Carnegie Mellon University

Research Thesis Requirements and Timeline

Before beginning

Students who wish to do a Master's Thesis should find a research lab. In order to do a thesis, a student must work a minimum of 1 semester (although more typically 1 semester plus a summer) in a research lab before beginning their last semester in the MS program. The following steps will begin before the start of the last semester in the program and go through until the weeks leading up to completion of the degree. Students who want to have help finding a research lab should contact the program academic advisor.

Step 1: Thesis Proposal

Begin at least 6 months prior to graduation

Must be completed at least 3 months prior to graduation

Step 1a: Pre-Proposal Planning

Students meet with their planned thesis advisor at least 5 months prior to graduation (preferably 6-7 month prior to graduation).  In this meeting they should review all the thesis steps in the thesis.  If both agree that a thesis is a valuable endeavor, they should begin to work together on thesis proposal and identifying committee members.  Following the meeting, the student should e-mail and CC the advisor stating that s/he is planning to complete an honors thesis and a draft title.

NOTE: This is a separate process from research for creditStudents doing an honors thesis must complete at least 12 units of research for credit (03-699 or 06-600) during their time at CMU; this is typically done before the formal thesis proposal. In the final semester, students can also enroll in 03-700 (honors thesis research) once they have finished steps 1a-1d. (NOTE: if you are a paid research assistant in the lab, you do not register for 03-700 but you still may do the thesis and receive the research honors for thesis completion.)

Step 1b: Proposal Writing

Students should work with their advisor to write a 2-4 page thesis proposal document.  The proposal should demonstrate understanding of the background material, project rationale, experimental design, methods underlying the proposed project and possible outcomes.  The Thesis Proposal follows the style of an NIH grant proposal with a maximum length of 15 single-spaced pages (11-12 pt. font; page limit includes figures, but excludes Literature Cited).  It should have the following sections:

  • Specific Aims (1-2 aims, appox. 0.5 page). State concisely and realistically what your research is intended to accomplish and what hypotheses are to be tested.
  • Background & Significance (appox. 1 page). Briefly sketch the background to the proposal, critically evaluate existing knowledge and specifically identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill, i.e., summarize the general knowledge of the field, and identify where your questions fit in. This important section displays your knowledge and understanding of the field and its current shortcomings. What are the major unanswered questions? Include previous work done by yourself, your lab, and other labs.
  • Experimental Design and Methodologies (approx. 1 page). Discuss the experimental design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures, and alternative approaches to achieving the aims.
  • Literature Cited. References should be cited within the text by first author and year (Smith et al., 1888; Wilson and Jones, 1919) and listed at the end of the proposal in alphabetical order by first author’s last name. The page limit does not include references.

The proposal should be sent to the thesis advisor (faculty member in charge of the lab) at least 3.5 months prior to planned graduation so that the advisor can review the document before the student sends it along to the committee and to the academic advisor (step 1d).

Step 1c: Committee Make-up and Members

The student and advisor should identify at least two other committee members.  The thesis advisor will serve as the chair of the thesis committee.  At least two members of the thesis committee must be full-time faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, including at least one person who holds the rank of Tenure-Track Assistant Professor or higher in either the Department of Biological Sciences or the Chemical Engineering Department; if the thesis advisor is not a tenure-track professor, then at least one other member of the committee must be.  The committee must also include representation from two departments in Carnegie Mellon University *or* one department in Carnegie Mellon University and one full-time faculty member from another university. 

Step 1d: Proposal Review

At least 3 months prior to the student’s planned graduation date, the completed proposal (which must have already been reviewed by the thesis advisor) should be e-mailed to (academic advisor), plus the full thesis committee.  Within 2 weeks, the committee members need to acknowledge the proposal and submit comments to the student.  If revisions are requiested, then a revised proposal is due to the committee and academic advisor 2 weeks later and is subject to final approval by the thesis committee and the program Steering Committee via the academic advisor.

Step 2: Research & Progress Report

It is expected that the student will be conducting research and data analysis during the entire academic year leading up to thesis defense and graduation.  The student should be meeting regularly with their advisor and other lab personnel and/or collaborators.  The thesis committee and academic advisor should be consulted by the student and/or advisor when challenges arise.  A formal progress report is due to the committee and academic advisor 2 months prior to graduation.  This progress report should follow include a summary of results and progress on each specific aims and any changes to experimental design or research plan.  Completion of this progress report is required for all students enrolled in 03-700.

Step 3: Plan and Write Thesis

Writing the thesis typically takes approximately 2 months.  A template is available here. The thesis should have the following sections:

  • Title page & Dedication/Acknowledgements
  • Abstract (1 page)
  • Introduction chapter (4 or more pages). Separate from introduction sections in other chapters, this is a place for the student to put the entire thesis in context.
  • 1 or more additional chapter (20 or more pages each). Chapter format should be consistent and may match the format of any journal article in the field of study.
  • Bibliography (pages are enumerated but do not count toward page total). This may be a standalone bibliography for the whole thesis or each chapter may have its own bibliography.

Step 4: Thesis Defense

Step 4a: Plan the Defense and schedule it with your committe

The thesis defense must be completed at least 2 weeks prior to graduation. Planning and scheduling should begin well in advance. All members of the thesis committee must be present for the defense. The defense will last between 1-2 hours. Once a date and time are selected the student should work with either the academic advisor or the thesis advisor to reserve a suitable room that can seat at least 10 people (or more if the student expects more).

Step 4b: Publicize the Defense Date

Student contacts the Multimedia Designer and Academic Advisor with:

  • Defense title
  • Research Advisor and committee members’ names (external committee member's school and dept. must be listed)
  • Date and time of defense
  • Location (Reserved room)

A research-related photograph should also be provided. The Multimedia Designer designs a flyer and posts it throughout the Mellon Institute, and also sends an email to the department to publicize the event. The student should also invite others to attend the event.

Step 4c: Finish Written Thesis and Prepare Defense 

At least 2 weeks prior to the thesis defense, the student needs to submit a completed thesis document to the thesis committee and the academic advisor. It is recommended that the student practice the thesis defense presentation with the lab members and/or advisor.

Step 4d: Thesis Defense

The student should bring a copy of the MS Thesis Defense Form with name, laboratory, & thesis title filled out to the defense.  After a public defense and public questions, the student will remain for private questions with the committee and then the committee will confer privately without the student.

Step 5: Revisions

1-2 weeks following the defense, any requested revisions need to be submitted to the thesis committee and the academic advisor.  After a 3 year embargo, completed thesis documents will be publicly available in ProQuest and/or program website.