inquiry and I came up with a script for a play: Live Thy Neighbor,” she told MastersinCommunications.com, “I then directed the play and over the course of three showings at the Interpreters Theatre, I had amazing discussions with the audience as well as the cast. Finally, I wrote the traditional thesis chapters and defended in front of my committee. […] I was very fortunate to be able to do research in such a liberating and creative way.”
As Ms. Njezic’s anecdote reveals, by working closely with faculty mentors and explaining the types of topics and research methodologies that resonate the most with them, students can optimize their experience working on their thesis.
The Steps to Successfully Completing a Thesis: Tips from Real Alumni
While the thesis may seem a daunting endeavor, the process for completing one is structured to provide students with support and guidance throughout. There are set deadlines for a student’s thesis proposal submission and defense, chapter drafts, final submission, and final oral defense. Below are key steps to successfully completing your thesis, featuring candid advice from alumni of a wide diversity of master’s in communication programs.
Identify Your Research Interests and Potential Mentors Early
During your classes, it is important to take stock of what topics interest you the most and to connect with the faculty whose research interests align with your own. Doing so will help you to determine your ideal research question and its proper scope. In addition, taking the initiative to speak with faculty early on will help optimize your choice of professors for your thesis committee, which is the group of three faculty members who support your work on your thesis.
For many students, the choice of a thesis topic is an organic result of taking classes and getting a sense of what interests them. In her alumni interview, Olivia Hook Frey, a graduate of Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program, explained how she identified her thesis topic from a class she took that piqued her interest. “I stumbled upon my research idea in a training and development course,” she said, “I was intrigued by the onboarding and socialization processes across different organizations. Retention is something all organizations are concerned about, so I decided to investigate how the initial new employee socialization process predicts retention.”
For other students, a thesis can be an opportunity to delve into a topic of personal interest. Lauren Lee, an alumnus of University of Arkansas at Little-Rock’s Master of Arts in Applied Communication Studies, selected a topic that was connected to a life-changing event in her family. “Just a few months after entering graduate school, I found out I was pregnant with our first child,” she said, “[After my daughter was born] I spoke with a lactation consultant after her birth, [and] I knew there was something different about the way she communicated. […] When I took Interpersonal Communication in the fall of 2014 and studied Dr. Mirivel’s Model of Positive Communication, the light bulb came on. The lactation consultant demonstrated all seven behaviors from the model. Her communication was the foundation to my success!” These experiences led her on a path to exploring the role of interpersonal communication—specifically the Model of Positive Communication—in the work of registered nurses and lactation consultants in health care settings.
Choosing a topic of emotional and intellectual investment is crucial, said many of our alumni interviewees. Taylor McDade, who completed a Master of Digital Communication and Media Arts at DePaul University, told MastersinCommunications.com, “My advice to students who are tasked with completing a thesis is to first choose something you are passionate about, because in doing so the rest will come easily. Maybe you’re looking to solve some kind of problem, or maybe you simply want to investigate a topic related to your field that excites you. Either way, be sure to push boundaries.” Caleb Malik, a graduate of Illinois State University’s Master’s in Communication program, similarly advised, “[P]ick a topic you are interested in. You’re going to spend a lot of time on the topic, so don’t waste your time and hours on research you don’t find interesting. It’s also going to be challenging to succeed with a project and have continued dedication to a project that you don’t enjoy.”
Consult Your Faculty Mentors and Form Your Committee
Another crucial step in the thesis process is approaching faculty members in your program who can optimally advise you. Students writing their thesis typically have the support of a three-person faculty committee, comprised of one main advisor (the committee chair) and two additional faculty readers and mentors. These mentors are instrumental to your success, as they provide important feedback and guidance throughout your work, from the development of your initial proposal to the preparation for your final presentation.
In his alumni interview, Caleb Malik placed central importance on this step of the thesis process. “[M]ost importantly, give a lot of thought to whom you select for your committee,” he said, “You’re building a team, and you want to think about the skills and knowledge they are bringing to the table, and how they’ll interact as a group.” Choosing an ideal faculty mentor requires not only a strong rapport between student and professor, but also choosing an advisor whose research expertise aligns with the topic of your thesis (as well as the research methodologies you plan on implementing).
Jeremy Pesner, an alumnus of Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology explained how all of his faculty committee members were extremely helpful and supportive, but that selecting a committee chair whose expertise paralleled the type of research he wished to do for his thesis would have been wise. “My advice for students considering a thesis is to plan out what you’ll do a little more thoroughly than I did,” he said, “It was more of a challenge than I anticipated that my thesis advisor actually lacked experience in the research methodology I was using – in retrospect, it may have been more useful for the “methods” professor to be my main advisor, with the other as a secondary.”
Your faculty thesis advisors can also help you navigate unexpected snags in your research process. For example, Tiffany Wang, Ph.D. explained how her faculty advisor supported her through each stage of her research process. “Going into the thesis, I knew that I wanted to study an Instructional Communication topic. After talking to my faculty advisor, I decided to focus on studying students’ perceptions of instructors’ nonverbal immediacy behaviors using a quantitative survey research design. As I began to explore the literature and start my literature review, a Communication Studies scholar published a journal article on my initial thesis topic,” she recalled in her interview, “Going back to square one and selecting a new thesis topic was discouraging. However, my faculty advisor and committee members helped me identify new hypotheses and variables that would still allow me to retain much of the work I had already done on the initial topic.”
Conduct Preliminary Research and Draft Your Proposal
Once you have established your committee, the next step is to draft a proposal (also known as a prospectus). A thesis proposal provides details on your thesis topic and specific inquiry, as well as the issues that your inquiry seeks to address. In other words, it should describe a socially or academically significant challenge and explain how answering your research query will work towards solving this problem. The proposal is your opportunity to conduct much of the preliminary research that will be necessary in writing the Literature Review section of your thesis.
Throughout your work on your proposal, you are expected and encouraged to consult your committee and in particular your primary advisor/committee chair for advice and guidance. Ms. Lee explained how her faculty advisor worked closely with her as she developed her thesis proposal and established a process for completing her research project. “A critical piece in thesis topic prep is ensuring you will have enough research to write a full thesis. I did a preliminary paper about my own observations and experience and applied each concept accordingly,” she said, “From there, I created a prospectus which included the theory and methodology needed for conducting research. I began working with my faculty advisor to create a research process. After contacting possible research participants, I was on my way to writing a full thesis.”
As Ms. Lee’s example illustrates, your thesis proposal serves as a road map for your final thesis product, and therefore it is beneficial to include as accurate and as detailed information about your research topic, background, objectives, and methodologies as possible. In fact, master’s in communication programs typically require students to orally defend their thesis proposal as a way of preparing them for the type of questioning they will encounter in their formal thesis defense. While this defense may initially feel intimidating, many students find the proposal defense to be more of a constructive conversation rather than a formal presentation, a conversation that helps them solidify their research questions and methods.
Megan Kendall, graduate of Purdue University’s Masters of Communication program, described in her alumni interview how her proposal defense was an opportunity to discuss her thesis topic in-depth with her faculty committee, and to receive detailed feedback that she could incorporate into her project moving forward. “For the prospectus, my advisor encouraged me to think of it as a proposal meeting to make sure the project idea is sound, and to receive any feedback before I started to really dig into the project, which was a helpful way to approach it,” she said, “[The oral defense was] a bit stressful just […by] nature of presenting to three faculty members on my personal project, but it was also an opportunity to connect with communication scholars and discuss something I was interested in.”
During the proposal development and revision stage, your faculty advisors will also provide questions to help you narrow the scope of your research inquiry. Mr. Malik recalled, “[T]he best advice I got from a professor was, ‘You’re not trying to create the overarching, all-encompassing theory of communication. You’re not expected to alter the field. […] Research is about theory building, taking small steps forward and progressing the field.’ For me, this helped take a weight off my back.”
Conduct Your Study and Analyze the Results
Once your proposal is approved by your committee, your next task is to refine and implement your research study, employing quantitative research methods, qualitative research methods, rhetorical research, or a combination of two or more of the aforementioned methods, which is formally known as mixed methodologies. Quantitative research methods involve gathering and analyzing numbers and/or measurements in order to arrive at insights. Examples of quantitative research methods include surveys, statistical analyses, controlled experiments, and the use of mathematical models to analyze and form predictions or conclusions around aggregate data. On the other hand, qualitative research methods focus on gathering data that explores the “why” and the “how” more than the “how much” or “how many.” In other words, while quantitative data might determine how many people visit a particular news site or interact with a specific kind of content (be it a news article or a blockbuster film) within a given period of time, qualitative data would delve into these people’s motivations and content interests through methods such as interviews, observations, and focus groups.
Rhetorical research, which is also referred to as rhetorical criticism or literary/textual analysis, is the examination and analysis of content, be it written works such as novels, essays, and articles, or visual and multimedia content such as online videos, computer games, movies, radio and television. Rhetorical research involves analyzing the use of diction, images and symbols, allusions, emotional vs. logical appeals, irony and satire, juxtapositions, and other rhetorical devices present in a particular work to identify the arguments being made and also how they are conveyed. A scholar of communication might use rhetorical research to identify the pro-diversity message in a short story, or to describe the ways in which a movie or television show contains problematic messages about masculinity.
Mixed methodologies describes when a scholar implements two or more of the aforementioned methodologies in his or her study. For example, a researcher might use a survey (a quantitative methodology) to measure the characteristics of workplace communication within a given organization, while also supplementing this survey with detailed interviews (a qualitative method) of specific people within the organization. In a mixture of rhetorical and quantitative research, another scholar might identify the use of certain words in a particular type of content (such as presidential campaign speeches), and evaluate both the occurrence of these words and their meaning within the context of political agendas. As these examples illustrate, integrating different methodologies in a given study is common as research inquiries are often complex and require multifaceted approaches to gain insight into a given topic.
While designing an entire research study may seem overwhelming at first, at its core the objective of any study is to gather and analyze data to answer a targeted research query. Answering the questions, “What exactly do I wish to understand about my research topic? What types of data will help me arrive at an answer to my inquiry?” is the starting point; from that foundation, the next steps are to investigate what methods have been used in previous studies relating to your topic, and to consult your faculty advisors who have expertise in the methodologies you need to be most effective. In some cases, a mix of qualitative, quantitative, and/or rhetorical analysis data may be optimal for answering your particular research query.
Zach McGeehon, alumnus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Master of Arts in Applied Communication Studies, utilized qualitative methods, namely surveys, for his thesis. “I decided to investigate one of my hobbies a bit more. I have over 10 years’ experience in FX makeup and costumes, so I started researching levels of narcissism in cosplayers (people who dress in costumes from various media) for that research project,” he explained, “That topic eventually led me to a larger question, ‘What motivates people to cosplay in the first place?’ which ended up being the focus of my thesis. I utilized two different qualitative methods during my thesis, where I distributed an online questionnaire and held semi-structured interviews with cosplayers. After a lot of transcription and coding, I was able to exhaustively identify 14 different motivations that cosplayers communicated during the study. Some of those results were a bit surprising, but it was an awesome feeling knowing that I finally got the answer to my query.”
Mary Worley, Ph.D. utilized primarily quantitative research methods in her thesis for her Master of Arts in Communication, which she completed at Illinois State University. “I wanted my thesis to align with my passion for teaching. My thesis advisor was my ultimate champion, sharing my passion for social media and technology in the classroom while acting as a steady source of encouragement,” she said, “The other members of my committee had expertise in communication pedagogy and quantitative data analysis and worked with me to deepen my understanding of theory and analytic procedures. My thesis explored social media (specifically, Twitter) as an educational tool for the classroom and its effects on social media competence, student motivation, affective learning, and perceptions of instructor immediacy. I was able to implement a series of activities into 10 sections of the basic communication course and collected data from both experimental and control groups to assess group differences. Data were primarily quantitative and provided support for social media as a useful educational tool.”
Scott Bredman, graduate of the University of Northern Iowa’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies program, completed a thesis that was centered on rhetorical research. “I knew I wanted to do a project using rhetorical research methods but was struggling to find the right topic,” he recalled in an interview, “During the summer of 2015, public discourse about confederate imagery was abundant, and I started down a rabbit hole of research that ultimately led me to discover the mascot controversy in the school district in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. My advisor, Dr. Ryan McGeough, and I were fascinated by the public deliberation occurring within the community and decided that the deliberation of the community (mostly a special school board meeting that occurred) and these symbols themselves were worthy of rhetorical analysis.” Through his research, Mr. Bredman evaluated both the mascot images as forms of cultural rhetoric, and also analyzed the messages contained in the discourse and debates surrounding these images.
Emma Mackenzie, alumnus of Montana Tech’s Master of Science in Technical Communication, employed mixed methodologies for her thesis, which examined the media representation and discussion of the debate to keep wolves on or off the national Endangered Species list. “I gathered reader comments in local, regional, and national media outlets and analyzed them using Grounded Theory, Semiotics, and Actor Network Theory, a mixture of quantitative and qualitative research,” she explained in her alumni interview.
Once you have collected all the relevant data for your study, you must analyze your results to try and find meaningful patterns or connections within your data or between your data and existing research, with the aim of answering your original research query. As with every step in the thesis completion process, frequent and in-depth discussions with your faculty mentors are very important at this stage, as your mentors can help you to identify important patterns within your data and to place those patterns within the context of past theories, frameworks, and research.
Your faculty committee can also help you work through challenges in the interpretation of your data. In her interview with MastersinCommunications.com, Dr. Wang explained how, when her study did not yield the anticipated results, her advisor helped her to assess and present the data in a way that still contributed to the existing literature on instructional communication in a meaningful way. “After I collected data, my faculty advisor helped me run and interpret the data in his office, “she said, “When there were no significant findings, he helped me determine how I could explain these non-significant findings in my Discussion section in a way that would still allow me to present and publish my research.”
Revise, Finalize, and Submit Your Thesis
Throughout your preliminary research, collection of data, and analysis of your study results, you should also be writing and working with your committee to continually review and revise your thesis chapters. Staying consistent with your writing at each stage of the process ensures that you have the time to receive quality feedback from your committee and to optimize your final thesis product.
Ms. Njezic described the role that regular discussions with her faculty committee chair played in her thesis. “My thesis chair, Dr. Danielle McGeough, held weekly touch base meetings with me and helped me determine my writing goals for the next week,” she recalled, “This helped me stay organized and focused on my work. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the questions. There is so much value in asking early and asking often. Lastly, remember that you’re doing this research because you’re curious about it. That does not mean that you will have all the answers, neither do you need to have all the answers in the end.” Dr. Wang similarly advised, “Looking back on the research and writing process, I would encourage students to be proactive in discussing any problems that may arise during the writing process with their faculty advisor so that they can get the help and support they need to be successful.”
In addition to your faculty mentors, your peers can also serve as support both during the writing and editing stages of your thesis. In her interview, Ms. Kendall explained how a peer writing group helped her manage her time effectively and optimize her writing process. “I highly recommend creating a writing group with several other master’s students,” she advised, “I connected with two others in my cohort and it was so helpful in managing deadlines, handling stress, and just working through the project together. We would meet for half an hour on a weekly basis and take time to update each other on what we were working on or any questions we had.” Weekly peer group meetings can help students think through difficult or complex questions arising from their research, and also create a non-intimidating venue for writing, editing, and workshopping chapters of their thesis.
Once you have completed a full draft of all the chapters of your thesis, you must submit your work to your committee chair as well as your other two faculty readers, who will provide additional feedback and targeted questions to ensure that each chapter is thorough and that your analysis and conclusions properly address your research inquiry and its relevance. It is important to finish your full thesis draft early enough to provide for any necessary revisions well before the final thesis deadline.
Defend Your Thesis
Once your faculty committee has approved your final thesis submission, the final stage is your oral thesis defense. The oral defense is considered by many students to be one of the most intimidating parts of the thesis completion process. However, most of the alumni we spoke with pointed out that their oral defense was less of a test and more of an engaging and even enjoyable discussion with the faculty members who served as their foremost allies during their thesis journey.
Mr. McGeehon explained how supportive his entire faculty committee was throughout his work on his thesis, and how their commitment to his success was reflected in his experience defending his final work. “After the completion of my thesis, I was required to orally defend it in front of my committee, which included Dr. Nastasia (thesis chair), Dr. DeGroot-Brown, and Dr. Wrobbel. Though, as expected, I was nervous about facing some difficult questions, I was able to thoroughly prepare for my defense, and I successfully passed on my first attempt,” he said, “Thankfully, I was able to work with a group of people that supported me throughout the entire endeavor. If I needed assistance, the committee was always there for me. They were never afraid to push me to do my best work or question my thought process and give me some constructive criticism.”
Of her experience defending her thesis, Ms. Moss told MastersinCommunications.com, “I found both of my defenses (prospectus and final defense) to be very rewarding and (dare I say) wonderful experiences! It was truly an honor to sit around a table with three brilliant minds who had taken the time to read my work and offer constructive critique on my project. In my case, both defenses were essentially conversations where my advisor had a few questions for me to answer (which he gave me ahead of time), and then I answered other questions from my two other committee members.” In addition, Ms. Moss’s thesis defense was an opportunity for her to find ways to push her research even further, beyond the time frame of her thesis project. “[The] suggestions of my committee encouraged me regarding the significance of my findings and gave me helpful suggestions that ultimately led to a stronger final product,” she said.
Dr. Jangbar similarly explained how the outcome of your thesis defense is a direct product of your efforts throughout the term, and therefore you have a great deal of control over it. “Defending a thesis is not hard if you have done quality work. When the writing is good, the question is not whether you will pass or fail,” she said, “Rather, the faculty are interested in having a conversation about your work. In any case, I thought it was flattering that three professors read my thesis and wanted to talk to me about it for an hour. The defense time went by so quickly. I found myself wishing for more time. Before I knew it, everyone was congratulating me. I wish I could go back to my past-self and tell the other Sakina to enjoy the process rather than worry.”
Final Thoughts on Your Thesis Journey
While students are expected to put in a great deal of independent work conducting preliminary research, designing their study, analyzing their results, and writing their thesis, their committee of faculty mentors is with them every step of the way. Students are not only expected, but also encouraged to consult with their committee members frequently and benefit from their expertise in order to step with confidence into the role of an advanced and independent scholar.
Faculty mentors are dedicated to providing constructive criticism and guidance, and eager to celebrate their students’ efforts. Dr. Stevie Munz, Ph.D., a graduate of Illinois State University’s Master’s program in Communication and an Assistant Professor of Communication herself at Utah Valley University, described how her faculty committee congratulated her on her hard work during her thesis defense. “All thesis projects are defended orally, which serves as an opportunity for students to demonstrate knowledge and competency in soliciting questions from their committee,” she told MastersinCommunications.com, “Because the department is supportive and collaborative, the oral defense is often an event attended by other faculty and graduate students–the department celebrates you on this day.” This final and highly positive experience paved the way for Dr. Munz’s future work in communication studies scholarship and pedagogy. “I found the oral defense important preparation for doctoral-level thinking and academic conversations,” she said, “The experience continues to be influential and permeate my research and teaching today.”
The master’s thesis is a challenging, time-consuming, yet incredibly empowering and formative endeavor. It not only represents the extent of the knowledge you have gained in your graduate program, but also propels you into higher levels of research expertise, writing and analytical skill, and intellectual inquiry. For more candid insights from alumni on their experiences completing their thesis, as well as details on other aspects of completing a master’s in communication program, please visit our flagship: Alumni Interview Series.