Communication Graduate Handbook | Communication Studies | College of Liberal Arts | Panda Anku

Thesis and Comprehensive Exam Process


Purpose: Students choosing the thesis option will complete an independent research project following the conventions and application of appropriate method/methodology of the discipline. Students in our program may complete projects with human participants (in qualitative or quantitative methods) or can complete projects that follow rhetorical, critical/cultural, or performative research traditions. Successful theses will demonstrate students’ understanding of the discipline (concepts, theories, methods) reviewing relevant academic literature, and creating research questions/purposes for their independent research that advance knowledge in the discipline. The nature of the written thesis document will be dependent on the type of project (see below), but still should be theory-driven, grounded in research of the field, and conform to disciplinary standards for the type of project. You are able to look up theses by UNR students through the Knowledge Center to see what other students have researched.

Types of Thesis Projects

Traditional: “Traditional” thesis projects are those that most closely resemble academic journal article original research studies appropriate for the particular sub-discipline/methodology the project fits within. The organization and writing of these projects often follows traditional sections of a research article (lit review, methods, results, discussion), but the thesis allows for the research to extend or go more in-depth than is allowed in the page limit of a journal article.

Applied: Communication studies has a strong tradition of applied research; applied projects might take the form of completing research on behalf of an organization or community group, might be in completing some other deliverable on behalf of an organization (for example a public awareness campaign or event), or as a local problem-solving and/or policy creation project. Some might use this applied approach in the context of pedagogy (in developing curriculum, programming, or organizing co-curricular activities). The written thesis in applied projects includes a “research report” engaging the academic aspects of the project that accompanies the white paper, professional report, and/or created deliverables that were part of the applied project.

Performance: Performative projects include a public presentation/performance. Performances are theory-driven and reflective, following standards of the discipline. The written portion of this type of thesis project will explain the performance in the context of the discipline, interpreted via theory, and with academic reflection. In most cases a recording of the performance and/or scripts/programs will be included as part of the final materials.

General Expectations for Thesis Projects

Students are expected to research beyond readings they have encountered in their courses, and explore in more detail the concepts, theories, and/or problematics in the discipline appropriate to their projects. Students should be able to demonstrate abilities to search and find appropriate literature to construct their projects, to craft positions that support interpretations, and to explain what their project contributes to the discipline.

Students will be expected to write proficiently for academic audiences (e.g., with general clarity, accurate use of sources, citation of sources following specific citation style, and formatting as required by Graduate School and type of project). Proficient writing should also be clearly organized and develop a coherent central theme, purpose, and/or argument throughout the project. The quality of writing should be higher than is expected in a semester seminar paper, as the assumption is that the student has been continually working and revising the thesis before the committee reads it for the defense.

Stages of the Thesis Project

After selecting an advisor and committee members, students should use the summer between their first and second year in the program to begin reading, conceptualizing the study, and/or working with organizations or groups for applied projects. Students working with human participants should also start the IRB process over summer or early in their third semester.

Prospectus: The purpose of a prospectus and prospectus defense with the thesis committee is for the student to receive an initial approval for their projects from their committee. The committee determines when the project is ready to proceed, if the student is capable of the proposed research/project, and/or suggests resources or directions for the student to consider in completing the project. Approval of the project in the defense should be considered a contract of the work to be completed by the student. Any substantial changes to the proposed project should be reviewed by the committee and given new approval to proceed.

The prospectus defense is an opportunity for the student to articulate the project to the committee, answer questions, and receive feedback from the committee geared to help the student in completing the research/project. Committees should have no less than two weeks to review the prospectus and will indicate to the advisor if they believe the project ready for an oral defense. If a committee member sees substantive issues that would require serious reconceptualizations of the project, the student may be advised to postpone the prospectus defense until those issues have been addressed by the student. Minor issues, questions, or feedback from the committee can be addressed in the defense and framed as areas for the student to improve upon in the writing of the thesis.

The typical oral defense begins with the student presenting and explaining the project; usually the student will address any questions or concerns the committee members might have already raised with the advisor (about 15 minutes). The committee then ask the student questions, engage in conversation about the project, and offer suggestions (typically 30-45 minutes). The general spirit of the conversation should be focused on bringing the committee’s expertise to the table to help develop the project in productive ways. After this conversation the student is excused from the group so that the committee can privately discuss approval and/or areas for the advisor to attend to as the student continues on the project. Students should not be worried about “failing” a prospectus defense and should see the prospectus defense as opportunity to become part of the scholarly community with their committee.

Thesis Completion and Defense

Theses should be completed well before the notice of completion form is due to the Graduate School. Students should keep in mind that their committees will need at least two weeks to read the final thesis before the defense, and the student should also plan to have time for any revisions requested by the committee after the defense. Students should send their committee their final thesis only when it is complete and when the advisor deems it “defendable” (that is, anticipating no major objections from the committee and that meet expectations of scholarly work in the discipline). Although some additional proofreading or citation checks might be needed post-defense, the student should not submit a thesis to the committee with major writing, organizational, or formatting issues.

Once the committee is confident the project is ready for defense, the advisor should work with the student and committee to schedule the oral defense. Like the prospectus defense, the oral defense typically starts with the student presenting on the project (about 15 minutes), which can resemble an academic conference presentation of the research and/or to do more to explain the process or areas the committee already identified as needing more attention. Then the committee asks questions and/or engages in discussion with the student on the project (typically 30-45 minutes). The student is then dismissed for the committee to make final deliberations. Students may choose to have an audience for the beginning presentation of the project (a public defense). Those not part of the committee will then be excused until the committee deliberation is concluded.

The committee will determine whether or not the project passes the defense. If the project does not pass, the student can continue to work on the project and then repeat the defense process. If the committee decides that the project does pass the defense, they may request no revisions, minor revisions, or major revisions. In general, a thesis will pass if it exhibits the following criteria:

  • Contribute to knowledge in communication studies with your original research. What does your project do to advance our understanding of communication concepts/theories, processes, functions, forms, or approaches to studying communication?
  • Demonstrate understanding of communication concepts and theories that are the basis of the study. What are the questions, central issues, or status of the field? What conversation is your project joining?
  • Demonstrate understanding of what has been studied/known of the topic/case/interaction of your study (to be able to show gaps/how your study extends or changes what we know).
  • Demonstrate understanding of a method/methodology and accurately/successfully carry out scholarship using that methodology.
  • Demonstrate insight with analysis/interpretation.
Submitting the Thesis to the Graduate School

MA theses are published through ProQuest/UMI Dissertation Publishing. Students own and retain the copyright to the manuscript; theses are submitted by electronic submissions only. Students should also be aware of the thesis processing fee (currently $85).

The advisor is responsible to ensure that no part of the thesis has been plagiarized and that the student has followed Fair Use guidelines on copyrighted materials. When the student submits their thesis, they will need to certify and show permission of use for copyrighted material that extends beyond fair use guidelines. The thesis advisor will compete the Final Review Form once the thesis is ready for this submission.

Incomplete Thesis/Switching to Non-Thesis Option

Some circumstances may require a student to change from the thesis option to non-thesis/comprehensive exams. The advisor and student should discuss this situation and receive approval from the Graduate Director. Students who switch from the thesis to the non-thesis option will have to change their program of study and the student will have to take required comprehensive exam credits. The student may also need to change the composition of the advisory committee to best serve the non-thesis option goals.

Comprehensive Exams


The purpose of the comprehensive exam option is for students to demonstrate knowledge and capabilities acquired through their coursework. It is a means for students to go more in-depth with areas of expertise/specializations (the “mastery” claimed by the degree), and engage with those issues of the discipline beyond what coursework allows. The comprehensive exam differs from a project in that students demonstrate a broader knowledge of the discipline instead of contributing new work to the discipline.

Students should work with their advisor to identify three specialization areas that their exam questions will focus on. Specialization areas are often derived from specific courses or coursework, but a student could utilize comprehensive exams to engage in an area of the discipline not fully covered in their coursework. In defining the specialization areas, students must incorporate methodological and theoretical areas as part. If a student is completing a graduate certificate, one specialization might center on the certificate program area. Thinking ahead to the types of questions a student would respond to in their exams can help think about how to define specializations areas:

  • Synthesis: Students will review, synthesize, and take a position related to a particular theory, method, subdiscipline area of study, concept, research agenda, or other area specific to the specialization area.
  • History of the Discipline: This type of question asks the student to trace the history, development, or change of key theories, concepts, or work of particular scholars in the discipline.
  • Demonstration of Method: Students might be asked to perform a particular methodological skill and/or employ knowledge of methods towards a hypothetical to construct, evaluate, or reconceive a study.
  • Engaging with Issues: Students will be able to employ critical thinking and ability to connect disciplinary concepts/theories to real world problems. This type of question could also be focused on more disciplinary issues or key problematics.
  • Application and/or Proposal: For students that are working professionals (outside of the university), this type of question would allow them to put that experience in conversation with academic coursework. This type of question could also allow a student to work through a hypothetical (creating campaign, proposing a research study and/or how an organization can improve, etc.).
Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

Students can begin to identify areas of specialization as soon as they know the direction they want to focus in, and should begin to create reading lists related to those areas. These lists often draw from course assigned readings and/or additional readings they encountered when doing semester project work, but lists also require students to read additional materials beyond those associated with their courses. For each of the three specialization areas, students should work with their advisor or committee members to create a finalized list of sources that will represent the material students will be accountable for knowing to respond to exam questions.

A reading list typically covers a broad specialization area (e.g., The Rhetoric of Political Movements, qualitative interviewing), with a combination of articles or book sources representative of the area. There is no set number of sources for each reading list (although 50-75 sources total is typical all lists combined). A reading list might incorporate more book related sources and be shorter, or it might be a longer list that incorporates more articles and shorter works. Some other guidelines to consider in constructing a reading list:

  • Include foundational, germinal, or key sources/authors that a student might be expected to know (by others in the subdiscipline area).
  • Include sources that are representational of different models/schools of thought/paradigms in the specialization area.
  • Include sources that are specific to the direction the comp question might take that a student is responding to (e.g., forums or new directions in a given area of research).

Although these reading lists usually focus on communication studies scholars and sources, readings lists can include academic works as appropriate from outside the discipline and/or key works that are not traditional academic sources.

Once the student and advisor agree that a reading list is complete, the student shares the list with the committee for approval and/or additional recommendations. The advisor should set a meeting with the student and committee to discuss the final lists and expectations of the committee for the exams. The committee may also discuss the general direction of the questions for each specialization area to help the student in studying/preparation. Students should meet with their committee prior to or at the beginning of the semester they plan to take comprehensive exams to establish the question formats/types the committee agrees to use.

The student should prepare for exams by studying the sources on the reading lists by re-reading as needed, taking notes, organizing thoughts, and/or meeting with the advisor/committee members to ensure understanding. Students can prepare for questions by outlining/organizing ideas in advance based on the questions determined by the committee.

Comprehensive Exams Format, Process, and Defense

Exam questions and format are contingent on the specialization areas chosen by the student and/or the particular skills/communication practices part of that specialization. The format of the comprehensive exams should also be decided based on student interests and abilities. Standards of rigor, expectations regarding difficulty, and effort required will be essentially the same regardless of format. Students will be required to address one question per specialization area. Students (working with their advisor, and with approval by the committee) can choose from the following formats on how to respond to the question:

  • In-House: Students will receive the full question in-advance and have at least one-month to prepare for responding to the question. Students will schedule blocks of time to take the exam supervised by the Graduate Director and/or other Graduate Faculty member. Questions will be scheduled for 3 hour per question periods, during the time the student will type their response to the question. Students should plan on spending that time fully in writing and revising their answer (not looking up information). Accordingly, although the student should cite sources, it is not expected that fully accurate citations/formatting will be included. Written answers in this format are typically 10-15 pages (no more than 20). Some questions might require the student to have minimal resources available (as required by the committee’s question—for example, a methods question that a student might need to analyze data).
  • Take-Home: Students will work with the committee to have a general idea of the question direction, but will not receive the actual/full question until the scheduled exam time. Students should schedule meeting with the committee to discuss the general orientation of questions at least one-month before taking the exam to have time to prepare. Students can opt to have questions given one-by-one (typically a 3-day window for each question) or have all questions given at one-time to complete over a two-week period. Written answers in this format are typically 10-15 pages, but with an expectation that accurate citation of sources/reference page is part of the writing. Students will still be required to attend courses they are taking even if the exam days overlap.
  • Oral Presentation: Students will have the option to present their response in the form of an oral presentation. Students will work with the committee to determine the question on which the presentation will focus and what information/content will be required to be addressed the committee’s question as part of the presentation. The presentation can either be part of the oral defense or scheduled at a time separately. Presentations will be no more than 20 minutes, and any accompanying visual aids (if used) that should be professional in design, effectively used, and appropriate to content. Students will be expected to cite sources. Students will take questions and answers from committee specific to the presentation question.
Evaluating Comps

Once a student completes all answers (in either the take-home or in-house format), the committee will receive the responses and will have two weeks to review. Although the committee can indicate a general pass/fail at this point, the oral defense is for the final determination and offers the student an opportunity to defend answers/correct weak areas through answering questions of the committee. Committees will evaluate questions based on:

  • Essays demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of field’s history, theories, central issues, and/or future directions based on content areas of reading lists/foci of questions.
  • Essays address the chosen questions thoroughly.
  • Essays together demonstrate comprehensive coverage of student’s reading list
  • Essays observe the conventions of academic analytic essays.
Oral Defense

The purpose of the oral defense is for continued conversation on the written responses and to probe the student further on the written responses or topic area (what the student may not have had time to include in the response or further reflection on their response). The oral defense also gives the student opportunity to demonstrate knowledge in an area that might not have sufficiently come through the written responses.

In the defense, the student can open with a short presentation/discussion on their answers to the committee. This can include an explanation of their approach to the question, address any areas of concern raised by committee before this defense, and/or reflections or considerations on their responses (typically no more than 10 minutes). Then the committee opens to questions/discussion related to the specific written responses including:

  • Any places of clarification or for students to address a portion of their argument
  • Extend any places where the argument was not fully elaborated
  • Any places where student did not directly address a portion of the question prompt and/or include key reading in the response

Following the question/answer period (typically 45-60 minutes), the student leaves the room for the committee to deliberate. The committee will determine based on the written responses (and/or oral presentation) and the student’s abilities to answer questions and discuss during the defense on whether the student passes the full comprehensive exam process.

Failing Exams

The committee should determine if a student passes or fails for each question/specialization area. For any responses that are determined as a fail, the committee can require the student to re-do the failed question (in a take-home or in-house written format) or the committee might request the student respond to an entirely new question in that specialization area. The committee will review the new written responses to determine pass/fail and can opt to have another oral defense for that question. The student will only have one chance to revise a failed exam answer; if the student fails on a question twice, they will be dismissed from the program.

Students who plagiarize their written responses (especially if they constitute level C academic dishonesty levels as prescribed in UAM 6,502) can be automatically failed and subject to possible dismissal from the program. It will be up to the advisor’s discretion with advice from the committee to allow a student to retake their comprehensive exams if plagiarism or dishonesty is present at any level.

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