Advice for Approaching Your Thesis

The Fall semester is ending, and before you know it, it will be Spring. Besides the inevitable readings and writing your classes will require, sooner or later you’ll have to work on your thesis. It’s a big undertaking, and it can certainly become intimidating, but don’t let fear keep you from making strides in your work. Whether you’re worried about finding your thesis director or presenting your thesis, students Alli Martin, Brendan Stephens, Jonathan Phin, and Rebecca Cobb have the answers.

What to Write/Proposal

“The first challenge of a thesis is deciding what to write.  From my experience dashing through a novel in two years, I highly recommend the route of a collection—unless you can spare an extra semester or have a developed idea for a novel.  A novel is difficult to move through the thesis process.  Chapters need to be workshopped, and of course your thesis director needs to read your work as you go through the year, meaning you may be “polishing” chapters too early.  Without a complete first draft, workshopping a novel is a frustrating experience of cycling back to chapters out of order without the ending written, or—once you’ve written the ending—scrapping eight chapters to start over again (true story).

For a two-year MFA program, it’s much easier to work through a collection.  Some writers may not know what the “theme” of their collection will be, or know how to write the thesis proposal since they’re just random stories.  But writers tend to be drawn to common themes during certain periods of their life, so even if you think your stories “don’t fit together,” they probably do just because you wrote them during your MFA at UCF.  So if you start thinking about what you’ve written during your first semester and which topics, characters, or motifs are recurring, you’ve taken your first step to writing your thesis proposal.” – Alli Martin

Meet with Your Prospective Thesis Director

“Have meetings with as many instructors as you can. If you know the professor from a class, schedule a meeting to talk about what work they enjoy and what they look for in a thesis candidate. If you haven’t taken a class with them, most professors are excited to get to know new students, talk about writing, and address the same questions you’d ask of a professor you have worked with before.” – Brendan Stephens

Choosing a Director

“If you haven’t had a class with a potential thesis director, schedule an appointment and talk to them.  I didn’t know my thesis director.  I actually scheduled an appointment with her to discuss another class she was teaching the following fall, but as we talked I realized she was not only interested in my genre but understood my influences and would be a perfect match for the novel I was working on.  Meet the professors, talk to them about the writers and stories you admire, and find someone who would complement your style or help you develop in a specific way.  Don’t be afraid to meet any professor you want!” – Alli Martin

Thesis Reading List

“I know it’s easy to list fifty books you’ve already read.  I had no trouble coming up with fifty books I’d read and felt like I could say influenced my writing—DO NOT CHEAT YOURSELF LIKE THAT.  Plan to read at least twenty books specifically chosen to augment your thesis work.  And don’t just choose books in your genre!  What’s your setting?  Is your story historic?  Are you writing about an experience or point of view outside of your own?  Grab some nonfiction books on the topic you’re writing about and do some research.  Some of the best details in my novel came out of the books I read on Victorian society and building automatons—because I’d done my homework.” – Alli Martin

Write Whenever You Can

“The most important thing is to get that first draft out. Don’t be afraid to write something that isn’t your best work. You can always polish it later. You may think you have tons of time to get that thesis out, but you never know when life is going to happen. Take advantage of the free time you have.” – Rebecca Cobb

Writing Your Thesis

“MAKE A REVISION SCHEDULE!  Share that schedule with your thesis director.  Consider sharing it with friends who will hold you accountable.  Don’t let time slip away from you.  Work on your thesis a little each week.  If you want your thesis to really develop and be the best work you’ve written yet, give time and make it a priority.” – Alli Martin  

Plan Ahead

“In my second semester of the program, I realized twenty minutes before class that my short story was due for workshop. Having absolutely nothing to turn in, I submitted a piece that was written merely for entertainment and my eyes only. Needless to say, all I could think was, ‘Do I want to be the biggest joke in the program?’ or ‘Do I want to fail my workshop?’ So, I decided to be a joke. I’d at least have something to laugh about later.

Ever since then, I have been a stickler about dates. As you begin thinking about your thesis, I recommend creating a checklist with all of your due dates. People go into the last semester thinking they’ll have loads of time writing and revising, and really, what you’re mainly going to be doing is jumping through the University’s bureaucratic hoops like a circus animal. Organize, plan ahead, and you’ll be just fine. And trust your thesis director. If they don’t feel you are ready for the defense, you’re not.”  -Jonathan Phin


“Look up the deadlines as soon as they’re available and write them (1) on your calendar and (2) on a list where you can see them.  Know the deadlines for filing your intent to graduate, defending your thesis, submitting your thesis for format review, turning in your paperwork, submitting the final thesis, and every other deadline related to graduation.  Keep on top of all of them.  You are the only one responsible for whether or not you graduate, so know the deadlines and perform tasks early.  You have no idea what could happen (seriously), so handle things early to not miss deadlines.” – Alli Martin

Thesis Defense

“Take a deep breath.  If you’re defending your thesis you will pass.  Let me say that again: if your thesis director lets you schedule your defense, you are going to pass (pending revisions, in some cases, but most likely, you’ll pass).  Now that you know you’re going to pass, doesn’t that take some of the weight off things?  The defense is still a serious event—you’re going to have to read part of your work aloud and professors are going to ask you questions about your writing process, choices you made, further revisions, and the books and writers that helped you develop your thesis—but you are literally the only person who knows the correct answers to those questions.  There’s no wrong answer.  If you craft your thesis to the best of your ability and do all your thesis reading, if you prepare yourself by paying attention in workshop and developing your analytical skills, you will have prepared yourself for your thesis defense.

I absolutely recommend putting together a presentation (multimedia optional) to guide the conversation or to cover an aspect that you’d like the committee to consider.  I did a significant amount of research and used many real-world references for my steampunk cities and devices, so I prepared a presentation to highlight my research work.  Having a presentation also meant there was part of my thesis defense one hundred percent in my control.  A committee member might ask a question about the presentation, but the content of that presentation was something I could control and prepare for.” – Alli Martin


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