What Is a Thesis, and Why Is It Required?

A thesis is a typewritten manuscript, usually 100 to 400 pages in length, in which the student addresses a particu­lar problem in his chosen field. Italian law requires students to successfully complete a thesis before they are granted the laurea, currently the terminal humanities degree offered by Italian universities. Once the student has passed all required exams and finished writing his thesis, he defends it in front of a committee. During this defense, the thesis advisor and one or more readers give a report that may include objec­tions to the candidate’s thesis. This report sparks a discus­sion in which other professors participate as members of the committee. The advisor and a second professor identify the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis and evaluate the candidate’s capacity to defend the opinions he expressed in his thesis, and these influence the committee’s final evalua­tion. After calculating the student’s grade point average, the committee evaluates the thesis on a numeric scale of 66 to 110 points. The committee may also grant a score of 110 cum laude, and designate the thesis as worthy of publication. This process applies to a laurea in the humanities, as other fields of study may have different requirements.

As you may know, most universities around the world do not require a thesis for a first-level degree. In some uni­versities, there are also certain higher-level degrees that are obtainable without a thesis. In others, there is a first-level degree that has similar requirements to the Italian laurea, obtainable through a series of exams and, in some cases, through completion of a less demanding research project. Still other universities offer various second-level degrees that require thesis-like research projects of varying complex­ity. Some universities outside of Italy also confer a certificate degree, called a licentiate, that shares certain affinities with the Italian laurea. The licentiate in its various forms verifies a graduate’s competence within a certain profession.

However, outside of Italy, the thesis proper generally applies to the doctorate, a degree pursued by those students who wish to specialize and pursue academic research in a particular discipline. Although the doctorate has various des­ignations in different parts of the world, we will use the com­mon abbreviation “PhD.” Although this is an abbreviation for “doctor of philosophy,” it is generally used internation­ally to refer to anyone with a doctorate in the humanities, from the sociologist to the ancient Greek scholar. (Scientific disciplines use other abbreviations, such as MD, or doctor of medicine.) The PhD certifies competence in academic research, and most PhD graduates appropriately pursue aca­demic careers.

In universities around the world that traditionally grant the PhD, the thesis usually refers to a doctoral thesis, known as a “dissertation.” This is a piece of original research through which the candidate must demonstrate his scholarly capa­bility of furthering his discipline. Although there are very young PhDs, the dissertation is generally not undertaken as an Italian student undertakes a laurea thesis, at the age of 22, but rather when he is older, sometimes as old as 40 or 50.

Why wait so long? Because the dissertation is a piece of original research, in which one must not only know the work of other scholars but also “discover” something that other scholars have not yet said. In the humanities, this “discov­ery” will rarely be a sweeping invention such as atomic scis­sion, the theory of relativity, or a medicine that cures cancer. PhD candidates in the humanities make more modest schol­arly discoveries: a new way to interpret and understand a classic text, the attribution of a manuscript that illuminates an author’s biography, a reassessment of secondary studies that ripens ideas once wandering lost in various other texts.

In any case, the scholar must produce a work that, in theory, other scholars in the field should not ignore, because it says something new (see section 2.6.1).

Is the “Italian-style” laurea thesis of the same kind? Rarely. In fact, since students undertake it in their early twenties while they are still completing their course work, a laurea thesis cannot represent the conclusion of long research and contemplation, or provide evidence of full scholarly matu­ration. Therefore, although there may be an occasional lau­rea thesis (completed by a particularly gifted student) that attains the quality of a PhD thesis, most do not, nor does the university encourage such an accomplishment. In fact a good laurea thesis need not be a research thesis in the traditional sense; instead it can take the form of a “literature review.”

In a literature review, the student simply demonstrates that he has critically read the majority of the existing “criti­cal literature,” or the published writings on a particular topic. The student explains the literature clearly, connects the vari­ous points of view of its authors, and thus offers an intelligent review, perhaps useful even to a specialist in the field who had never conducted an in-depth study on that specific topic.

Therefore, the student seeking a laurea has a choice: he can write a literature review appropriate for a laurea degree; or he can undertake a research thesis, one that could even attain the level of scholarship appropriate for a PhD. A research thesis is always more time-consuming, laborious, and demanding. A literature review can also be laborious and time-consuming (some have taken many years), but will usu­ally require less time and present less risk. Writing a litera­ture review in no way precludes a student from later taking the avenue of research; the review can constitute an act of diligence on the part of the young scholar who, before begin­ning independent research, wants to clarify for himself a few ideas by gathering background information on the topic. This is certainly preferable to producing a hastily finished work that claims to represent research but is in fact just a bad the­sis that annoys readers and does no good for its author.

Accordingly, the choice between a literature review and a research thesis is linked to the student’s ability and matu­rity. And regrettably, it is often linked to financial factors, because a working student certainly has less time and energy to dedicate to long hours of research and trips to foreign research institutes or libraries, and often lacks money for the purchase of rare and expensive books and other resources.

Sadly, this book will not offer advice on financial matters. Until a short time ago, research was the privilege of rich stu­dents around the world. Today, academic scholarships, travel scholarships, and foreign research grants have hardly solved this problem. A more just society would be one in which research was a profession funded by the state, and only people with true aspirations to study were compensated. It would be a society in which a piece of paper was not required to find employment or to obtain a promotion in the public sector, and a university graduate would not surpass other qualified applicants simply because the graduate had earned a laurea.1

But this is not the case in the Italian university, nor in the Italian society in which it was born. We can only hope that students of all social classes can attend the university without stressful sacrifices, and then proceed to explain the many ways in which one can write a decent thesis, taking into account one’s available time, energy, and specific aspirations.

Source: Eco Umberto, Farina Caterina Mongiat, Farina Geoff (2015), How to write a thesis, The MIT Press.

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