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Faculty and Student Guidelines for Completing the MPH Thesis - Completing

Guidelines for Completing Your MPH Thesis in Health Services
  1. Start and Organize Your Study
  2. Conduct Your Study
  3. Complete Your Thesis and Graduate
  4. Publication of Your Thesis

The section presents guidelines for completing the thesis requirement for the MPH in Health Services. While classes have well-defined start and end dates, the thesis has far less structure and can vary considerably in content and duration. In most cases, your ability to complete a thesis depends on what you know about your thesis topic and research methods; your skills in time management, organization, and working with other people; and your knowledge of thesis requirements imposed by the University of Washington's Graduate School. These guidelines are designed to help you navigate the thesis terrain from beginning to end. The guidelines apply to students in the in-residence MPH program and the Extended MPH Degree Program (EXDP), although EXDP students have a different time line. 

Start and Organize Your Study
Target Deadline:
Most students have assembled their committee and are working toward their thesis by the beginning of their second year.

While it may seem obvious to everyone, a key step in completing your thesis is simply to start. There are several sources of inertia that can slow or deter a student from starting the thesis: lack of time, comfort with structured course work and discomfort with a less structured thesis, feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and no clue of where or how to begin, stress from personal or family problems, and so forth. The best way to overcome this inertia is to make a commitment and start the process no later than the Winter or Spring quarter of your first year. Many students follow these steps.

Step 1: Find a Topic
  1. Some students start their MPH Programs with well-defined thesis topics. Others do not have a thesis topic or want to use what they learn in the first year of the program to identify their thesis topic.
  2. Whatever your situation, your thesis topic should be something you are really interested in. The thesis is a long process. When you pick a topic of great interest, you are more likely to be motivated and complete your thesis
  3. If you do not have a topic, you can arrange to take independent study (HSERV 600) with a faculty member to do background reading or pilot work on a project that you might want to use for your thesis 
    • Negotiate terms with the faculty member
    • Try to aim for a tangible product, such as a thesis proposal (see below for more details)
    • Guidelines for credits: 3 clock hours per week (throughout the quarter) qualifies for 1 credit hour.
  4. You also can meet and talk over possibilities with faculty in the general area of your interests
    • Can start with your academic advisor or program director
    • Get names of additional possibly helpful people from those you talk with
    • May be able to piggy-back onto a larger ongoing project, or use previously collected data
    • Can get useful feedback about possible research questions and study designs
    • Helps you decide who you want as members of your thesis committee
  5. The Health Services Web site contains a page which has links to an alphabetical list of student theses as well as a list by year of publication. The list of student theses is undergoing development and currently contains bibliographic information on theses back to 1989. Bibliographic information means Author, Title, Place and Date of Publication, Subject Headings, call number, and location.
  6. It is worth spending the effort to develop one or a few (e.g., 1-4) well-focused research questions 
    • "Too broad" is more common than "too narrow"
    • Well-focused question greatly facilitates planning, conducting, and writing up the thesis research
    • Primary goal is educational--this will probably not be the biggest or best project of your career, since you are working with limited resources
Step 2: Form a Thesis Committee

Once you have one or a few topics and well-focused research questions, the next step is to organize your thesis committee. The following points are important in forming a thesis committee.

  1. At least two faculty members are required on the thesis committee. The average thesis committee is composed of 2 or 3 faculty members; the Graduate School allows up to 4 members.
  2. The chairperson of a thesis committee must be a member of the UW Graduate Faculty. This is a status for which a faculty person applies through the graduate degree-granting department to which s/he belongs. It is based largely on the faculty's research productivity, as evidenced by published research. Most SPH faculty are Graduate Faculty members. Students should check with their MPH program if there are any questions about the status of proposed committee members.
    Graduate faculty locator
  3. Students choose the thesis committee themselves, with general guidance from their faculty advisers. They should approach prospective members to see if they are able to serve in this capacity. An important consideration in putting together a committee is ensuring that its members can work together. The specifics of how often a committee meets, and whether this is in-person, is worked out between the student and the committee members. Also, students should confirm that committee members will be available (and not away on sabbatical) when they are working on their thesis. 

    The thesis chairperson is often the student's academic adviser. However, a student is free to choose any faculty member of their department or program who holds Graduate Faculty status as the committee chairperson. While faculty from other departments and programs at UW can serve on a student's thesis committee, the thesis chairperson is generally expected to hold some kind of faculty appointment in the student's home department or program.
  4. Once a committee has been chosen, students are responsible for making sure that their program or track administrators are notified about the choice of committee members, committee chair, general topic area and proposed completion date (an email is usually fine.) This arrangement can also be formalized with a written agreement, if desirable to the student or committee members (see Step 3 for details).

    EXDP students provide this information by completing the required initial thesis contract, which must be submitted to the EXDP program office before registering for thesis credits.
Step 3: Obtain Committee Approval of Thesis Proposal

After your committee is formed, the next step is to write a thesis proposal that describes the purposes of the study and the methods for accomplishing them. Writing a thesis proposal is recommended because it forces you to be explicit about your research plans. It also facilitates getting good feedback from your committee members, which usually increases the quality of your project. Before asking the committee to review and approve your proposal, you may ask the Chair of the committee to critique your draft proposal, and then revise your proposal as recommended by the Chair before distributing it to other committee members. 

The next step is to obtain the approval of your thesis proposal by all members of your committee. For in-residence students, you should provide each committee member with a copy of your research plan, and then call a meeting of your committee about 1-2 weeks later after the members have reviewed the proposal At the meeting, committee members may ask you to improve elements of the plan. Your revised thesis proposal should be resubmitted to the committee for review (a meeting may not be necessary, if the revisions are small), and this process is continued until all committee members approve your proposal. When you reach this important milestone, your committee is essentially declaring that your research question and the methods for answering them are acceptable, and that you now have a "green light" to actually do the study.

EDP students follow a similar process, but may not be able to meet with the full committee in person. 

Formal approval of the thesis proposal also has two important benefits. When everyone agrees that the student can begin the study, common expectations are created about what the final thesis will look like. With everyone "on the same page," students are more likely to meet the committee's expectations, and committee members are more likely to approve the completed thesis. In addition, students with well-developed proposals often find that many elements of the proposal can be used with little modification to compose the Introduction and Methods chapters of the thesis. 

Students who start their study without bothering to obtain formal committee approval are in danger of producing a thesis that is later rejected by the committee, which can greatly lengthen the amount of time to complete the thesis and the MPH Program. 

Step 4: Obtain Human Subjects Approval

Regardless of the kind of population-based research a thesis involves, a UW Human Subjects Application (or a Certification of Exemption form, as applicable) must be submitted. Note that the full application must be submitted to the Department of Health Services, even if the project is considered to be exempt from review. These applications are logged in by the Department Chair's assistant and are reviewed by a designated Health Services faculty or staff person. This may be in addition to Human Subjects applications that are submitted to organizations affiliated with the UW (e.g. Group Health Cooperative). 

Step 5: Establish a Realistic Time Line

Once you obtain committee approval of your thesis proposal, you and your committee should establish a schedule for completing your thesis that is feasible and has a realistic chance of being completed on time.

The time line for completion - and therefore, graduation - should specify the academic quarter when you plan to complete the final version of your thesis. For any given quarter, the Graduate School specifies the last possible date and time when it will accept a thesis. For example, in Spring Quarter the Graduate School may require that theses must be submitted by 5:00 pm on the second Friday of June. To be conservative, a student and thesis committee may plan to complete the final version of the thesis at least two weeks earlier. To reach this goal, a student must complete the first draft of the thesis by the end of April.

Example Thesis Timeline

Conduct Your Study
Target Deadline:
Most students will complete the research for their thesis and begin the writing phase by Spring quarter of their second year.

Once your thesis committee approves your thesis proposal and you have obtained approval from the Human Subjects Division, you may actually start your study!

If you have not yet completed the Introduction and Methods chapters of your thesis, now is a good time to do so. By completing the two chapters now, you must only write the Results and Discussion chapters later in the quarter. In short, this breaks up the writing into manageable pieces and increases the likelihood that you will complete your thesis on schedule.

As you perform your study, you undoubtedly will encounter a number of methodological issues that were not addressed in the thesis proposal. When the way to solve these issues is unclear, you should obtain advice from one or more members of your committee on how best to address them. These steps also decrease the likelihood that committee members will find problems with your study after it is completed.

Rather than operating in "crisis mode" and contacting committee members only when problems arise, students and faculty may prefer meeting on regular basis to monitor progress and address any problems that may have emerged. The frequency of meetings may vary during different stages of the thesis process, with more frequent meetings (e.g., every two weeks) in the first and last stages and fewer in between. In particular, students should meet periodically to discuss the data analysis and interpretation of results. 

Complete Your Thesis And Prepare to Graduate
Target Deadline:
Most students will submit a request to graduate at the beginning of their last quarter and are prepared to turn their finished thesis in to the UW Graduate School by the end of that quarter.

With results in hand, the next step is to complete the remaining Results and Discussion chapters of your thesis and graduate. There are 3 critical elements to completing your thesis on time: 

  1. Submitting a Graduation Request to the Graduate School
  2. Time management
  3. Following the formal guidelines for writing the thesis and submitting it to the Graduate School

Time Management

After all analyses are completed, students should write the first draft of the Results and Discussion chapters. Once completed, the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion chapters should be submitted to the committee for review. In most cases, students find they must revise the four chapters at least 2 times before all committee members will approve them. Depending on the study and the student, the revisions can take a month or more to complete. Given the realities of the review process, the first draft of the Results and Discussion chapters should be completed in April to allow sufficient time to complete the remaining review-revision cycles and produce a final thesis by the end of May. 

If a student does not complete the first draft of a thesis by April, a committee may defer final review and approval of the thesis to Summer quarter to allow sufficient time for the student to produce a quality product. 

Guidelines for Writing the Thesis and Submitting It to the Graduate School

Some general points to keep in mind about preparing an acceptable thesis are:

  • Neither the MPH Program nor the Graduate School requires your thesis to be a certain length. Therefore, it is wise to negotiate expectations about the length of your thesis with your committee.
  • Use the length and format of an article in a scientific journal. This still allows wide variation, but as a rough guideline typically entails:
    • 20-40 pages of double-spaced text
    • 5-10 tables or figures
    • Appendices possible, for supplementary tables or copies of data collection instruments
  • An abstract is not required by the Graduate School, but we recommend that students write one.
  • The "Program Authorized to Offer Degree" on your title pages is Public Health, Health Services.
Oral Presentation of the Thesis Results

An oral presentation of a master's thesis is not a requirement of the Graduate School or the Department of Health Services, but some programs within the department require such a presentation. For programs requiring an oral presentation, the student is responsible for scheduling and presenting the results of the thesis in a forum approved by his/her program. 

Publication of Your Thesis

Publication of your thesis in a peer-reviewed journal is NOT a requirement for graduation, but everyone benefits from having done so after you have graduated. 

  • You benefit through the satisfaction of making a contribution. Also, through publication you and your work become known to colleagues, which builds your reputation and resume.
  • The field benefits by disseminating your results to other health professionals.
  • The MPH Program benefits, for publication advertises the quality and content of the program which you completed.

The thesis can usually be written in a format that satisfies both the Graduate School and a target journal with minor modification. It is often helpful to choose a journal before you start writing, and consult its "Instructions to Authors" (usually published in a regular issue of the journal a few times a year).

Co-authors usually include others who made a "meaningful scientific contribution" to the work-often the thesis chair, other committee members, and others outside the University who played a key role in your work.