How to write an MA paper


1. The MA paper

The MA paper is a piece of original research, suitable for conference or journal publication (if all goes well). It is between 30-40 double-spaced pages (no longer than 50 pages). You should think of this as a research paper, and organize and format accordingly, i.e. according to the specifications of your favorite journal, or a likely journal for submission.

The MA paper is the crucial element used by the department in making its official decision whether to permit you to continue in the program. This decision takes place at a faculty meeting on the Friday of tenth week of the deadline quarter, after you’ve had your MA Paper approved by your committee.

This department-internal process is separate from an optional University process. At the University level, you can file your MA paper as an official MA thesis, and request an official MA degree from the university. Neither of these University-level things are required by the department for admission into the PhD program.


2. Due dates

The quarter your completed MA paper is due is usually your sixth quarter in the program. For most incoming students, this is the end of Spring Quarter of their second year. However, some students (those who have had to take deficiency undergraduate classes or who have been on leave) are given extra time. If you want to know if you fall in the extra-time category, consult the Director of Graduate Studies.

In some instances, MA papers involving experimental work or fieldwork may require additional time. These extensions must be fully justified and approved by the Director of Graduate Studies.

The official language, posted on the Graduate Division Web site (http://www.gdnet.ucla.edu/gasaa/library/pgmrqintro.htm), is:

“For students wishing to be considered for advancement into the doctoral program, a copy of the thesis [read: MA paper], complete and clearly legible, but not necessarily in final typed form, must be in the hands of the committee at least two weeks before the last day of classes in the quarter.”

This refers to the final draft of your MA paper. This gives faculty who were not on your MA Committee sufficient time to review your paper before your admission into the PhD program is discussed. In Fall quarters, when this day falls during the Thanksgiving break, this deadline is customarily moved to the following Monday.

The University requires a certain amount of irksome paperwork to be filled out in order for you to finish your MA paper, even at the departmental level. It is greatly preferable to have this paperwork completed before the deadline, which is the Friday of the second week of the quarter in which you file your MA. If you miss this deadline, you will likely end up having to trek endlessly through Murphy Hall when filing time arrives. So please see the Graduate Student Affairs Officer, ideally before the start of quarter the M.A. is due, and they will help you through this paperwork. When you do file, you must submit a copy of your approved MA paper to the Graduate Student Affairs Officer.  Make sure to attach the MA departmental form with your thesis.


3. How to construct a timeline for your MA Paper

A common error is this: students imagine that you simply write an MA paper, hand it in to your committee members by the deadline, have them read it, approve it, and then you are merrily advanced on into the Doctoral program.

But the reality is that research papers are almost never acceptable after a single draft, either at the MA level, the PhD level, or the full professor level. Getting your data right, getting your analysis right, and presenting everything in a way that is clear and reasonable takes a great deal of effort and advice. Luckily, that’s what we’re here to help you with. The more input your project has, the better it will be. And you’ve got access to a lot of good input (for free!) here at UCLA.

Therefore, if you want to budget time for finishing your MA paper in a truly rational way, you should do something like the following:

  • Go to each member of your committee. Ask them how many drafts they will expect you to write before the final version.
  • Also, ask about “turnaround time”: the number of days it takes them to read a draft, comment on it, and discuss the comments with you in a scheduled appointment.
  • Add to this turnaround time your own turnaround time, that is, how long it takes you to make revisions in response to comments.
  • Then, multiply the number of required drafts by the total (faculty + student) turnaround time. This yields the total number of days needed to finish the paper, following the completion of the first draft.
  • Deducting this number of days from the deadline (above) gives you the day you need to get your first draft in to your committee members.

Obviously, this is an extremely explicit algorithm. However, if you want to follow some other procedure, it would be wise to clear it with your committee chair first.

A successful MA-paper-writer, given a draft of this document, volunteered the following additional ideas, which seem quite useful:

“Set multiple personal deadlines for small bits of the MA paper, and send these bits to your committee. For example, prepare an introduction/lit review over the summer, and let your committee read it, before writing the rest of the MA paper.”

“If you choose to file with the University, to save on formatting woes later in the process, spend a few procrastinatory hours formatting your MA paper to the university requirements, and figuring out how to automatically number examples, figures and tables. This will save lots and lots of time later in the process. Bring a final draft of your MA to the thesis person in the library before printing it out on the nice expensive paper. This saves money, time and headaches.”


4. What If I am late for the departmental deadline?

If you miss the department deadline, the faculty is fully entitled to require you to leave the program at the end of the quarter. The missed deadline, being official, counts as sufficient justification for doing this.

However, it is permitted for individual committee chairs to ask the faculty to make exceptions. Obviously, the later your work, and the sketchier the condition it is in, the harder it will be for your chair to do this in a way that will seem convincing to her/his colleagues. Plainly, if you think you might be late in finishing your MA paper, you should stay in very close consultation with your advisor, keeping things extremely clear about the degree to which your advisor is willing to stick up for you at the faculty meeting.


5. How and when do I file my MA paper with the university?

It is possible to file your MA paper with the University, as a thesis. The department does not require that you do so, but we strongly recommend that you do. If you choose to do this, you will be able to request to get an official MA degree (as opposed to the CPhil (“Candidate of Philosophy”) and PhD degrees you’ll hopefully get later.) The University sets deadlines for when you must file the official copy with the University if you choose to; they can be found in the Schedule of Classes.

Two things to note: the paperwork you file with the department to declare your MA committee and file your MA paper is distinct from the paperwork you need to do to declare your committee and file your paper with the University, but there’s enough redundancy that doing the one will make it relatively trivial to do the other.. The Graduate Student Affairs Officer will help ensure you are completing all the departmental paperwork, but the University paperwork is optional, so it’s up to you to make sure you complete the forms how and when you need to.

UCLA, in addition to several other Universities of California, automatically grant their PhD students a degree called a ‘CPhil’ when they pass their doctoral oral exams. (It’s therefore a signifier of “All But Degree (ABD)” status. Since getting a CPhil entails that you’ve completed the work for an MA in our department, the University will only grant you an MA before you receive your CPhil. This means that you’ll need to chose whether you want to receive your official MA degree — and file all the relevant paperwork —  before you complete your orals. We therefore recommend that students in doubt about whether they’ll want a terminal MA err on the side of caution, and apply for one as soon as they can.


6. What should I do when I’ve finished my MA paper?

CONGRATULATIONS! First, have a heart-to-heart talk with your advisor about whether you should try to publish some version of your MA paper in a journal or submit it to a conference. If you decide to submit for publication, do the revisions promptly. This is for two reasons: it’s easier to revise when you’ve got the whole project still in your head. Also, the journal review process is so protracted that if you wait to try to publish, the article may still be under review by the time you are applying for jobs.

Another thing to do after you finish your MA paper is to form your Doctoral Guidance Committee and start thinking about dissertation topics.

A third thing is to make sure the world can see your work.  You can do this is by posting it to your own website and sending it as a .pdf to the Graduate Student Affairs Officer, who will make sure it gets posted on the Department’s MA page.