A good rule of thumb is that no subject is too small to be the subject of a Masters thesis.
The same goes for politics and so the latest debate in Danish politics is about the size of a Masters thesis – or “speciale” as they are known in Denmark.
From a teacher’s perspective the problem is this: Ambition is a good thing but too much of a good thing is a bad thing. When students want to write the Thesis to End All Theses they end up writing – nothing.
And when they think that their tutors expect them to write the Thesis to End All Theses, they are wrong. We want them to make a serious effort and to learn that you should be careful when drawing conclusions on a given set of data. If you come up with a product worthy of Albert Einstein, Giovanni Sartori or Martha Nussbaum, that’s fine, but less can do it.
It may seem a perverse thing to write but when you are the tutor of a Masters student writing his or her thesis, your primary duty is to limit his or her ambitions to something feasable.
What about the politics then? Well, politicians and bureaucrats have noted that the thesis can be a trap – as I recall it, it is during the first semester and the thesis seminar that universities see the highest share of drop-outs. And that is resources and especially money lost.
Switching subjects or not finishing your thesis is not neccessarily a problem. Lots of firms will be happy to hire people without an M.A. or M.Sc. and in Denmark the introduction of the B.A./B.Sc.-level back in the 1990s meant that you could have academic qualifications without having a Masters degree. But in productivity terms, high drop-out rates don’t look good on paper.
It remains to be seen what the Danish government will come up with. According to media reports, the plans include making the thesis smaller in terms of ECTS credits (a Danish speciale weighs in at 30 ECTS) and requiring that the thesis should be finished during the course of one semester. The Liberal spokesman for education even suggested that students should be allowed to skip the thesis completely in favour of traditional course work.
This made the Conservative spokesman for education and a member of the Liberal parliamentary group go ballistic.
From my point of view, it would make sense to include some kind of mechanism that makes students aware of what a reasonable level of ambition in a thesis would be. I suspect that students all too often are their own best enemies. On the other hand there are many reasons why academic work isn’t and shouldn’t be like work in a textile factory or an abbatoir – it is more related to what the business world calls R and D than to industrial production.
Declaration of interest: I used 1 1/2 semester to write my thesis back in 1988 and I stayed within the page limit. My thesis – on the subject of “Polarisation in the Danish party system 1960-1988” – received the grade 11 on the Danish 13-scale. Since then, it has been downhill all the way.