MFA Thesis Guidelines

All MFA candidates at San Jose State University are required to write a thesis in their primary genre, defined in the curriculum as “a book-length manuscript of literary merit and publishable quality.” The finished manuscript must be approved by the candidate’s thesis committee. And if submitted as a University Thesis (ENGL 299), by SJSU’s College of Graduate Studies (CGS). Or if submitted as a Departmental Thesis (ENGL 299D), by the department of English Chair or designee. Note: 299D Departmental Theses will not be submitted to or published on the university’s electronic thesis databases. But will not be eligible to be nominated for university graduate-student thesis awards. Whichever type of thesis you choose, the text must comply with the official CGS University-wide content and formatting guidelines

This guide is designed to present the thesis process as clearly as possible. It covers both administrative and literary tasks and should serve as your checklist as you move forward. Note however that University guidelines change frequently, and you should check the CGS website for the latest requirements before submitting your final manuscript.

Recruiting a Thesis Committee

Like most departments at SJSU, the English Department requires that an MFA Thesis Committee have three members. All three members will read and approve the candidate’s thesis and also grade the candidate’s MFA Exam. (University policy S14-10 [pdf] requires that a minimum of three individuals serve on the student’s thesis committee.) The majority of the committee members, (at least two of the three individuals) must be SJSU faculty. The Chair of the Thesis Committee must be a full time, tenured, or tenure track SJSU faculty member.

The Chair of the Thesis Committee is the student's MFA Thesis Director. The Thesis Director closely advises the candidate and helps guide them through the thesis writing process from beginning to end. That includes drafting and revising a Thesis Proposal--to be reviewed and approved by the English Graduate Committee. NOTE: The candidate must have recruited all three members of their Thesis Committee before submitting their Thesis Proposal for approval by the Department Graduate Committee. All three Thesis Committee members must approve and sign-off on the Thesis Proposal before the Graduate Committee can review the proposal and give final approval for the Thesis to move forward. 

Once the candidate is approved for taking thesis units (ENGL 299 or 299D), the Thesis Director will work closely with the candidate to read and critique the thesis draft and later a revised draft The Thesis Director will, as well, help the candidate coordinate working with other readers on the Thesis Committee. The second and third readers are expected to read and critique the candidate’s revised Thesis, and Thesis Preface. 

The second member most often is a member of the Creative Writing faculty, and can be either tenure-line or temporary faculty, or can be a member of the English Department’s literature faculty. The third member can be a faculty member in the English Department, Creative Writing or Literature faculty, or can be an “outside expert”--a published creative writer working in the candidate’s Primary Genre. An outside reader can be a faculty member at another campus or a published author who has knowledge of the candidate and their work. If from outside the Department, the third member also must agree to take part in grading the candidate’s MFA exam. 

ENGL 291: Literary Practicum

All aspects of the MFA Thesis process are covered in the 4-unit CR/NC  Literary Practicum class (ENGL 291) required of all MFA students. ENGL 291 is offered once a year in the fall semester. It is recommended that you take the course at least one semester before you plan to graduate. The course meets primarily online, with three or four in-person symposia featuring guest speakers such as literary agents, editors, and fellowship program directors.

The course prepares Creative Writing graduate students to take the MFA Comprehensive exam; to develop and begin writing an MFA thesis; and to learn about the practical side of the literary profession. The practicum will provide a forum for peer review to assist MFA candidates as they customize the MFA exam reading list and prepare to take the MFA comprehensive exam. The practicum will also provide a forum for MFA candidates for drafting the thesis abstract and thesis preface. MFA candidates will consult with their individual thesis directors and thesis readers on their Thesis Committees at the start of the semester to create a thesis completion plan. The candidates will be guided by their MFA thesis directors during the semester, sharing thesis drafts with other students in the same primary genre via Canvas. Students will post texts of their thesis abstracts and introductions and portions of their thesis project. During the semester, students will receive comments on their drafts from other MFA candidates working in the same genre, and from the candidate’s thesis director and thesis readers.

Thesis Proposal

Before you can enroll in your four Thesis Units (ENGL 299), you must have your proposal approved by the Department Graduate Committee. This committee is a group of half a dozen tenure-line faculty members who meet regularly to discuss the department’s MA and MFA programs.

The MFA degree qualifies our graduates to teach literature and writing at the undergraduate and graduate level; therefore, members of the Graduate Committee read these proposals looking for evidence that the candidate is, in fact, qualified to teach at a university. In our MFA program, writers are expected not only to know how to write creative prose and poetry but also to discuss their work and its influences, as well as its relationship to contemporary literature. Proposals should demonstrate expertise with the literary environment and clearly place the thesis within a context that will enable literature scholars to assess its value and potential as an artistic contribution. The thesis proposal is an important demonstration of your professionalism. Carelessness or flippancy will earn your proposal a rejection.

The first step in writing a thesis proposal is to meet with your Thesis Director. Among other things, he or she will help you determine your project’s scope so that it can be completed in one or two semesters. This is one of the main questions the Graduate Committee asks about every thesis proposal (MA or MFA). Your Thesis Director can also provide you with examples of past proposals.

Download and fill out the department’s Thesis Proposal Form [pdf]. You must include this form when you submit your proposal to the Graduate Committee.

Your proposal should have three sections:

Section One: Project Description

A short description (500 words) of the manuscript you plan to complete. If your project is a novel, you might describe the cast of characters and succinctly summarize the plot. If you plan to use a particular narrative structure (for example a frame story), you may discuss it here. Explain also the major themes you plan to explore in your work.

Section Two: Annotated Bibliography

  1. Write a concise descriptive introduction to an annotated bibliography, listing the literary works that have influenced the project. (Under 100 words.)
  2. Write an annotated bibliography of works that are most like or most influential on the project proposed. In the annotations, you should succinctly describe each individual work’s affinity or influence on the project in concrete terms.

Section Three: Work Sample

Include 5 to 10 pages of poems (no more than 10 poems total) or 10 to 15 pages of prose or drama. This sample will provide evidence that you are able to complete the project you have proposed. If you have already started writing your thesis manuscript, you might polish up the first draft of a scene or several pages of poems. Use it as your work sample. You do not have to include the thesis sample you submit as part of your final (revised) thesis manuscript. The work sample should cohere with your project description and bibliography.  You should refer to specific content from your thesis sample if possible, in either one or both of the first two sections.

Send a draft of your proposal to your Thesis Director at least two weeks before the semester’s Thesis Proposal Deadline (usually the last day of March or October), so he or she has time to suggest revisions. When you have your Director’s approval and the signatures of all three committee members (electronic signatures are fine), submit the proposal by email to the Department’s Graduate Coordinator.

The members of the Graduate Committee will read your proposal, and it will be brought up for discussion at the committee's next meeting, normally within a week or two of the proposal deadline. The members will vote and convey their decision to your Thesis Director and to you. Sometimes the committee grants a proposal approval on the condition that it be revised in one way or another. Make sure you pay attention and carry out these revisions as soon as possible. If you wait too long, the committee may not be able to reconsider your proposal that semester, and your progress towards graduation may be delayed. 

Enrolling in Thesis Units

After your Thesis Proposal has been approved by the Department Graduate Committee, you have permission to register for your four Thesis Units (ENGL 299). You may take these units concurrently or over two semesters. To get your add code for MySJSU, fill out the Form to Register for 299 Thesis Units, get signatures from your Thesis Director and the MFA Program Coordinator, and take the completed form to the Department Admin (in FOB 102).

Drafting Your Thesis

You will work with your Thesis Director to determine a sensible writing and review schedule. Start by asking if he or she prefers to read your work in pieces or only when the manuscript is complete. Set milestones by working backwards from the deadlines. Be conservative; leave plenty of wiggle-room. Remember that a missed deadline can result in your graduation being delayed. 

Formatting Your Thesis

Your thesis manuscript must follow SJSU's content and formatting guidelines for masters theses. Read them thoroughly. The department-approved text of your thesis must be submitted electronically as a PDF, including the signed faculty signature page.

A few notes on the CGS guidelines:

Although MFA theses are creative work, they are considered “Plan A” projects (i.e., theses) rather than “Plan C” projects (creative project reports). In general, Plan C reports are descriptions of non-written work, for example dance performances and art installations. Your manuscript must include both an Abstract (one page maximum) and a Preface. The Preface is not explained in the CGS guidelines, but it is required nonetheless. In the Preface, CGS is looking for a short essay (a minimum of 2,000 words) explaining your project and its influences. You should cite material from your primary influences using MLA citation format. A MLA-style Works Cited list must be included at the end of the preface. Most MFA candidates use a version of their Thesis Proposal as their Preface (minus the writing sample, of course). Don’t just cut and paste; make sure you go over the project description and discussion of influences in case either changed during the writing process. Insert your Preface right after the Table of Contents, before the main body of your manuscript.

A final word of advice: proofread and then proofread again. The dispassionate reviewers at CGS have been known to reject theses because of typos and grammatical mistakes. Obviously, if you are using dialect in your manuscript, that’s okay; but please make sure the Preface is free of spelling and grammar errors.

Submitting the Thesis for Committee Approval

At the beginning of each semester, the MFA Program Coordinator sends out the deadline for turning in thesis manuscripts to the readers. It may be sooner than you think--usually in early February (for May graduation) or September (for December graduation).

All three members of your committee will read your work simultaneously. Usually the second and third readers convey their decisions to your Thesis Director, who communicates it to you. They may recommend changes before you submit the final manuscript to Graduate Studies (which is why the deadline falls so early in the semester). After the committee approves the manuscript, ask them to sign the Thesis Committee Page (see CGS guidelines for formatting).

Submitting the Thesis for Graduate Studies Approval

Getting your thesis approved by the Office of Graduate Studies is explained in detail at this website:

Copyright and Publication Concerns

SJSU uses ProQuest to manage its digital repository of masters theses. Once you submit your manuscript through the ProQuest site (and you are required to do so in order to have your thesis approved by Graduate Studies) it becomes available through certain ProQuest databases. If you wrote a historical novel about Abraham Lincoln, for example, a citation and abstract of your thesis will appear in search results for “Abraham Lincoln.” Depending on the permissions you granted ProQuest during the submission process, users of their database may also have the option to order a full electronic or printed copy of your work. Note that you retain full copyright to your work. ProQuest is only a distributor; they do not own your work.

SJSU wants your thesis to be available to the public for good reason. In the sciences, for example, theses and dissertations are valuable additions to the scholarly literature. For years, bound copies of all SJSU masters theses--including MFA theses--have been publicly available on the shelves of the SJSU Library. But in the age of digital reading, many creative writers are horrified to know that their proprietary, copyrighted work might be available through a public database. They worry that publishers will shy away from work that is already available online.

During the final submission process, you will be given several opportunities to restrict access to your work. If you wish to restrict access, choose one of the “Embargo” options on the SJSU License Agreement form (submitted along with your thesis). At present the longest possible embargo is 60 months (five years). Upon expiration of the embargo, you may limit access to on-campus users or make it available to the general public.

On the other hand, you may want your work to be available for purchase through ProQuest. You may even want it to be available for free (see the “Open Access” option). Whatever you choose, please remember that neither SJSU nor ProQuest is trying to profit from your work. The advancement of human knowledge (the ultimate goal of academics) depends on the free flow of information among scholars, and by seeking an MFA you choose to be part of this conversation. It is impossible to take an advanced degree like the MFA without leaving some mark on the academic record. The Internet has only made that mark easier to find.

ProQuest is one access point for theses; the MLK Library is another. Students sign two different agreements: the ProQuest publishing agreement and the SJSU license agreement.  It might interest students to know that a permanent embargo is available on the ProQuest side. Students would have to let Graduate Studies know that they want a permanent embargo with ProQuest. (ProQuest doesn’t allow students to select this option without notifying the institution.)

Additional Steps Necessary for Graduation

You should be aware that you need to file official forms with SJSU’s Graduate Admissions and Program Evaluation office (best acronym on campus: GAPE) in order to progress towards graduation.

The semester before you plan to graduate, you must fill out and file a Petition for Advancement to Graduate Candidacy. [pdf] The deadlines are usually the first day of April (for December graduation) and the first day of October (for May graduation). Check GAPE’s deadlines page for the most current dates.

At the beginning of your final semester, you need to apply online for Award of Master's Degree. The deadlines for this are usually in mid-February (for May graduation) and mid-September (for December graduation). Again, check with GAPE to be sure you have the right date.