Understanding the Process

In addition to using this website, please also be sure to consult the main Extension School website at https://www.extension.harvard.edu/resources-policies/completing-your-degree/thesis-process for more administrative details about the thesis process.

Creating a thesis is your opportunity to work independently on a research project of your own design and to make an original contribution to your chosen field of study. You will emerge from the thesis process with a solid understanding of how original research is conducted and how to communicate research results. Many students have gone on to publish their research in professional, peer-reviewed journals.

To begin the process of preparing to write a thesis, as you take classes in your program, and while you are doing background research into various topics, you should start to plan for your thesis project by thinking about possible research questions that have yet to be thoroughly answered by others.

There are two main parts of the thesis sequence:

1) The Proposal Process.  This is when you fine tune a research topic and question(s) to answer in your thesis, writing up a proposal outlining your thesis project plans.  During this time you will work with a Research Advisor and/or a Crafting the Thesis Proposal instructor. The proposal process takes many months, often more than a semester.  Once your thesis proposal has been approved by your Research Advisor then you move on to the next phase.

2) The Thesis Project Phase.  This is when you will work on following through on your thesis plans with a faculty or industry expert who will act as your Thesis Director on your project. Candidates are given nine months to work on their thesis projects, with the possibility of a several month extension if special circumstances arise.   


Current Candidates in a Ten Course Program Sequence:

For current degree candidates pursuing a thesis, you should sign up for a Crafting the Thesis Proposal tutorial (a no-cost, non-credit semester long tutorial) that will help guide you through the various aspects of writing up a thesis proposal.  Please see the prework requirements for the tutorial by going to the Thesis Website Toolkit and selecting your field.   Note that candidates in Sustainability are required to take the Crafting the Thesis Proposal course (ENVR E-598).

After your proposal is completed and has been approved by your Research Advisor, then you will receive guidance about registering for the nine-month Thesis Course.

Candidates in the new Twelve Course Program Sequence:

For candidates admitted in the twelve course program sequence, you will be asked to sign up for the Crafting the Thesis Proposal tutorial for graduate credit. Please see the prework requirements for the tutorial by going to the Thesis Website Toolkit and selecting your field.  After completion of Crafting the Thesis Proposal with an approved thesis proposal, you will then be registered for Master’s Thesis Part One the following term.  Please refer back to the Thesis Process page on the main Extension School website for details about the Master’s Thesis Part One and Part Two course sequence.

Summary of Basic Steps in the Development of a Research Project

  1. Consider a variety of topics that interest you and about which you have some questions
  2. Doing preliminary reading and making observations will enable you to select a single topic and a leading question (or two) upon which you will focus
  3. Talk with your Research Advisor to discuss the logic of your thinking and the feasibility of your project. This will save you from time spent developing a project that is either too labor or time-intensive or too expensive to be completed as a master’s degree candidate
  4. More extensive bibliographic research will help you focus, refine, or (less often) quickly answer the question(s). If you are able to answer the question during this phase, then you should return to step 1 and work on finding a more significant question to study; otherwise, continue on
  5. A hypothesis needs to be formulated from the initial questions, and a method of investigation set up to give unambiguous results
  6. You need to write a thesis proposal which should include:
    • the question(s) to be asked, along with your research hypothesis
    • sufficient background context and theoretical framework
    • justification for your research
    • methods that will be used
    • a detailed work/project schedule
  7. Note that Crafting the Thesis Proposal tutorials are available to help candidates through all stages of the proposal writing process
  8. To be approved, your proposal will need to incorporate comments and suggestions from your Research Advisor (note that writing a proposal will likely require a number of drafts)
  9. After your Research Advisor approves your proposal then he or she will locate a Thesis Director for your project
  10. At that point you will then receive a letter of invitation to register and submit a tuition payment to officially begin your thesis (note that you you will be requested to register and submit payment within two weeks). 
  11. After this has all been completed, the nine-month thesis period begins!