THESIS vs EXAM
A frequently asked question for literature students is whether one culminating experience is preferable to another. Some feel that a thesis offers a better opportunity for admission to a Ph.D. program and others dispute that claim. There is, in the Graduate Coordinator's experience, no consistent evidence to support the selection of one option over another; the choice is the student's. However, students planning to move on to a Ph.D. program are advised to contact prospective programs and seek their advice about preferred methods of MA degree completion.
For the purposes of clarification, students should see the two experiences in the following ways. The thesis is appropriate for a subject a student wishes to investigate in some depth. Thus the subject will be more narrow than that of an examination. For instance one might choose to examine a few works by one author or compare a novel by one writer with a novel by another. If the student embarks on a single author study, two or perhaps three novels should be sufficient, rather than a writer's (especially a prolific writer like Updike or Nabokov) entire canon. The idea is to scrutinize a subject in more depth than in a seminar or research paper. However, students and faculty should keep in mind that this is not a Ph.D. dissertation or even a mini-dissertation. A satisfactory length would be approximately 60 pages on the short end and no more than 100 on the high end.
On the other hand a comprehensive exam is by nature broader in scope or content. In fact, an informal definition in the American Heritage Dictionary defines a comprehensive as, "Examinations covering the entire field of major study given in the final undergraduate or graduate year." For the purposes of our Masters program, one should see the comprehensive as an option that asks students to demonstrate a breadth of understanding about a subject or area.