M.F.A. Thesis Guidelines
All MFA candidates at San Jose State are required to write a thesis in their primary genre, defined in the curriculum as “a book-length manuscript of literary merit and publishable quality.” The finished manuscript must be approved by the candidate’s thesis committee and by SJSU’s Office of Graduate Studies and Research (GS&R), which means it must comply with the official University-wide content and formatting guidelines.
This guide is designed to present the thesis process as clearly as possible. It covers both administrative and literary tasks and should serve as your checklist as you move forward. Note however that University guidelines change frequently, and you should check the GS&R website for the latest requirements before submitting your final manuscript.
- Recruiting a Thesis Committee
- The Thesis Proposal
- Enrolling in Thesis Units
- Drafting Your Thesis
- Formatting Your Thesis
- Submitting the Thesis for Committee Approval
- Submitting the Thesis for GS&R Approval
- Copyright and Publication Concerns
- Additional Steps Necessary for Graduation
From the official GS&R Thesis Guidelines:
University policy S87-6 requires that a minimum of three individuals serve on the student’s thesis committee. The majority of the committee members must be SJSU faculty. The chair of the thesis committee must be a full time, tenured, or tenure track SJSU faculty member not on leave or sabbatical. Faculty participating in the Faculty Early Retirement Program (FERP) are considered active faculty members, and as such, can function as the thesis chair. Non-faculty members must be recognized experts in the subject matter of the thesis.
The English Department, like most departments at SJSU, requires that a masters thesis committee have only two active members. The third member can be the director of the graduate program--in this case, the MFA Program Coordinator--who signs the approval form ex officio. You are welcome to recruit an active third reader; however, you are not required to do so.
In general, the first reader (or Thesis Director) should be a tenure-line faculty member in your primary genre. The Director is the person you will work with most often while you are writing and revising your thesis. He or she will also help you draft and submit your Thesis Proposal.
Usually the second and third readers will review the finished manuscript only once, whereas the Director may read the manuscript twice (or more). Many MFAs have chosen literature faculty members as their third or sometimes second readers. You might even ask a writer or professor from another school who you know and/or has an interest in your work to serve on your committee. Note however that the University guidelines require a majority of the committee (ie, two people) to be SJSU faculty.
Allow plenty of time to recruit your committee. Faculty are very busy, and sometimes your first choices may not have time to serve. Be flexible, and remember that you will recruit a committee. No MFA candidate has ever failed to recruit a committee.
Before you can enroll in your six Thesis Units (ENGL 299), you must have your proposal approved by the Department Graduate Committee. This committee is a group of half a dozen tenure-line faculty members who meet regularly to discuss the department’s MA and MFA programs.
The MFA degree qualifies our graduates to teach literature and writing at the undergraduate and graduate level; therefore, members of the Graduate Committee read these proposals looking for evidence that the candidate is, in fact, qualified to teach at a university.In our MFA program, writers are expected not only to know how to write creative prose and poetry but also to discuss their work and its influences, as well as its relationship to contemporary literature. Proposals should demonstrate expertise with the literary environment and clearly place the thesis within a context that will enable literature scholars to assess its value and potential as an artistic contribution. Carelessness or flippancy will earn your proposal a rejection. The thesis proposal is an important demonstration of your professionalism.
The first step in writing a thesis proposal is to meet with your Thesis Director. Among other things, he or she will help you determine your project’s scope so it can be completed in one or two semesters. This is one of the main questions the Graduate Committee asks about every thesis proposal (MA or MFA). Your Thesis Director can also provide you with examples of past proposals.
Download and fill out the department’s Thesis Proposal Form. You must include this form when you submit your proposal to the Graduate Committee.
Your proposal should have three sections:
Section One: Project Description
A short description (two to four pages) of the manuscript you plan to complete. If your project is a novel, you might describe the cast of characters and succinctly summarize the plot. If you plan to use a particular narrative structure (for example a frame story), you may discuss it here. Explain also the major themes you plan to explore in your work.
Section Two: Discussion of Influences
Write a short essay (four to five pages) explaining how other writers have influenced your work. This is your chance to put on your critic’s hat and analyze your own writing. The more detailed you can be, the better. As a rule of thumb, cite at least five authors who have influenced your thesis project. The committee members like quotations with MLA-style citations that reinforce your claims. Conclude this section with an MLA-style Works Cited page. Remember that this is a demonstration of your ability to write critical prose.
Section Three: Work Sample
Include 5 to 10 pages of poems (no more than 10 poems total) or 10 to 15 pages of prose or drama. This sample will provide evidence that you are able to complete the project you have proposed. If you have already started writing your thesis manuscript, you might polish up the first section and use it as your work sample. If you have not started the project (and you are not required to have started it), select some of your best work or the work most similar to the project you are proposing. You should refer to specific content from your work sample, if appropriate, in either or both of the first two sections.
Send a draft of your proposal to your Thesis Director at least two weeks before the semester’s Thesis Proposal Deadline (usually the last day of March or October), so he or she has time to suggest revisions. When you have your Director’s approval, submit the proposal by email to the Department’s Graduate Coordinator.
The members of the Graduate Committee will read your proposal, and it will be brought up for discussion at the next committee meeting, normally within a week or two of the proposal deadline. The members will vote and convey their decision to your Thesis Director and to you. Sometimes the committee grants a proposal approval on the condition that it be revised in one way or another. Make sure you pay attention and carry out these revisions as soon as possible. If you wait too long, the committee may not be able to reconsider your proposal that semester and your progress towards graduation may be delayed.
After your Thesis Proposal has been approved by the Department Graduate Committee, you have permission to register for your six Thesis Units (ENGL 299). You may take these units concurrently or over two semesters. To get your add code for MySJSU, fill out the Form to Register for 299 Thesis Units, get signatures from your Thesis Director and the MFA Program Coordinator, and take the completed form to the Department Admin (in FO102).
A few notes on the GS&R guidelines:
Although MFA theses are creative work, they are considered “Plan A” projects (ie, theses) rather than “Plan C” projects (creative project reports). In general, Plan C reports are descriptions of nonwritten work, for example dance performances and art installations. Just FYI.
Your manuscript must include both an Abstract (one page maximum) and a Preface. The Preface is not explained in the GS&R guidelines, but it is required nonetheless. In the Preface, GS&R is looking for a short essay explaining your project and its influences. Sound familiar? Most MFA candidates use a version of their Thesis Proposal as their Preface (minus the writing sample, of course). Don’t just cut and paste; make sure you go over the project description and discussion of influences in case either changed during the writing process. Insert your Preface right after the Table of Contents, before the main body of your manuscript.
A final word of advice: proofread and then proofread again. The dispassionate reviewers at GS&R have been known to reject theses because of typos and grammatical mistakes. Obviously, if you are using dialect in your manuscript, that’s okay; but please make sure the Preface is free of spelling and grammar errors.
All three members of your committee will read your work simultaneously. Usually the second and third readers convey their decisions to your Thesis Director, who communicates it to you. They may recommend changes before you submit the final manuscript to GS&R (this is why the deadline falls so early in the semester). After the committee approves the manuscript, ask them to sign the Thesis Committee Page (see GS&R guidelines for formatting).
Getting your thesis approved by the office of Graduate Studies & Research (GS&R) is explained in detail at this website:
SJSU uses ProQuest to manage its digital repository of masters theses. Once you submit your manuscript through the ProQuest site (and you are required to do so in order to have your thesis approved by GS&R) it becomes available through certain ProQuest databases. If you wrote a historical novel about Abraham Lincoln, for example, a citation and abstract of your thesis will appear in search results for “Abraham Lincoln.” Depending on the permissions you granted ProQuest during the submission process, users of their database may also have the option to order a full electronic or printed copy of your work. Note that you retain full copyright to your work. ProQuest is only a distributor; they do not own your work.
There is a good reason why SJSU wants your thesis to be available to the public. In the sciences, for example, theses and dissertations are valuable additions to the scholarly literature. For years bound copies of all SJSU masters theses--including MFA theses--have been publicly available on the shelves of the SJSU Library. But in the age of digital reading, many creative writers are horrified to know that their proprietary, copyrighted work might be available through a public database. They worry (with good reason) that publishers will shy away from work that is already available online.
During the final submission process, you will be given several opportunities to restrict access to your work. At present the best you can do is to choose the “embargo” and “full sales restriction” options when you submit your final manuscript. This will prohibit ProQuest from selling full access to your manuscript, although an abstract and citation of your work will still be included in ProQuest’s thesis and dissertation database. A group of SJSU faculty, administrators, and librarians is currently working with ProQuest on a better long-term solution. Here is ProQuest’s current stance on the issue.
On the other hand, you may want your work to be available for purchase through ProQuest. You may even want it to be available for free (see the “Open Access” option). Whatever you choose, please remember that neither SJSU nor ProQuest is trying to profit from your work. The advancement of human knowledge (the ultimate goal of academics) depends on the free flow of information among scholars, and by seeking an MFA you chose to be part of this conversation. It is impossible to take an advanced degree like the MFA without leaving some mark on the academic record. The Internet has only made that mark easier to find.
The publication options are covered in more detail in GS&R's online thesis workshop available here: http://www.sjsu.edu/gradstudies/thesis/thesis_events/index.html
You should be aware that you need to file official forms with SJSU’s Graduate Admissions and Program Evaluation office (best acronym on campus: GAPE) in order to progress towards graduation.
The semester before you plan to graduate, you must fill out and file a Petition for Advancement to Graduate Candidacy. The deadlines are usually the first day of April (for December graduation) and the first day of October (for May graduation). Check GAPE’s deadlines page for the most current dates.
At the beginning of your final semester, you need to file an Application for Award of Master's Degree form. The deadlines for this are usually in mid-February (for May graduation) and mid-September (for December graduation). Again, check with GAPE to be sure you have the right date.