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Master Of Liberal Arts: Final Thesis

Each student is encouraged to pursue a final thesis topic that she or he finds compelling and relevant. Your MLA Writing Advisor will help you find a workable topic as you decide whether to pursue an academic essay or a special project. Once your thesis proposal is approved, a Faculty Advisor will guide you through to completion.

Previous MLA Thesis Projects include:

“The Multiple Dimensions of Gender”

“Puteaux Cubism”

“Henry in Love: A Thoreau Tableau Vivant”

“Al-Razi’s Spiritual Medicine & the Ethical Life”

It’s Never Too Early to Get Started

When should I start thinking about my final thesis?

  • Part-time students: Start by midway through your coursework.
  • Full-time students: You must finish the proposal process within your 1st quarter.
  • All students: Familiarize yourself with the information on this page BEFORE choosing a topic so that you understand the complete timeline and steps required.

Where do I begin?

  • Consider what interests you most, from course topics you’d like to pursue further and artistic projects you’d like to undertake to arguments and projects that can enhance your career or community.
  • Rethink your favorite course paper, which you might develop it into a longer academic essay or use as a jumping off point for a special project.
  • Attend a thesis proposal workshop (offered quarterly; these are suggested, but not required).
  • Go over handouts, example thesis proposals and more on the MLA Writing Resources Chalk site.
  • Consult Writing Advisor Gina DiPonio, or Millie Rey, your personal guides through the thesis proposal process.

From Proposal to Completion, Allow at least 2 Quarters

Your final thesis represents the culmination of your MLA studies and is required to earn a degree. Think of this academic essay or special project as a two-quarter commitment.

  • Quarter Before You Graduate (1st quarter for full-time students): Work on your proposal with your Writing Advisor. Once your proposal is approved, the Writing Advisor will place you with a Faculty Advisor and you can begin work on your academic essay or special project.
  • Graduating Quarter: Register for Thesis/Special Project course MLAP 39900, continue working on your final thesis with your Faculty Advisor and share your work with the MLA community in a final presentation.

Thesis Proposal & Final Thesis Deadlines*

Please review this sheet for quarter-specific deadlines.


This independent study course counts as 1 of the 9 required MLA courses.

  • Most students register for this course in the quarter in which they plan to graduate. You may, however, register earlier.
  • You must go through the thesis proposal process with your Writing Advisor in order to begin work on your final thesis.
  • If you do not finish your final thesis in the quarter in which you take the course, your grade will be recorded retroactively, when you complete the work and your Faculty Advisor assigns a grade.
  • To register for MLAP 39900, send an email to MLA Assistant Director Tim Murphy at Please follow the registration schedule for the quarter in which you wish to register.
Academic Essay Or Special Project?

Academic Essay? The academic essay option is a paper that makes a convincing argument about a narrow topic and supports it with evidence and reasoning. The average length of this academic essay is 35 pages, but it can range from 30 to 60 pages. (An acceptable length will be determined by your Faculty Advisor.) There is flexibility as to how an academic argument can be made and supported. For example, you might:

  • Propose a solution to a problem.
  • Reinterpret an accepted theory or historical event, perhaps through a new lens.
  • Investigate presumed if-then relationships through causal analysis.
  • Deepen and extend an argument made in a course paper.

Special Project? A special project requires the same level of competency as a successful academic essay, but it takes on a different form that might be more artistic and/or less traditional. A special project has two components: (1) final product and (2) critical analysis essay. Since a special project isn’t required to make an argument, there is flexibility in the form that a final product might take. For example, you might:

  • Write a cycle of poetry.
  • Devise a training curriculum.
  • Create a book of original photography.
  • Draft a new city or village ordinance.
  • Make a short film.

As a supplement to the final product, the critical analysis essay explains how the student’s MLA studies informed the creation of the final product. The average length of the critical analysis essay is 12 pages, but it can range from 10 to 20 pages. (The acceptable length will be determined by your Faculty Advisor.)

Your Writing Advisor & Faculty Advisor

Working with Your Writing Advisor. Writing Advisor Gina DiPonio or Millie Rey will guide you through the thesis proposal process, from brainstorming and proposal revisions to MLA office approval and securing a Faculty Advisor. She also holds quarterly thesis proposal and writing workshops, which are announced before each quarter, and maintains the MLA Writing Resources page.

  • To officially begin work on your thesis proposal, send an email or a proposal draft to Writing Advisor Gina DiPonio or Millie Rey.
  • Expect feedback on your thesis proposal draft within approximately 1 week, and be prepared to submit 1 or more revisions.
  • The Writing Advisor may reach out to a faculty member to get his or her early feedback on your proposal. You are also welcome to chat with a faculty member about your topic and proposed approach, if she or he is available to do so.
  • Once your Writing Advisor approves your proposal, she will forward it to the MLA office for final consideration. When your proposal is approved, the Writing Advisor will help you secure a faculty member to serve as your Faculty Advisor. From that point, your Faculty Advisor will help you move into the development phase and oversee the completion of your academic essay or special project.

Finding & Working with Your Faculty Advisor. Faculty from across the University may serve as Faculty Advisors, though most MLA students work with faculty who teach in the program.

  • As you consider your final thesis topic, be thoughtful about who might best advise you. If you have someone in mind, regardless of where they teach in the University community, feel free to send a brief email to test the waters. While it may be useful to have a quick exchange with a professor about serving as your Faculty Advisor, your Writing Advisor and the MLA office must first approve your proposal before a Faculty Advisor can be secured.
  • If your topic is one that you can’t imagine placing with any of the professors whom you know or have researched, it might be worth reconsidering your topic.
  • Your Writing Advisor will let you know once a faculty member agrees to serve as your Faculty Advisor. It may take up to 8 weeks; though, most often, advisors are secured within 2 to 4 weeks.
  • Once you have been officially placed with your Faculty Advisor, contact her or him to talk about the direction of your thesis, review deadlines and establish benchmarks in light of when you would like to graduate. Be sure to discuss turnaround time for comments after you submit a draft and any other factors that will affect your timeline. Inform the MLA office of any schedule issues so that staff can check against University deadlines for potential conflicts.
  • When you submit final thesis drafts (first and revised) to your Faculty Advisor, please be sure to copy MLA Assistant Director Tim Murphy at
Thesis Proposal Content & Format


Your thesis proposal should tell readers what exactly you intend to argue, answer or create and how you intend to do it. Your final thesis can be an academic argument (which should be between 30-60 pp.) or a special project (which can be artistic or nontraditional instead of argumentative). Proposals should include relevant scholarship, methodology/critical lens, a preliminary outline, and a preliminary bibliography. For more information and examples visit the MLA Writing Resources page.


  • Four to six pages, including outline and bibliography
  • Double spaced, traditional margins.
  • Include your name, projected graduation quarter, name of one or more preferred faculty advisors who would be a good fit for your topic, your phone number and email in the top corner.

Proposal Outline

  • Introduction:
    1. Define important terms;
    2. Provide essential context;
    3. Explain rationale for or significance of this endeavor; and
    4. Articulate driving questions and/or hypothesis (for an academic essay) or vision of the final product (for a special project).
  • Relevant Scholarship:
    Discuss current and/or significant scholarship on this topic and show how it fits into or guides your approach.
  • Methodology & Critical Lens:
    Explain the method that you will apply to complete the analytical or creative work of your thesis, including specific theories or artistic techniques.
  • Preliminary Outline:
    Using specifics, lay out the potential structure of your academic essay or vision of your final product in outline form.
  • Preliminary Bibliography:
    Compile a preliminary bibliography of relevant texts and resources using MLA, CMS or APA format.
  • Special Project Only:
    Explain which MLA class(es), readings or experiences will be analyzed in your required critical analysis essay (which will be approximately 12 pp.) and how you will apply relevant scholarship.
  • Optional:
    Provide any additional information or further detail that is crucial to understanding the personal significance or work involved, especially expertise related to your topic.

Note on Human Subjects

Many special projects and academic essays involve the use of human subjects, most often as interview, survey or film subjects. When you use human subjects to create generalizable research in particular, you must submit a proposal to the University of Chicago Institutional Review Board (IRB). You should submit your proposal to them after you are officially placed with a faculty advisor. The IRB training and proposal process can take a few weeks, so plan accordingly. Please read more about the IRB training and proposal process. If you are unsure whether you need to submit a proposal, you are encouraged to send the IRB a short email explaining your proposed research to

Final Thesis Content & Format

Your academic essay or critical analysis essay (which accompanies only the special project) should contain the following:

  • Title page (download template here).
  • 1-page abstract of up to 300 words. It should be single-spaced lines with “ABSTRACT” centered above the text. In it, you should do the following:
    • State your thesis statement or final product.
    • Describe the main points that support your claim or clarify your project vision.
    • State a brief conclusion.
  • Introduction.
  • Body.
  • Conclusion.
  • Bibliography.

Follow these formatting guidelines:

  • Length for academic essay: 30-60 pages, not including bibliography.
  • Length for critical analysis essay (which accompanies only the special project): 10-20 pages, not including bibliography.
  • Double-spaced with margins set at 1 inch top and bottom, 1.25 inches right and left; gutter set at 0; gutter position left.
  • Font: 12-point, Times New Roman.
  • Page numbering: Begin on the same page as your introduction.
  • Citations: Chose one style (MLA, APA, Turabian, Chicago, etc.) and use consistently, adhering to rules on footnotes, endnotes, in-text citations, formatting for block quotes, works cited, etc.
  • Binding: FedEx Kinko’s spiral binding, clear cover with black or maroon backing is suggested.
MLA Thesis/Special Project Presentations

MLA students working on their final theses make formal, twenty-minute presentations to the MLA community. These are an opportunity to demonstrate your presentation skills, share your thesis work, and continue to hone your ideas. Here are relevant details to keep in mind:

  • Graduating students are asked to take part in a Presentation Peer Review in Week 4 (or 5) to help ensure polished final presentations.
  • Final Presentations are given in the 7th-8th week of the quarter.
  • MLA faculty, faculty advisors, students, alumni, and staff are invited. Friends and family of students are also welcome should they wish to attend.
  • Announcements, sent via email and posted online, include your name; the title and abstract of your work; your Faculty Advisor’s name; and the date and time of your presentation.
  • Expect constructive feedback at your presentation. You will use this verbal feedback and the written feedback from your faculty advisor as you revise your final thesis.
  • Each 30-minute presentation block is structured in this way:
    • 20 minutes for you to present your thesis work to the MLA community. Presentations often include a well-defined thesis position or project statement, a discussion of salient points, and a summary. You are encouraged to design your presentation in the way that best suits your content. First and foremost, presentations must be engaging and show the scholarly, Master's level work of your final thesis.
    • 5-10 minutes for group discussion and for you to respond to questions.


  • Incorporate visuals that enhance your presentation.
  • Practice aloud so you can assess how to pace your 20-minute presentation in order to cover your most important points without rushing. Practice speaking slowly, making eye contact, and leaving room for your audience to process your ideas.
  • Practice with a written copy of your presentation. Read as if you are having a conversation. Modulate your voice and vary pauses.
  • While contextualizing your project is important, communicating the substance of your thesis will be far more engaging. Make sure to get to the main idea early and help readers stay clear on your main idea as you move through your points.

Turning in Your Final Thesis

For full information on final thesis format, see above. Your final thesis should be delivered to MLA staff in bound and digital forms in the 9th week of your graduating quarter. Digital copies should be sent to Tim Murphy at Your bound thesis can be turned in by hand or by mail. You can drop it off for Tim Murphy at the Graham School Office at Gleacher Center or in Hyde Park or mail it to him at the below address:

Tim Murphy
Assistant Director of Master of Liberal Arts
Graham School
The University of Chicago
1427 E. 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637