In some disciplines, brief theses are completely normal. Take legal studies, for instance. Take the master programme in labour law, actually. According to labour law departments in Rotterdam and Leiden, ten ECTS credits suffice for the writing of a thesis. Students taking the same degree in Groningen are given nearly twice as much time to complete their theses, which are worth 18 ECTS credits.
“It doesn’t sound like much, those ten ECTS credits,” admits Maarten Verbrugh, the programme director responsible for the Erasmus University Rotterdam’s master programmes in law. “But our students spend more time on their theses than just the 280 hours they are supposed to take.”
How is that possible? “In the past you could take ages to complete your master programme – years, even,” explains Verbrugh. “You can’t do that any longer. It’s not desirable. This is why we want our students to write their statement of the problem before they embark on their thesis, even though they are not officially given any credits for doing so. Once you have stated the problem, you can completely devote yourself to your thesis for ten weeks, because you won’t have any other obligations.”
It does sound kind of easy, compared with theses that take half a year to be completed. But Verbrugh feels that this is the wrong way to look at it. “The other components of a master programme are also research-oriented. Our students present reports, they discuss the subject matter, they are given a research practical and they learn how to draw up a proper statement of the problem.” However, they are not given any lessons on research methodology. “Our degree does not really involve empirical research, and our students don’t need it to write their theses. Literature and case law reviews do not take much time. That makes quite a difference.”
Not all degree programmes come with theses that short. Take a master programme in European studies, for instance. Students taking the degree in Maastricht receive twelve of their required sixty credits for their theses. In other words, they should be able to complete their theses in about two months. How different are things in Twente, where nearly half of the degree is devoted to the thesis: 25 ECTS. Where did these differences come from?
‘Our students acquire the ability to work independently before their thesis’
While writing your thesis, you must learn to work independently, says Martin de Nobel, the programme coordinator of the University of Twente’s master programmes in Public Administration and European Studies. For this reason, he feels that European Studies master students’ theses must be quite long, and they are worth 25 ECTS credits, plus five credits for the academic research course.
“It is all about immersing yourself in something and acquiring the knowledge you need to really penetrate the subject,” De Nobel states. “We think that really takes some time. Moreover, students taking this degree can’t say, I’ll be a civil servant, entrepreneur or consultant. No, they end up all over the place. For this reason, we must ensure that students master this level of independence, and we feel that the thesis is a good way to do so.”
Bigger theses have another advantage: they allow students to graduate abroad or focus their research on a work placement. “For this reason, we prefer to schedule no courses for an entire semester, which automatically equates to about 30 ECTS credits.”
So why does Maastricht University award its students so few credits for their theses? The university’s spokesperson told us that Maastricht students are taught independence throughout their degree. “We provide problem-based learning in tutorials involving small groups of students. I don’t know how other universities go about this, but our students acquire the ability to work independently before their thesis. In addition, we teach several courses preparing students for their thesis. We don’t exactly spell things out for them.”
A good thesis
So how do students know what constitutes a good thesis? Many departments have a list of criteria they use to assess theses. These lists vary considerably.
The University of Twente has no fewer than 36 criteria, while Wageningen University has a mere sixteen. Nearly all universities look at the structure of the thesis. They also put a great premium on students working independently. Eleven universities explicitly refer to the statement of the problem. The presentation of proper arguments is mentioned ten times. What about scientific understanding, though? It’s only on four universities’ lists. This mainly shows that the criteria are a little random. Because obviously, every thesis must demonstrate the student’s scientific understanding. That is self-evident.
The differences don’t stop there. Many students are not required to give an oral presentation on their thesis or defend it. As far as we have been able to tell, this is done at seven universities. These are several criteria for thesis defence sessions which may well amount to the same thing. For instance, what one university calls ‘verbal skills’ may well correspond to what another calls ‘the ability to answer questions’.
Ten or thirty credits? Other degree programmes, too, vary significantly in how many credits they award to master theses. To give you a few more examples, we have included another two degrees in a table: communication sciences and clinical psychology.
‘It does raise the question as to whether the degree programme has any other concluding components that reflect the required graduation level.’
Needless to say, all degree programmes are assessed once every six years by NVAO, the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders. It is NVAO’s job to determine whether graduating students are good enough for the degree programme to be approved. Therefore, NVAO also inspects students’ theses. “The end product is a means to show whether a student is able to successfully combine theory and practice,” says NVAO spokesperson IJda van den Hout.
However, the assessors do not care how many credits are awarded to the thesis or how long the department’s list of requirements is. They have not set any standards for such things, nor are such standards necessary, feels Van den Hout. “Departments are free to determine the nature of their end product. Panels will carry out a random check of at least fifteen end products. These panels will then assess each selected end product on the basis of the assessment criteria drawn up as part of the accreditation frameworks.”
Is ten or twelve credits for a master thesis actually enough? NVAO agrees that it is not much. “It does raise the question as to whether the degree programme has any other concluding components that reflect the required graduation level,” says Van den Hout. “Maybe the students also write research or work placement reports. What matters is that the department can demonstrate that graduates have attained the master’s level. If a twelve-credit master thesis along with some other ‘evidence’ can prove this, that’s fine.”