Speech-Language Pathology Master’s Programs Offering a Thesis Track

As speech-language pathology continues to extend its reach to serve diverse patient populations with an equally diverse set of challenges related to speech, language, articulation, feeding and swallowing, the field presents no shortage of topics that would benefit from further exploration.

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When selecting a master’s degree program for entry into the field, many SLP graduate students are faced with the decision of whether or not to go with a program involving a thesis project that would allow them the opportunity to contribute research to just such topics.

A thesis project is a major undertaking that involves considerable independent research and writing on an important topic of the candidate’s choice. The thesis is expected to contribute all new, if not groundbreaking, information to the field of speech language pathology.

Some recent SLP master’s thesis topics have included:

These topics were all unexplored before graduate students undertook the research, but certainly are of interest to the SLP professional community and well worth investigating in-depth.

Similarly interesting and unexplored topics would serve as ideal subject matter for further research through a graduate thesis project.

Here we help explain the reasoning behind selecting a graduate program with a thesis track and the purpose this kind of program would serve, both for individual graduate students and the field of speech-language pathology.

Deciding on a Thesis Vs Non-Thesis Degree Track: Who Should Consider a Thesis Track

Most schools offering speech language pathology master’s programs offer both thesis and non-thesis degree tracks, both of which would prepare graduates to become licensed and certified SLPs.

The thesis requirement is considered optional.

As an extra undertaking, the thesis option makes the most sense for students who want to acquire an in-depth research background as a part of their master’s program, or whose ambitions are to continue in the field as teachers rather than practitioners. Other reasons to take on optional thesis projects might include a genuine interest and curiosity in the subject being investigated, or a desire to focus on that topic as an area of specialization when going into general practice after graduation.

Because SLP programs require an extensive clinical practicum of as many as 400 hours, not to mention the fact that graduate students must prepare for a post-graduate fellowship of as many as 1,260 hours, there would be very little time to take on a project and dedicate the depth of research that a thesis requires.

Most thesis track programs make up for this, in part, by allowing thesis-candidate students to audit some of their coursework, reducing the amount of time spent in class. Still, this alone rarely opens up the kind of time required to take on a thesis project.

At some universities, a thesis project can stand in for taking the comprehensive examination typically required of master’s program graduates, through virtually all graduates go on to take such an exam anyway for state licensing and, if they choose, ASHA’s CCC-SLP (Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology) certification.

The Thesis Process: From Proposal to Defense

There are a great number of formal steps required in researching, writing, and presenting a thesis. These will vary from program to program.

Six Stages of a Thesis Project

Generally, there are six primary stages to undertaking a thesis project:

  • Find an academic advisor to support the project by filing a notice of intent with your school’s Department of Communication Disorders department chair
  • Select a suitable research topic and file a thesis proposal with the your school’s Department of Communication Disorders
  • Select a thesis committee to review the project
  • Conduct the necessary research on the thesis topic
  • Write the thesis paper in accordance with university and departmental style guides
  • Present and defend the thesis paper before the thesis committee

Each of these stages will have a number of related steps and will often involve meeting other requirements, such as remaining registered for at least one class each semester while conducting the project and filing necessary paperwork with your school’s Department of Communication Disorders from time to time.

The Thesis Proposal

In conjunction with the adviser, the student will determine a thesis topic and create the proposal document. This is a substantial document in its own right and will essentially outline the process that the student hopes to follow in the course of the research project, detailing the elements required to prove or disprove the thesis statement. The proposal should include:

  • An introduction to the topic
  • A review of existing literature that touches on the subject, including previous research into the matter
  • An outline of the methods and procedures the student proposes to use to perform original research on the subject

It is likely to take several months and a number of rounds of revisions to put together a solid thesis proposal. The thesis committee must approve the proposal before any actual work begins on the project. Their goal in approving it will be to ensure that, if the methods and procedures outlined are followed, they will be able to approve the results of the project regardless of the actual conclusions.

The Thesis Project

The larger part of the time spent on a thesis project will be spent doing the basic research required to substantiate the thesis statement. As outlined in the methods and procedures section of the proposal, the student will undertake original research into the subject of the thesis.

This could include …

  • Conducting in-depth study of data generated from other research projects
  • Conducting supervised studies directly with patients
  • Working in conjunction with other SLPs to accumulate data in the field

After enough data has been gathered, the student will follow the methods outlined in their proposal to analyze it and draw forth conclusions about the thesis statement. Bringing all of these components together results in the thesis paper itself. The paper usually is divided into seven distinct parts:

  • An introduction to the subject
  • A review of existing literature on the subject
  • The methodology with which the original research or investigation was conducted
  • The results of that research
  • A discussion of the results and their bearing on the thesis statement and what conclusions can be drawn from them
  • An overall summary of the paper
  • Citations and references

This can run to more than 100 pages of tightly reasoned, focused, legible writing.

Many different drafts will be written and reviewed by the student’s advisor, and many revisions will be required before the paper is considered adequate to present to the thesis committee.

The Thesis Defense

Presenting the results and report of the thesis project to the thesis committee for final approval and acceptance is known as conducting the thesis defense. Although it is very unusual for a thesis to be rejected, the process of going in front of several highly qualified and experienced professors to explain and defend the ideas and work that went into the project is intimidating.

The defense begins with the candidate providing copies of the thesis paper to all the members of the committee for their review several weeks before the final presentation. At that presentation, the candidate is expected to speak for an hour or more to concisely but rigorously present the results and conclusions of the thesis paper.

After the presentation, two or more hours will be spent with the committee asking questions and probing the candidate about the paper. Their goal will be to establish that the candidate genuinely understands the material, and that the research and conclusions presented are all accurate.

It is unusual for thesis papers to be accepted outright as first presented. The committee will usually require the candidate to make additional revisions on the basis of issues that are brought up in the defense before the project will finally be accepted.

Undertaking a thesis project during a speech language pathology master’s degree program is enormously challenging and unusual. For many students, however, it provides a depth of insight and experience into the field that other recent graduates are unlikely to possess. This can be a real advantage for those that have career goals that include teaching or research positions in academia.

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