I have heard from three professors internally at my school that my master's thesis will likely not be looked at by Phd admissions committees - these professors are frequently on the admissions committee at our Department, too - and that at most my abstract or graphs / pictures might be looked at very quickly or not at all.

Of course, writing a thesis still has great value for the student - we get some research experience that could perhaps help us develop more clearly defined goals for pursuing a PhD, and we earn a letter of recommendation out of the thesis.

But, I would like some broader information, so I want to ask the question here.

Has any of you who has served on admissions committees actually read a master's thesis before? Why or why not? Is it just a waste of your time and doesn't really give any indication regarding the strength of the applicant?

My main motivation for asking this question is to decide whether I should delay my graduation date and ask for an extension on my thesis, since I feel I am just starting to do something decent and want to continue it and not give up on it too early.

  • 3
    The volume of applications is too large to read them all thoroughly, but I think the chances of it being examined increase a lot if you are shortlisted.
    – Davidmh
    May 1 '16 at 20:31
  • wait is there perhaps some kind of nitpick/principle of charity thing here? a master's thesis doesn't get read cover to cover, but it is read in the sense of being scanned (but not skimmed i guess)? to: @Davidmh and anyone else reading this
    – BCLC
    Mar 27 at 6:30

While I am not on an US-style admission committee, which I suspect this question implies, I assume that the answer is quite simply that the committee does not have enough time. Or, in other words, the information tensity of taking half a day off to read a single thesis with any thoroughness to better evaluate a single candidate is not high enough.

For better or for worse, any evaluation on any level (PhD admission, faculty applications, paper reviews, grant reviews, tenure, ...) needs to balance thoroughness with time effectiveness. Pragmatically speaking, this is also why we have (for better or for worse) grades, bibliometrics, awards, honours, conference rankings, or journal impact factors - not that the information captured by these metrics is great, but because they give away some information in no time at all.

To what extent time becomes a factor obviously also depends on how many candidates there are to be evaluated. A tenure committee can and should afford great thoroughness because it is evaluating only one (or a few) candidates. PhD admission, on the other hand, usually needs to compare hundreds of candidates. Note that, annoyingly, the importance of the decision to the candidate is usually not a substantial factor in the decision how much time to spend.

That being said, I personally still often use the master's thesis as an important piece in my decision for or against a PhD candidate (I work in Europe, and we hire students directly). However, I am not reading the thesis end-to-end, but I glance over it to find out:

  • How well the candidate writes, especially how well the candidate writes in English.
  • Whether the thesis would in terms of contribution hold up in my own university - if this is not the case and I do not know the university that the student graduated from, I will assume that the level is weak. If the contribution is small but I know the university to be good, I will often assume that either the student or the advisor is weak.
  • Whether the student knows good scientific practice, in terms of plagiarism, overselling of results, truthful reporting of threats, ...
  • If the thesis is in my field, I will also check if the student has a reasonable grasp of the state of the art by looking at the background and related work section.

All of this can be done in very short time - it is not necessary to read more than two or three paragraphs to figure out if the student is able to write English documents, for instance.

  • wait is there perhaps some kind of nitpick/principle of charity thing here? a master's thesis doesn't get read cover to cover, but it is read in the sense of being scanned (but not skimmed i guess)?
    – BCLC
    Mar 27 at 6:30
  • 1
    @BCLC I'm not sure what you mean. What's the difference to you between "scanning a thesis" and "skimming a thesis" in that context?
    – xLeitix
    Mar 28 at 9:28
  • xLeitix, scan is look for something/s. skim is go through it quickly to get the summary. That's what I remember from English classes. in this case, a master's thesis is scanned for specific things but not really skimmed...or maybe they scan for sections and then skim specific sections...but i don't believe they will skim the thesis...idk. anyway the point is of course the admissions will not read it cover to cover. that's insane. but of course they might look it over like scan or skim or something right? if so, then i think there's some nitpicking here
    – BCLC
    Mar 29 at 10:40
  • 1
    @BCLC Ok, then I would say I "skim" theses of applicants a lot more than I "scan" them. Because normally I'm not looking for anything specific, I want to know what research method the student used and how their writing is.
    – xLeitix
    Mar 30 at 12:24
  • xLeitix yeah yeah whatever. the point is people will either skim or scan or both but the thesis will not be 'read' in the sense of like cover to cover. you said 'committee does not have enough time', but you also said you skim or scan. so you're nitpicking (by answering the literal 'read' as in cover to cover instead of the more likely intended meaning which is skim or scan)?
    – BCLC
    Mar 30 at 15:53

Yes. I head a PhD program, and I look at the Master's thesis or other writing samples. I might not need to read every single word, but they are the single most important piece of information in the application: we need to know whether applicants are ready to do doctoral-level scholarship. Can they write? Can they cite? Do they even understand what scholarship is?

  • 1
    How many applicants do you have to evaluate in a given year, roughly?
    – Tom Church
    May 1 '16 at 19:08
  • wait is there perhaps some kind of nitpick/principle of charity thing here? a master's thesis doesn't get read cover to cover, but it is read in the sense of being scanned (but not skimmed i guess)? to: doctor m, @TomChurch and anyone else reading this
    – BCLC
    Mar 27 at 6:30

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