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Faculty and Student Guidelines for Completing the MPH Thesis - Standards

Standards for Acceptable Theses
  1. Scholarly, rigorous, generates new knowledge
  2. Types of acceptable thesis projects
  3. Publication of the thesis
  4. Standard thesis format
  5. Grading of the thesis

Scholarly, rigorous, generates new knowledge

The master's thesis is an original research study that is carried out using rigorous methods that are appropriate to the research questions, that generates new knowledge, applies concepts and methods from one or more branches of science relevant to public health, and is presented in a scholarly format. The thesis demonstrates the student's comprehensive knowledge of the substantive area of the study and the research methods used. It represents the culmination of the master's program, and an opportunity to integrate and apply the concepts and methods learned in coursework. 

Students in Health Services approach the thesis with varied skills in research methods and data analysis. The thesis is primarily a learning experience for the student, designed to challenge the student at her/his skill level, while adhering to a standard of high quality regarding the questions posed, the analytic methods, and the written product. 

Types of acceptable thesis projects

Several different types of projects may fulfill the thesis requirement: case studies, policy analyses, descriptive studies, analytic studies, program evaluations, or experiments. Each type of study requires a slightly different approach to formulating research questions, collecting and analyzing data. Regardless of the type of study chosen, the student investigator must apply critical thought, systematic analysis, and clear presentation.

  • Case study: a detailed review of a unique or important program that captures the background, process, outcomes, successes, failures and lessons learned. The case study may include either qualitative or quantitative data or both. The case study provides an opportunity to explore a single program in depth, but places the onus on the investigator to provide clarity, organization and scholarship to the investigation. Case studies typically have limited generalizability.
  • Policy analysis: a synthesis of existing and newly collected data brought together in an organized, structured and thoughtful manner to answer a policy question or present and evaluate policy the strengths and weaknesses of options for decision makers. A policy analysis usually employs multiple sources and types of information (e.g., literature, documents, interviews, secondary data). The policy analysis also places the onus on the investigator to identify relevant data, and provide clarity, organization and structure to the analysis.
  • Descriptive study: a qualitative or quantitative study to measure magnitude, variability of a need or problem and to explore associated factors. Descriptive studies are often guided by questions rather than formal hypotheses, and are often the first step in more directed research.
  • Analytic study: a case control or cohort study, although other approaches may fit into this category. Analytic studies utilize quantitative methods, and are often guided by hypotheses. Analytic studies typically have clearer methodology than 1. and 2. above, and produce obvious results. Analytic studies conducted by master's students typically use existing data.
  • Program evaluation: structured study to assess whether a program, intervention or technique was effective at accomplishing its goals (effectiveness or efficacy for interventions). A program evaluation addresses explicit questions, and the methods and measurement may be complex.
  • Experiment: a study with randomized or otherwise highly controlled allocation of two or more identifiable intervention strategies to test an hypothesis, frequently one regarding causation or treatment effectiveness/ efficacy. The experiment most explicitly addresses the study question, results are clearly relevant, and can be communicated in a straightforward way. Feasibility of conducting an experiment is usually limited within the time frame and resources available to the master's student, given that the student must take significant initiative in study design and execution.
Some types of projects are not acceptable as theses, including: 
  • A literature review, though a review with critique and suggestions to the field can be acceptable. A formal meta-analysis is acceptable in that it generates new knowledge.
  • A group project, though the thesis may be part of a collaborative project, provided the student had the lead role in that part (original work).
  • A "warmed over" class or practicum project, though the thesis can be a significant extension of work that began as a class paper, project or practicum.
Publication of the thesis

Students are encouraged, but not required, to prepare the thesis in a potentially publishable format, with the support of the committee. This topic is discussed in more detail in section ( Publishing Your Thesis ) of this handbook. 

Standard thesis format

Standard thesis format includes four sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Topics within each section are described below. The organization of subsections may vary, depending on the topic and the preferences of the student and committee.

  1. Introduction 
    Introduces the problem, research questions, previous research on the problem, and the conceptual approach used in this study. 
    1. Specification of the problem; significance , magnitude, and importance of the problem
    2. Specific research questions or hypotheses addressed by the study
    3. Literature review
    4. Conceptual model
  2. Methods
    Describes in detail the research methods used in the study. 
    1. Study setting
    2. Selection of study subjects 
      i) Source 
      ii) Sampling method/recruitment 
      iii) Criteria for eligibility/exclusion of cases
    3. Description of intervention (if any)
    4. Data collection
      i) Source (e.g., questionnaire, interview, record review, vital records)
      ii) Protocol for typical subject
      iii) Steps taken to assess and assure data quality
    5. Analysis plan
      i) Hypothesis testing/generation
      ii) Definition of key analysis variables
      iii) Sample size/power considerations
      iv) Statistical methods
  3. Results
    Provides a clear, systematic presentation of results, linked back to the research questions and conceptual model. It does not include interpretation or discussion of results. 
    1. Characteristics of the study sample, including the number of subjects and the response rate.
    2. Table(s) or figure(s) addressing each research question. Tables and figures usually progress from univariate, to bivariate, to multivariate analyses. Text highlights (but does not duplicate) results shown in tables and figures.
  4. Discussion
    Provides the opportunity to discuss the findings, compare them with previous research, and consider the implications of the findings. 
    1. Study strengths and limitations
    2. How key findings compare or contrast with previous work
    3. Implications of findings
      i) For the theory or conceptual model described in the Introduction.
      ii) For public health practitioners or clinicians
      iii) For future research
  5. Appendixes
    Contain detailed materials related to the thesis, such as cover letters to respondents, instructions for computing a scale score from the raw data, documentation of the mathematical equations used in the data analysis, and so forth.
Grading of the thesis

The MPH program requires a total of 9 thesis credits. All thesis credits may be taken in one quarter, but are usually distributed over two or more quarters. The chair assigns a grade of N for each quarter until the thesis has been completed and signed by the committee. The Chair assigns a final grade for the thesis. The final grade may be either Credit or a decimal grade. Criteria for thesis grading have been adapted from general departmental grading guidelines ( Grading Criteria for Theses ). 

A thesis must meet the standard for a grade of 2.7 or higher before it can be accepted (signed) by the committee.