Thesis Defense

The Master of Fine Arts thesis is a book-length project (for poetry, about 50 poems, for prose writers at least one hundred pages). The thesis is the centerpiece of your master’s work: this is your chance to work closely with your advisor to produce a publishable piece of writing that will carry you from your career as a student into your career as a writer.
Hints and suggestions:
  • Do not tie yourself to the project you came here to write if you have discovered other, more exciting ideas with which to work.
  • Do not see it as a “rag-bag” in which to throw the bits and pieces you have produced in the programme: it should be as fully developed and cohesive as a project you have been commissioned to write for publication.
  • Do not regard the thesis simply as a requirement for graduation—while this perception might be useful in other disciplines, for you as a writer your thesis is literally your “masterpiece.” It is the work that demonstrates your skills and talents. It is also the work you will use as the foundation of your writing career. You should use it as the source for pieces to send out for publication (and writing samples for teaching jobs), or as the manuscript you submit to contests, agents or publishers.
  • The faculty have many years of experience in writing, editing and publishing—make sure that you work closely with your advisor, and draw on the expertise of all the members of your committee. They will push you to produce the best work you possibly can, and to reflect on your craft.
  Suggested Timeline (spring graduation)
  • End of first year: you should have some idea of what your thesis will be comprised of and, if it is a lengthy project (e.g. a novel) have made a start on it.
  • Start of third year: you are strongly encouraged to have a complete draft of your thesis by the time you start your last year in the programme. Although you may well have more time to write than in past years, the time demands for graduation mean you only have a semester and a half to work on your thesis this year.
  • March of your third year: you should have a polished draft of your thesis that you have worked on in close consultation with your advisor. You must submit a copy to all of your committee members (including your external examiner) at least two weeks before you defend. (Note: if you cannot make this deadline, reschedule your defence. Cutting the time you allow your committee to read your thesis is not acceptable).
  • March/April: thesis defense. Make sure you leave yourself sufficient time between your defense and the final day to submit your thesis to make any changes your committee may require you to make. Note: it is the student’s responsibility to schedule the thesis defence. The department’s administrative staff will help you with some of the practicalities, such as finding a room.
  • 7 April (or following Monday, if the 7th falls on a weekend): last day to submit the final version of your thesis to the Graduate School. If you cannot make this deadline, you must ask the Graduate School if you can be granted an extension.
Thesis Defense
Before you submit your thesis to the Graduate School, you are required to publicly “defend” your work before your thesis committee (including an external examiner). This public examination is a formal occasion, and should be treated as such. You will be asked to discuss in detail your own work in terms of craft, how your work approaches some of the fundamental questions about craft relevant to your genre, and the relationship between your writing and the larger genre in which you are working. Only your committee members can ask questions. Members of the public are allowed to attend but cannot take part in the proceedings. After approximately forty-five minutes of examination, you and any members of the public will be asked to leave the room while your committee deliberates. You will then be invited back into the room to be given the committee’s decision.
Although the examination might seem intimidating, it should also be rewarding: this is your chance (perhaps one of the few you will ever have) to discuss your work with experts in the field who are familiar with your writing. You should prepare yourself by attending other defences, by reflecting on the craft issues you have been working with in your thesis, by considering the relationship between what you have produced and published work in your genre, and by being familiar with the major concepts and terminology relevant to your genre. You are strongly encouraged to prepare yourself by reviewing the texts on your comprehensive examination list, the ideas and texts discussed in the Forms class in your genre, and other texts that have a bearing on your writing.

It is rare to fail a thesis defense since your advisor is unlikely to let you get to the point of arranging the examination unless s/he considers you ready. However, it is possible to fail, or to be given only a conditional pass (with stipulations as to what you must do in order to be granted a pass).

You are advised to bring with you a copy of your thesis, paper and pens for your notes during the examination, and the signature sheet for your thesis on high-quality paper for your committee to sign.
External Examiner
The English Department requires that you have an external examiner (a member of the UAF faculty from outside the English Department) who is part of the thesis committee for the defence, and who reports back to the department on the fairness of the examination. You are not expected to work with your examiner prior to the defence. Your advisor usually makes arrangements for who will serve as your external examiner, but you are welcome to make suggestions or work with your advisor on finding a suitable member of faculty.