Writing an Integrative Thesis

The Thesis as an Exit Strategy

Villanova’s Graduate Program in Theology aims to provide students with a well-rounded education, placing particular emphasis on the relations between faith and culture. To that end, students are required to take classes from a variety of disciplines, ranging from biblical studies to spirituality. However, there is a recognition that classwork alone is not sufficient to complete the students’ formation. A final step is needed. At Villanova, this step is fulfilled either

  1. by passing an integrative examination, which, among other things, requires students to work with scholars in different areas; OR
  2. by writing a thesis, which also serve this purpose, even as it challenges students in different ways; OR
  3. by completing an integrative project. Indeed, we consider an integrative project the equivalent of the integrative examination or the thesis.

Thus, the examination, thesis, and project assume the same intention: each undertaking seeks to round out the students’ experience at Villanova, requiring them to engage matters of faith and culture under the direction of scholars from different fields.

The thesis replicates the multidisciplinary nature and standards of inquiry intrinsic to the integrative examination. Its scope likewise is broadened to deal with matters of faith and culture.

Students select two thesis directors—a primary director, who bears principal advising duties, and a secondary one.

  • Each director represents a distinct field, and, together, they ensure a multidisciplinary project that integrates faith and culture.
  • The primary director must be a member of the graduate faculty in the TRS Department.

The main responsibility of the directors is to take reasonable steps to

  1. provide a framework within which the academic work can take place;
  2. offer academic guidance;
  3. evaluate progress and provide students adequate and timely feedback;
  4. assist students to complete the research within an agreed time frame; and
  5. facilitate administrative compliance; and
  6. act as a guide to resources.

The main responsibility of students is to take reasonable steps to

  1. take responsibility for independently pursuing their studies under the guidance of their directors;
  2. plan and actively pursue the research;
  3. dentify and deal with problems;
  4. comply with administrative requirements; and
  5. take responsibility for the final form of the thesis.

In addition to completing the thesis, students are required to participate in, and contribute to, a Thesis Colloquium, to be held in the spring semester following the completion of the thesis. Participation in, and contribution to, the Thesis Colloquium are graduation requirements for students opting to write a thesis.

Like the integrative examination, thesis writing/presenting are taken not for credit and graded pass/fail and pass with distinction.

  • The thesis does not replace a course in the student's program. Rather, like the integrative examination, it is viewed as a concluding requirement, above and beyond course work.

Grading Criteria

The following levels of quality of a Master’s Thesis are from Barbara E. Lovitts, “How to Grade a Dissertation: Table 2: Some Dimensions of the Different Components of the Generic Dissertation,” Academe Online 91/6, 2005.

No thesis does or can achieve all of the individual benchmarks. According to our departmental policy of giving a pass/fail or a pass with disctinction grade, a "pass" is a thesis that falls in categories 2 or 3 below.

1. Outstanding

• Is original and significant, ambitious, brilliant, clear, clever, coherent, compelling, concise, creative, elegant, engaging, exciting, interesting, insightful, persuasive, sophisticated, surprising, and thoughtful
• Is very well written and organized
• Is synthetic and interdisciplinary
• Connects components in a seamless way
• Exhibits mature, independent thinking
• Has a point of view and a strong, confident, independent, and authoritative voice
• Asks new questions or addresses an important question or problem
• Clearly states the problem and why it is important
• Displays a deep understanding of a massive amount of complicated literature
• Exhibits command and authority over the material
• Argument is focused, logical, rigorous, and sustained
• Is theoretically sophisticated and shows a deep understanding of theory
• Has a brilliant research design
• Uses or develops new tools, methods, approaches, or types of analyses
• Is thoroughly researched
• Has rich data from multiple sources
• Analysis is comprehensive, complete, sophisticated, and convincing
• Results are significant
• Conclusion ties the whole thing together
• Is publishable in top-tier journals
• Is of interest to a larger community and changes the way people think
• Pushes the discipline’s boundaries and opens new areas for research

2. Very Good

• Is solid
• Is well written and organized
• Has some original ideas, insights, and observations, but is less original, significant, ambitious, interesting, and exciting than the outstanding category
• Has a good question or problem that tends to be small and traditional
• Is the next step in a research program (good normal science)
• Shows understanding and mastery of the subject matter
• Has a strong, comprehensive, and coherent argument
• Includes well-executed research
• Demonstrates technical competence
• Uses appropriate (standard) theory, methods, and techniques
• Obtains solid, expected results or answers
• Misses opportunities to completely explore interesting issues and connections
• Makes a modest contribution to the field but does not open it up

3. Acceptable

• Is workmanlike
• Demonstrates technical competence
• Shows the ability to do research
• Is not very original or significant
• Is not interesting, exciting, or surprising
• Displays little creativity, imagination, or insight
• Writing is pedestrian and plodding
• Has a weak structure and organization
• Is narrow in scope
• Has a question or problem that is not exciting—is often highly derivative or an extension of the adviser’s work
• Displays a narrow understanding of the field
• Reviews the literature adequately—knows the literature but is not critical of it or does not discuss what is important
• Can sustain an argument, but the argument is not imaginative, complex, or convincing
• Demonstrates understanding of theory at a simple level, and theory is minimally to competently applied to the problem
• Uses standard methods
• Has an unsophisticated analysis—does not explore all possibilities and misses connections
• Has predictable results that are not exciting
• Makes a small contribution

4. Unacceptable

• Is poorly written
• Has spelling and grammatical errors
• Has a sloppy presentation
• Contains errors or mistakes
• Plagiarizes or deliberately misreads or misuses sources
• Does not understand basic concepts, processes, or conventions of the discipline
• Lacks careful thought
• Looks at a question or problem that is trivial, weak, unoriginal, or already solved
• Does not understand or misses relevant literature
• Has a weak, inconsistent, self-contradictory, unconvincing, or invalid argument
• Does not handle theory well, or theory is missing or wrong
• Relies on inappropriate or incorrect methods
• Has data that are flawed, wrong, false, fudged, or misinterpreted
• Has wrong, inappropriate, incoherent, or confused analysis
• Includes results that are obvious, already known, unexplained, or misinterpreted
• Has unsupported or exaggerated interpretation
• Does not make a contribution

Completing a master's thesis requires skills, competence, and confidence. The thesis is a piece of original, independent, and scholarly research conducted under the supervision of two faculty members. Whereas a thesis may convey an original and significant contribution to knowledge, it must, at a minimum, expand on knowledge by advancing a known position in a new direction or applying a known method to a new matter of inquiry. The thesis provides evidence of the student's skills in:

  1. Identifying and defining a problem and formulating a research question;
  2. Using adequate sources and pertinent specialist literature to contextualize the problem within the contemporary academic discussion;
  3. Developing an effective method to solve the problem;
  4. Applying the method;
  5. Reporting effectively on the research results; and
  6. Describing the relation of the results to the problem initially identified.

A thesis submitted to the thesis directors is 45-50 pages long.

The thesis complies formally with the standards prescribed in the Chicago Manual of Style Online.

The Chicago Manual of Style (Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, University of Chicago Press) is also available in Falvey Library at the Reference-Information Desk (Call Number: LB2369.T8 2007).

Students should also familiarize themselves with Graduate School thesis submission and formatting guidelines for submission of final copies to the Office of Graduate Studies. These guidelines differ from departmental submission and formatting requirements.

A generic Master's Thesis structure has the following components (adapted from Barbara E. Lovitts, “How to Grade a Dissertation: Table 2: Some Dimensions of the Different Components of the Generic Dissertation,” Academe Online 91/6, 2005).

Component 1: Introduction

The introduction

- includes a problem statement
- clarifies the research question
- describes the context in which the question arises
- describes the motivation for the study
- summarizes the thesis' findings
- discusses the importance of the findings
- provides a roadmap for readers

Component 2: Literature Review

The review

- is comprehensive and up to date
- shows a command of the literature
- contextualizes the problem
- includes a discussion of the literature that is selective, synthetic, analytical, and thematic

Component 3: Theory

The theory that is applied or developed

- is appropriate
- is logically interpreted
- is well understood
- aligns with the question at hand

In addition, the author shows comprehension of the theory's

- strengths
- limitations

Component 4: Methods

The methods applied or developed are

- appropriate
- described in detail
- in alignment with the question addressed and the theory used

In addition, the author demonstrates

- an understanding of the methods' advantages and disadvantages
- how to use the methods

Component 5: Results or Analysis

The analysis

- is appropriate
- aligns with the question and hypotheses raised
- shows sophistication
- is iterative

In addition, the amount and quality of data or information is

- sufficient
- well presented
- intelligently interpreted

The Thesis Proposal demonstrates the student's ability to organize the research project into a concise, coherent statement. In essence, it

  • defines and restricts the research project; 
  • clarifies the most important goals of the thesis;
  • explains the methods of study; and
  • lists resource requirements.
  • Submission Deadline

    The proposal is to be submitted, together with the online registation, to the Director of Graduate Programming on or before 15 April.


    The thesis proposal follows the specific guidelines provided by the directors and, at a minimum, consists of the following components:

    1. Proposal narrative explaining topic and research method;
    2. Clarification of expectations for
    • lenght of thesis;
    • meeting frequency (and who arranges the meetings – the directors or the student?);
    • preferred means of communication (phone, e-mail, meetings, etc.);
    • deadlines for submission of chapter drafts;
    • responsibilities of directors and the student.

    Review and Approval

    The Graduate Leadership Team (program directors and department chair) will review and normally confirm thesis proposals as follows:

    1. Each member of the team will cast a vote on the acceptability of the proposal and the directors of the thesis will be understood to have cast two votes in support of the proposal. Hence, only a unanimous vote against a proposal on the part of the leadership team shall cause the proposal to be rejected.
    2. If one or more members of the leadership team is a director of a proposal, they shall recuse themselves. In such cases, other faculty members will be asked to serve on the team as ad hoc members solely for assessing the thesis proposal(s) at issue.
    3. Only under truly exceptional circumstances shall the leadership team give approval to more than four thesis proposals per academic year. If the team receives more than four proposals, the team will evaluate the proposals on a competitive basis.
    1. If a student foresees that he or she will not be able to complete the work for the thesis on time he or she may withdraw from thesis writing without penalty by the official deadline date listed in the fall Graduate Calendar for withdrawing from a course. If a student withdraws from thesis writing, he or she is required to pass the Integrative Examination.
    2. If a student withdraws from thesis writing after that deadline for any but a medical reason, he or she will receive a failing grade on thesis writing. Per Graduate School policy, he or she has one more chance for graduating by passing the Integrative Examination.
    Each student should work closely with her or his directors to determine additional or alternative dates appropriate to the thesis project. However, the dates highlighted in red are final.

    1. Choose the thesis primary and secondary directors and meet with them to develop the Thesis Proposal.
    2. Submit the Thesis Proposal Form (click on the link in the right columns of this page), with the required attachments, to the Director of Graduate Programming on or before April 15.
    3. Confirm with your primary and secondary readers that you are making satisfactory progress. Your readers must notify the graduate committee no later than 15 November that you are making such progress. If in the judgment of your readers you are not making satisfactory progress, they may recommend to you that you plan to take the integrative exam in the following spring semester rather than continue to work on the thesis.
    4. Submit the thesis to the directors on the last day of graduate fall semester classes (see Graduate Calendar).
    5. As a general rule, if your readers judged on 15 November that you were making satisfactory progress, then only egregious problems with the thesis would cause the thesis to fail. Examples of egregious problems would include academic integrity issues and / or failing to submit the thesis by the deadline above.
    6. Submit the revised thesis (final copy) to the directors one week before the official deadline date listed in the Graduate Calendar for completing an incomplete (N) grade, usually at the end of January.
    7. Present the research results at the Thesis Colloquium during the spring semester following thesis writing. Presenting the thesis is a requirement. Failure to present and discuss your work will cause you to fail the thesis.
    8. Submit the thesis in its final form (you must follow the Graduate School guidelines) to the Office of Graduate Studies on the deadline date published in the Graduate Calendar.

    Steps toward completing the Thesis




    Student meets with thesis directors to (1) negotiate a topic, (2) construct the thesis proposal.

    Student submits thesis proposal and thesis proposal form to Director of Graduate Programming.

    April 15 or next business day.

    Graduate Program directors review proposal and inform student and directors of outcome.

    April 30 or next business day.



    Student submits completed thesis – writ­ten grammatically correct and complying formally with the standards prescribed in the Chicago Manual of Style –to directors.

    Last day of graduate fall semester classes.

    Thesis director returns thesis to student with suggestions for revision.

    Friday of first week of spring semester classes.

    Student submits revised thesis (final copy) to thesis director and second reader.

    1 week before official deadline date listed in Academic Calendar for N grade completion, usually end of January.

    Student presents research results at the thesis colloquium.

    Usually in March; see Graduate Program announcement.

    Student formats thesis for submission to Graduate School (guidelines here) and submits thesis in final form to the Office of Graduate Studies.

    Early April; see Academic Calendar.