Journal of Nursing Education

Master's Thesis Policies in Nursing Education

Kathleen M May, RN, MS; William L Holzemer, PhD



A telephone survey of 25 schools of nursing with doctoral programs was conducted to inquire about their master's thesis policies. Six programs require a thesis. Sixteen programs provide both thesis and other options, described in the paper. Other policy issues are discussed which include: relation of thesis to faculty research, criteria for serving on a master's thesis committee, and requirements for doctoral admission. Responses to the survey indicate a variety of types and degrees of research experience in master's programs.



A telephone survey of 25 schools of nursing with doctoral programs was conducted to inquire about their master's thesis policies. Six programs require a thesis. Sixteen programs provide both thesis and other options, described in the paper. Other policy issues are discussed which include: relation of thesis to faculty research, criteria for serving on a master's thesis committee, and requirements for doctoral admission. Responses to the survey indicate a variety of types and degrees of research experience in master's programs.


Master's programs in nursing are characterized by diversity in orientation, offerings, and requirements for completion. What are the master's thesis policies in graduate nursing programs? Is completion of the thesis considered a criterion for admission to doctoral programs in nursing? This survey was conducted to determine the status of master's thesis policies and to examine them vis-a-vis selected doctoral program admission requirements in schools of nursing with both doctoral and master's degree programs. Graduate faculty at the University of California, San Francisco, have been reviewing policies related to the master's thesis. Students in the master's degree program have questioned how the choice of thesis versus the comprehensive examination affects the possibility of future admission to a doctoral program in nursing. As a result of student and faculty interest the reported survey was conducted.

Master's Education in Nursing: With increasing attention on the doctoral level of education in nursing, the relationship of master's level education to further graduate study may need to be reviewed (Hölzerner, 1982, p. 537), Depending on a student's goals, the master's degree may be a basis for further graduate work or it may be preparation for a career in academic or non-academic settings. In a recent report on graduate education, it was recommended that masters programs should be rigorous enough that graduates who go no further in their education can graduate with a sense of accomplishment, while students who continue graduate work will have given evidence of their ability to conduct further research (Commission on Graduate Education, 1982). The issue of how the thesis or other research options at the master's level should be viewed in light of this purpose was not addressed.

Master's education in nursing has a wide range of responsibility, including: preparation of clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners; preparation for "functional" roles such as teaching and administration; and incorporation of research (Lewis, 1980). The objectives that guide graduate nursing programs cover clinical specialization, functional role preparation and research training (Connelly, 1981). This diversity indicates the difficulty in addressing the question of what the function of graduate education in nursing should be (Kelley, 1977).

Though emphasis in master's education in the 1970s was on clinical specialization (Donley, Jepson, & Perl off, 1973; Grossman, 1972), recognition of the need to address functional role preparation continued (Donley, et al., 1973), Today the continuing dual emphasis of clinical specialty and functional role is evident in program descriptions (National League for Nursing, 1980). While it is recognized that masters students need to increase their clinical and professional knowledge, orientation to research is considered essentia] (Lodge, 1977).

Research at the Master's Level: The need to develop "initial competence in conducting research" (NLN, 1979, p. 206) in the master's program is generally accepted, but the extent of such involvement has been an issue among educators (Grossman, 1972). It has been recommended that students learn the value of nursing practice research and know how an environment can support research (Lewis, 1980). According to the National League for Nursing:

Opportunities need to be provided to acquire research skills, which can be accomplished in a variety of ways depending upon individual students' needs and goals (NLN, 1979, p. 206).

Some specific elements of research involvement at the masters level have been identified as: "identifying researchable nursing problems;" "replication or pilot studies;" or synthesis of "a conceptual framework. . . to design a circumscribed, original study" (NLN, 1979, ? 206).

Graduates of one master's program are expected "to conduct small, systematic studies and to use research findings" (Hayter, 1978). In a study designed to identify core competencies of master's prepared nurses, expected "core process competencies," regardless of clinical area or functional role, were identified (McLane, 1978). Four of 25 competency items were determined by respondents to be core competencies of a "researcher" (McLane, 1978). However, in another study using graduate and employer ranking of master's prepared nurses' performance related to program objectives, respondents ranked research-related objectives as "least observed" in graduates' performance and some considered research to be "not applicable" (Smith, 1980, p. 7).

The Master's Thesis: Literature on master's education in nursing seldom addresses the place of the thesis in a program of study. In a survey of master's programs identified as permitting alternatives to the thesis, Yeaworth (1973) found a variety of names of alternatives, and a variety of guidelines for theses and projects. Diers (1979) advises prospective master's students to consider the thesis/non-thesis options offered by master's programs in relation to students' interests, abilities, and goals. Recommendations on what approach graduate students might use in writing a thesis has been offered (Gray & Rudy, 1981).

The master's thesis is viewed as one mechanism for developing initial research competence (Rains, 1980). Ackerman (1976) suggests that students at the master's level attain an attitude about research which would ultimately enhance the quality of nursing practice. She suggests that various methods may be an alternative to the thesis. One of these alternatives is the comprehensive examination (Grossman, 1972).

In nursing, role preparation at the master's level and research preparation at the doctoral level have been emphasized (Hölzerner, 1982). Questions about the purpose of the master's thesis and the level of research competence appropriate for the master's-prepared graduate as compared with the doctorally-prepared graduate are unresolved but are receiving more attention.

As we close the gap in our educational ladder in nursing through the development of doctoral programs, the competencies in research must be viewed in relation to those which are appropriate on the continuum of research training from baccalaureate to doctoral programs. Profound researchers will not be prepared at the master's level, but the importance of research training . . . should not be underestimated (Conley, 1978, ? 13).

Description of the Survey

From March 10 through May 5, 1981, a telephone survey of schools of nursing with both doctoral and master's programs was conducted to obtain information about selected master's thesis policies and aspects of the doctoral program. Twenty-five schools which would be admitting doctoral and master's students by Fall 1982, and three schools in the process of planning doctoral programs were surveyed. Respondents included: the dean, associate dean, assistant dean, director of graduate programs, or other administrator or faculty member from each school.

The questions asked in the telephone survey addressed the following points: master's thesis option; extent of thesis research and relationship to faculty research; criteria for master's thesis committee membership; master^ thesis as a criterion for admission to the doctoral program and request for a copy of the thesis prior to admission to the doctoral program; admission of BSN graduates into the doctoral program and evidence of their scholar liness; and doctoral program course requirements. All respondents answered all questions.

These questions on master's and doctoral program admission policies were asked as part of a larger survey on opinions and recommendations regarding a previous study of doctoral programs. Responses to the doctoral study component of the survey and information about doctoral program course requirements are not included in this report.

In the Fall of 1982 respondents were asked for permission to publish the school's name in connection with its data and to confirm the accuracy of the responses. All respondents gave permission and confirmed or revised responses.


Throughout this report, results for the 25 schools admitting doctoral students by Fall 1982 are summarized. Only partial results of the interviews with the three schools in the process of planning doctoral programs are included in the Table, since some policies had not been set at the time of the interview or the follow-up letter. In the Table the following information is presented: name of school, type of master's and doctoral degree, and response to questions about master's thesis option, master's thesis as a criterion for admission to the doctoral program, request for a copy of the thesis prior to admission to the doctoral program, and whether there is a bypass option.

Masters Thesis and Other Options: Of the 25 schools for which data are summarized, six required completion of a thesis in the master's program, 16 had both thesis and nonthesis options, and three had no thesis option (Table). One of the four schools not having a thesis option required carrying out studies using a computer database. Another required a project, similar to a pilot study, with data collection. Among the 16 schools providing both thesis and other options, there were a variety of non-thesis routes to attaining a master's degree. Some respondents mentioned that, though a thesis is not required, some form of "independent investigation" or other "formal research project" is required. Types of non-thesis options cited were: clinical research, scholarly paper, comprehensive examination, field study, research practicum leading to a scholarly paper, and other "projects."









Extent of Thesis: To the question of whether there must be a complete study, including data collection and analysis, respondents from all 22 programs with a thesis option indicated that the thesis must be a complete study. However there was some variation in what constituted a complete study. Some emphasized primary data collection, while others mentioned that students could use other's data or could use secondary data analysis or develop an instrument. The fact that it must be independent work even if using others' data was mentioned by several respondents. One person differentiated the doctoral dissertation and master's thesis by stating that the master's thesis does not need to be "a whole new problem the way a dissertation does."

Relation to Faculty Research: Respondents from 17 of the 21 programs offering a thesis reported that master's thesis research may be a part of ongoing faculty research. Of the four who said "no", one person indicated that if the work were part of faculty research it would be regarded as a scholarly paper rather than a thesis. The others emphasized that the work must be developed "individually and independently," as a "separate research project" and must be "a free-standing, independent study." Many of those who said the student's research may be part of faculty research emphasized that the student's work must be "independent" and "original," although faculty data may be used or a study may be replicated. In some cases when faculty data are used "the student must pose the question, form the theoretical framework, do the literature review, and data analysis." In other cases, the student need not have initially formulated the project. Some respondents mentioned that there is an effort being made to involve students in faculty research and to "build programs of research, with studies contributing to each other." No one reported that master's thesis research must be a part of the faculty research.

Criteria for Serving on Master's Thesis Committee: Regarding criteria for committee membership, each respondent mentioned one or more of the following areas: number of members, faculty status, research experience and educational background. Further comments addressed criteria for serving as a chairperson of the thesis committee.

AU of the 21 schools offering a thesis require at least two members (or "readers") on the thesis committee, although 12 schools either require or usually have three members and a few schools may have four or more members. Requirements on faculty status address: faculty membership in or outside the school of nursing, graduate faculty status, and approval by the Graduate School of the university. Some schools require one to three members from the school of nursing. One school requires one member from outside the school of nursing. Seven emphasize that one or more members are of graduate faculty status. "Clinical," "adjunct," "participating" faculty or "lecturers" may, in at least nine schools, be a member of a thesis committee if approved by the Graduate School or similar governing body of the institution.

In several cases it was mentioned that thesis committee members have "experience in research," "experience in directing the research of others," familiarity with the topic, or expertise in the content area or methods used in the thesis. Educational background of members varies from having all members with doctorates to no specification about members' education. Several respondents stated that at least one member of the committee, usually the chairperson, has a doctorate. The composite picture of the chairperson is of one who has an earned doctorate, is a tenuretrack member of the graduate school faculty in the school of nursing, and has experience in research. In one case chairperson will have done a "substantial amount of research and publication."

Doctoral Program Admission: Only one of the 25 doctoral programs "requires" a master's thesis for admission into the doctoral program, and if an applicant to that program has not done a master's thesis, research experience may be considered in lieu of the thesis.

Though a master's thesis is not required for admission to the doctoral program, several respondents emphasized that it is important for an applicant to either have done a thesis or had other research experience, e.g., "research experience equivalent to a thesis," "other research activities," or a "paper on research," to indicate scholarly ability and research activity. Four of the doctoral programs request a copy of the master's thesis, if the applicant has done one, prior to admission to the doctoral program. In several cases it was asserted that it is not necessarily the fact of having done a thesis but the quality of the thesis or other research and scholarly activity that is considered important in doctoral program applicants.

Bypass Option: Respondents were asked whether their doctoral program had a bypass option, i.e., whether BSN graduates without a master's degree were admitted directly into the doctoral program. As indicated in the Table, 11 schools do have the bypass option. One school that formerly admitted BSN graduates into the doctoral program has since changed to requiring a master's degree. In another school, the idea of the bypass option has been discussed but not approved. Three programs which have the bypass option available had not yet admitted anyone in this category at the time of the interview. The master's degree is earned in the first year of doctoral work in two of the programs with the bypass option. In one program, 25 hours of master's work must have been completed before admission. In another program, a student admitted with a master's in another field, but not in nursing, must take nine hours of clinical at the master's level.

The respondent from each of the schools with a bypass option was asked what evidence of scholarliness other than GPA, test scores and letters of reference was required of bypass option applicants. In two instances, the requirements were stated as being the same for master's prepared applicants. In one program, a decision about other requirements had not yet been made. In the responses for several programs, no specific reference was made to a distinction between requirements for BSN prepared vs. master^ prepared applicants.

One school requires a pretest on knowledge of research, and the BSN applicant might be asked to enroll in, or audit, the master's level research course prior to admission to the doctoral program. Another school requires some evidence of special merit, such as published research, scholarly contribution, or nursing leadership. Respondents from some schools emphasized the importance of several factors: a sample of writing to indicate scholarliness; evidence of a commitment to doctoral education; a statement of goals; and, in some cases, an interview.


During this time of emphasis on development of the science of nursing, scholars in nursing ponder how to optimize the potential for nursing education to contribute to scientific development. As reflected in the literature and from responses to the reported survey, there is strong support for developing research competence at the master's level. However, there are varied routes, based upon the varied purposes (not explored in this survey) of master's education. For those who anticipate doctoral education, development of research competence is essential. The thesis is a mechanism for achieving such competence. However, at this time the thesis is not considered the only way to research competence at the masterb degree level.

Responses to this survey indicate a variety of types and degrees of research experience in master's programs. While independent research is emphasized, there is slight movement toward linking with faculty's research. The variation in criteria for committee membership may reflect intentional policy as well as the realities of using limited faculty resources to meet the demands of involvement in both doctoral and master's students' research. The establishment of the bypass option may reflect an increasing similarity of nursing's pattern of graduate education with that of other disciplines. These conclusions are drawn from examining the thesis policies of master's degree programs and doctoral program admission criteria related to scholarliness or research competence.


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