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Thesis or Comp Exam


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Hello everyone. So I recently got admitted into an MA program in English at Cal State San Bernardino. I was wondering, what option should I take for my culminating activity? It is either a Comprehensive Examination or a Thesis. I am leaning toward a thesis, because it would be an experience where I would get practice writing a sustained body of writing. What are your thoughts/recommendations? 

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First of all, congrats on the admittance!

I think the answer depends on whether you plan on going for the Ph.D. If so, then I think your rationale is good -- a thesis will give you a sustained body of writing that you can then use as a writing sample for applications, or perhaps publications etc. On the other hand, doing a version of comps will force you to read a bunch of works that should (in theory) be useful to you in the future. I had a hard time with comps in a Ph.D. program, but others haven't found it as difficult. It will depend on the expectations of your committee and your ability to read and retain a lot of information that you can use in an academic conversation.

The thesis is probably your best bet, but one small caveat is that if the thesis is longer than 25 pages or so, you'll inevitably have to cut it down for writing samples and publications. That's not too big of a deal, but something to always keep in mind regardless.

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I agree with Old Bill, under the assumption that you are hoping to use the thesis for your WS. The WS is one of your key documents so if you don't have a paper you can use, a thesis would be a good way to accomplish that (assuming you'd have it finalized and feedback-ed by the application deadline). However, if you're taking grad classes, you might already have a WS you can use (and seminar papers fit the length better, so it will be easier to cut them down and polish them). If you do have a strong seminar paper I would actually recommend doing comps.

Comps were both the hardest and most rewarding experience for me in the PhD. They're a great opportunity to read the things you've been meaning to read, think you have to read, or should read for breadth/specialization. My dissertation idea came from this process and has nothing to do with the things I applied to do. By its very nature, if you read across your field (and adjacent fields) you will discover a lot of interesting things and you will be better versed to make research claims about it. While I was successful on the grad application trail, I think that had I had this type of experience and knowledge when I applied I would have been even more successful.

Note that this will depend on what the structure of comps are. Are you forced to pick from an assigned list? Do you have freedom to choose what you want? In my case, I had a lot of freedom to pick what I wanted to read, but people who did lists in other fields faced some limitations. This is especially a good opportunity to read some theory and new scholarship in your field, if the structure allows for it.

Again, this would be most useful if you can do the comps before you apply so you can use this knowledge. So, ultimately, I would think about whether you feel comfortable with your WS and how dates work out, and then think about how either route would help you compose your other documents (breadth could help with your SoP, but a thesis could also help (and a thesis MIGHT get you a stronger letter of recommendation, depending on your advisor experience)), and finally you could think about what you think would help you most as a PhD student.

All of this is based on the assumption that you are applying to PhDs. If you might be leaving academia with the MA, the considerations will be different (not sure if this would even matter).

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