A master’s thesis in biology is a form of independent study. The purpose of a master’s thesis is to provide a capstone or final project in which the student can use the knowledge and methodology obtained in previous courses for the investigation of some problem in depth. Master’s theses involve six units of independent study, generally taken in two consecutive semesters (i.e. fall/spring), during the first of which the student carries out their research, and during the second of which he or she will write up the project. A thesis can become a meaningful way to bring to a conclusion a student’s work for the Master’s degree.

In general, all the procedures outlined for Independent Study apply to setting up and carrying out a thesis investigation. Like Independent Study, most master’s theses are based on a literature survey, rather than a laboratory investigation. For many students, the problems of setting up and carrying out a successful laboratory project often make this approach impractical. Laboratory-based thesis projects are possible, however, under certain circumstances, as outlined below.

Organization and Scope of a Thesis Project

To carry out a thesis project the student must secure an advisor with whom to work, define the project and fill out the necessary forms to be signed by the advisor, student and  School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS) Program Coordinator. Advisors (mentors) can come from any part of the university or, with approval, from an outside institution or organization. The Biology program coordinator will assist the student in selecting an advisor. The advisor works closely with the student at all stages of the project. A thesis project is expected to encompass a larger range of issues or a more in-depth investigation than an individual independent study. Theses can be anywhere from 40-50 pages minimum, depending on the topic and type of thesis.

Laboratory-Based Thesis Projects

The problem with laboratory-based thesis projects lies in the practicality of getting set up in a new laboratory and learning techniques and methods used in studying that lab’s particular area of research. In most cases, laboratory projects work best when carried out in a laboratory where the student is already working. In most cases, this has involved students who work in a laboratory at one of the local medical schools, or biotechnology laboratories. The student’s PI, supervisor, or a Post-Doc in the lab with appropriate credentials, can serve as the mentor. If a student carries out a M.A. project in their workplace laboratory, the topic must be something they are independently investigating, and cannot be part of their regular paid job assignment.

Thesis Evaluations

When completed, an M.A. thesis will be evaluated by a committee consisting of the mentor, the Biology Department program coordinator, and one other faculty member from the Biology Department or Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences who is a specialist in the area on which the thesis focuses. The program coordinator will assist the student in selecting the additional faculty member.

Procedures and Timeline

It is important to adhere closely to requirements and deadlines associated with the final project in order to ensure timely completion of the project and fulfillment of program requirements. Please read carefully below for detailed information about procedures, requirements, forms, and deadlines. All students authorized to pursue the Master’s Thesis must complete the Title, Scope, and Procedure form. See below for detailed information about procedures and deadlines.


If you have authorization to pursue a Thesis, begin planning two semesters prior to your final semester of study. The Title, Scope and Procedure form must be completed and returned to CAPS at least six months before the month in which the degree is expected to be conferred (August, December, or May). CAPS will forward approved Title, Scope & Procedure forms to the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.


The Final Project form must be completed with all required signatures for registration. Registration follows the normal academic schedule. Refer to the current course schedule for registration deadlines. Submit your Final Project Proposal Form here. This will serve as your registration form.

Schedule Your Oral Defense

The Oral Defense should be scheduled as soon as possible after you have registered. The Oral Defense should take place no later than two weeks prior to the end of the semester you plan to graduate. Consult with your committee to find a time that is agreeable. Your Oral Defense will probably only last 1 hour, but schedule 1.5 hours for the defense to provide a small cushion of extra time if needed. To schedule and reserve space, contact your academic advisor.

Usually, the defense must be completed by the beginning of September for summer graduates, the beginning of January for fall graduates, and late April or early May for spring graduates. Please note that these dates conform to deadlines for all graduate programs and are not flexible.

Submission of the Master’s Thesis

Submit a copy of your thesis to each member of your committee two weeks in advance of your oral defense to allow time for review. Upon successful defense of the project, the final version must be submitted to CAPS. In addition, thesis candidates must submit an electronic copy and one hard copy for the Master’s Thesis to the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences according to the deadlines listing in the online calendar.

Please refer to the Graduate School Arts & Sciences Master’s Thesis guidelines for formatting and presentation requirements.

Independent Study Guidelines

Students enrolled in the MA Program in Biology may receive up to six (6) credits of advanced work toward their degree. Independent study involves work carried with a mentor on a designated project which is approved in advance of the semester in which the work is done. Independent study may be arranged for 1, 2 or 3 credits per semester, up to the total of six. Most independent study projects involve writing a paper describing the student’s work/project at the end of the semester.


Topics may focus on any aspect of biology deemed appropriate by the mentor and the Program Coordinator from the Biology Department. Most independent study projects involve literature search and review, though some hands-on laboratory projects are possible (see above for discussion of the M.A. Thesis). The student would work with his or her mentor to find appropriate journal or other literature on the subject, and then pursue a question or controversy within that literature. Students are expected to come up with their own ideas as a result of reading through the literature, and not merely to present a summary of material they have read.

Choosing A Mentor

Mentors are usually instructors from whom the student has already taken a course, though other non-university or non-CAPS personnel may serve as mentors under special circumstances. Mentors should be individuals with a PhD in their field; if they are not already Washington University faculty or CAPS instructors, they would have to present a C.V. to the Program Coordinator for consideration. Mentors are compensated for their time in guiding independent study projects. It is the student’s responsibility to seek out a mentor and discuss with him/her the possibility of carrying out an independent study project. The mentor has the responsibility not only of helping the student set up the project but also to meet with the student periodically during the semester, and to read and evaluate the student’s paper at the completion of the work.


Credit assignment is based on the extent of the project, which usually translates into a final paper of a certain length. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules on paper length, the following guidelines are helpful in establishing the credit for independent study: 1 credit (5-7 pages); 2 credits (8-12 pages), and 3 credits (15+) pages.


Students wishing to carry out an independent study project should obtain the appropriate form from the CAPS office. It must be signed by the student, the mentor, and the Program Coordinator.