Thesis Projects

Guidance on the The Evergreen State College MPA Thesis Project

The purpose of this document is to provide information on the program’s policies relating to the thesis project as well as state the faculty’s expectations regarding these projects. It will also provide some suggestions on how to complete the process successfully, as well as describe alternatives to a thesis for students who wish to be better prepared for careers in research or do doctoral-level work in this field.

The Evergreen State College MPA Program allows students to complete an 8-credit thesis project in lieu of the 6-credit capstone program and one 4-credit elective. Do not do a thesis unless you are strongly motivated to do so and are prepared to deal with the inevitable frustrations. For most students, the MPA second year core and Capstone project may provide most of the benefits of a thesis project with far fewer complications; and Capstone requires only 6, not 8, credits.

1. The Thesis Project: Description and Process

A thesis is a significant research project that attempts to answer a specific research question. Since this is an MPA program, this question must be relevant to the fields of public or nonprofit administration or public policy. Completing a thesis will enable students to build on the knowledge and skills developed during the program. It is intended to enhance their analytical and research abilities through exploring a topic in some depth and provides an opportunity to gain experience organizing and completing a large scale research project. Students who intend to work as professional researchers or anticipate moving on to doctoral level work might consider the thesis option.

At the masters level, a thesis is not expected to generate new knowledge; that is the standard for a doctoral dissertation. An MPA thesis may examine an important phenomenon in a new setting, complete an extensive case study, analyze a set of similar cases through a comparative methodology, or generate a data set (through a survey, interviews or other approaches) that the student may analyze in depth. For students in the Tribal Governance concentration, theses may generate new knowledge, as the field of tribal public administration is young.

Here are the titles of a few of the theses completed by MPA students over the past few years:

  • Implementing Child Welfare Reforms: Roles, Tools and Value Negotiations of Contracting Nonprofit Administrators
  • Relationship between the Government and Civil Society in Mexico City Through the Federal Law to Encourage the Activities of Civil Society Organizations
  • Government Influence on Philanthropy: A Comparative Study of Five Countries

typical MPA program thesis will require 18 to 24 months to complete. It takes time to become knowledgeable enough about a topic to be able to zero in on questions worth asking. Then the process of crafting a worthy research question (which is deceptively difficult), completing a prospectus, and collecting and analyzing data inevitably take more time than expected. Finally, successive drafts of the completed work must be read and edited, and a final version approved, by all three readers on your thesis committee. (See Section 2.)

Most students will begin work on a thesis during their second year in the program. This often begins with extensive discussions between the student and an MPA faculty member about a topic of interest. At this point, some students opt to explore the topic in depth through an independent learning contract with that faculty, who would serve as the first reader for the thesis.

To initiate the thesis process, a pre-proposal of 2-4 pages must be submitted to the MPA Director and preferred first reader from the MPA faculty by the end of the fall quarter of their 2nd year. This pre-proposal will:

  • briefly describe the overall topic
  • state a preliminary research question and methodology
  • provide a proposed timeline
  • identify two other thesis readers (see section 2 below) and
  • state how the 8 credits for the thesis will be distributed across quarters.

The MPA Director and proposed first reader will review the document and confer. Students will be notified by a letter from the Director of his or her decision.

There are three possible outcomes from the pre-proposal review: 1) the pre-proposal may be accepted without revision and the student approved to begin work on a full proposal. 2) The pre-proposal may be accepted following revisions. In many cases reviewing faculty will have suggestions for the student regarding the topic, scope, or methodology for the project; once these concerns are corrected, the student may begin work on a proposal. 3) The first reader and Director may conclude that a thesis is not the best option for that particular student and deny the application.

If the pre-proposal is approved, students will be expected to complete a full prospectus or proposal to be submitted to the first reader. A research prospectus typically includes an introduction and research question, background section, literature review, and a methodology section. Following any required edits or revisions, this prospectus must be approved by the first reader before the student may proceed with their research plan. Following approval of a human subjects review (if required) the student may begin data collection, followed by analysis of the data, and writing up the findings, conclusions and recommendations, if applicable.

Work on the proposal (see details below) could be completed as part of the work of an elective, or the student may elect to specifically register for thesis credits (this may be arranged through the first reader and MPA Assistant Director). Each student completing a thesis will be required to register for 8 thesis credits. See Section 10 below for additional discussion on how thesis credits might be allocated.

2. Responsibilities of Faculty Sponsor and Readers

Each thesis student must select a faculty sponsor (the first reader), who will provide support, guidance, and expertise for the project, plus two other readers. This sponsor must be an MPA faculty member (exceptions to this must be with the approval of the MPA Director). The second reader is also, typically, an MPA faculty member or from the TESC faculty. The third reader is usually a subject matter expert and/or practitioner and is often from a work-related source such as a public agency or nonprofit organization. Each of these readers will sign off on the completed project (through signing the second page of the final printed thesis).

The first reader has primary responsibility for the structural and academic integrity of the project, keeps such records of the project as are necessary, and approves the prospectus or proposal before the student begins to collect data. The first reader works with the student to refine his or her research question, select appropriate methodology, and shape the project in a logical manner. The student will meet regularly with the first reader. Generally, the project should be complete, well organized, fully developed and a check of citations made before the first reader passes the work to the second reader, although some groups will arrange to have the second reader review earlier, less polished drafts. In case of any disagreement between the first and second reader, the views of the first reader will prevail. The first reader assigns the final credit for the completed project when all three readers have signed off and she or he prepares the final evaluation.

Clear and consistent communication between the student and the first reader is essential to successful completion of the thesis project. In particular, the faculty member’s availability should never be taken for granted, especially during the summer.

The role of the second reader is to provide a second set of faculty “eyes” for the project—to provide comments on drafts of the thesis, on questions of substance relating to public administration or the specific topic of the research, structure, format, and general editing. The second reader often will not meet with the student directly, but instead provide comments via email. They may review initial drafts of the thesis, or wait until a relatively polished draft has been completed, then read it thoroughly and provide comments. The second reader may request additional changes to the document and works collaboratively with the first reader. In case of disagreements between the first and second reader over matters of substance or editing, the first reader’s judgment is followed.

The third reader usually receives the project after the second reader has signed off his or her approval. The first reader will approve the selection of the third reader. This reader is often a practitioner and subject matter expert. This reader may guide the student to additional resources and provide comments on the substance of the work.

3. Writing, Style and Citations

Theses for this program should be completed using the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) for citations. This is the format that is generally accepted as the standard in the social sciences.

4. Plagiarism

In order to complete an MPA degree--or any degree, for that matter--it is necessary to read, analyze and critique works of scholarship and journalism created by others. When writing about the thoughts and ideas expressed by these authors it is essential that they be given proper credit for these thoughts and ideas. When we fail to do so, we may be committing an act of plagiarism. This is generally defined as representing the works or ides of another as one’s own in any academic exercise. It includes, but is not limited to, “copying material directly, failing to cite sources of arguments and data, and failing to explicitly acknowledge joint work or authorship of assignments.” (See also Evergreen’s Social Contract) The MPA faculty also place cultural appropriation without appropriate acknowledgment and/or permission as a form of academic dishonesty.

The College’s code of conduct directs that any case of plagiarism that is “severe or persistent” will be referred to the school’s Grievance Officer.

The penalties for plagiarism are often severe, because as a practice it violates a standard of truthfulness and honesty that is essential to living and working in the academy; i.e., in an academic setting. If we are not confident that the work of an author is her or his as claimed, our ability to build on any useful ideas in a work is limited, and our trust in authors generally may be harmed, with a potentially devastating impact on the dissemination of ideas.

5. Human Subjects Review

Students pursuing a thesis must assess early in their projects whether it will be necessary for them to complete the human subjects review (HSR) process. When it is necessary to perform interviews with research subjects, or if an experimental methodology will be used, HSR may be required (see the HSR webpage at This protects the interests of both the student researchers and their subjects. Students must work with their first reader to complete the form requesting approval for their project, and must be clear about how this will impact their data collection process. Failure to follow proper human subjects procedures can have serious consequences. A thesis will not be accepted for credit if it does not meet Evergreen’s standards for a Human Subjects Review if such a review applies to the work.

6. Topic, Research Question and Scope

The most important aspects of a thesis are the topic, research question, and scope. Work with your faculty sponsor to narrow down the topic and craft the research question. Faculty will provide guidance on both of these tasks. Often it takes several iterations of selecting and refining a question to ensure that it both 1) focuses on a problem/ phenomenon of significant interest and 2) narrows the scope of the project sufficiently to allow the project to be completed within a reasonable time frame. Work closely with your first reader on this process, and take their guidance seriously. Projects with poorly conceived and written research questions are not likely to be completed.

7. Format

Generally, a thesis will be expected to include the following sections:

  1. Title Page
  2. Signature page
  3. Abstract
  4. Table of contents, plus a separate table showing tables/figures in the text
  5. Introduction
  6. History of the problem
  7. Literature Review
  8. Methodology
  9. Findings
  10. Conclusions
  11. References/Bibliography
  • The Introduction states the general problem that the project is designed to address, provides initial background on the topic, and states the research question.
  • The second and third chapters provide detailed background information on the history of the problem, and a literature review that addresses the relevant academic literature on the topic and its importance to public administration. Some faculty allow these chapters to be combined. The research question driving the project may also be stated again at the end of the literature review chapter.
  • The methodology chapter states the methodology followed during the project in detail, particularly the processes for data collection and analysis. Some faculty allow this to be included as a section of the literature review.
  • The Findings chapter summarizes the findings of the inquiry, while a final or conclusions chapter states the implications of the inquiry and the group’s recommendations, if any.
  • An abstract following APA format and a complete list of references are required.

8. Timelines and Credit Options

Students who have completed first year core could opt to begin a thesis at any time, including summer quarter. However, attempting to simultaneously work on the second year core project and a thesis is not recommended. As is noted above, thesis projects typically require from 18 to 24 months to complete. As a result, students opting to do a thesis may end up taking an extra year to complete their MPA degree.

9. Finalizing the Thesis

The MPA Thesis Project must be formally bound, and is expected to meet a particular format. Students should contact the MPA administrative staff before they begin the final draft of their applications project to assure it meets the specifications needed for binding. The student will assume the cost of binding. The staff will coordinate shipment for binding and delivery to the Evergreen State College Library. Each thesis student is responsible for providing acceptable copy.

10. Alternatives to the Thesis Project

There are alternatives to the thesis for students who wish to improve their research skills. The main option is to expand on the second year core research project for the Capstone course assignment or through a contract. This may take the form of additional data analysis of the core project data set, and drafting the project’s results into a publishable article. Another excellent option is to seek an internship or research opportunity with a state agency, think tank or interest group. This can provide useful research experience without the cost and challenges of performing a thesis.

11. Recommendations

  • If struggling to find a topic, read voraciously, talk with faculty, coworkers, and trusted colleagues. Try to identify areas in which you have an interest, then narrow down to a problem, then down to progressively narrower and more focused research questions.
  • Plan ahead. Try to “front end load” the process.
  • Practice time management. Work on the project every day, at least a little. Avoid procrastination. If you find yourself putting off key tasks, talk to your first reader.
  • If the project feels overwhelming, the scope of the research question probably has not been narrowed enough.
  • Unanticipated difficulties with data collection may make it difficult or impossible to carry out the original study design. This is a risk inherent in all original research. In such instances, contact your faculty sponsor immediately; they will help you craft an alternative way to complete the project.
  • Take care of your health. Take days off when needed. Exercise regularly and keep the project in perspective.
  • Celebrate the conclusion of the project!