MA Advice

How to Complete a Non-Thesis MA in Two Years or Less

A non-thesis MA requires you to take 7 courses and complete a Professional Paper. If you take 2 courses a term for three terms and the spend one term on one course plus the Professional Paper, you should be able to complete in 4 terms. So, if you start in the Fall and go right through, you should be out by the end of the following Fall.  Well under two years.  So what is the issue?


Well, there must be some, since no one finishes in four terms. Here are some candidate issues:

  • Graduate School is a lot harder than expected. We run a sort of philosophical boot-camp here and incoming students are often a bit surprised at what is expected of them. The result is late papers, deferred grades, only one course per term, and all manner of other slowdowns. Within limits, the department agrees with students when they wish to do a good job, rather than a quick job.
  • Distribution Requirements. Quite often, students need to take extra courses to satisfy the more stringent breadth requirements (three in each area, at least one of each in Graduate School)
  • Course availability and interest-driven slowdowns. Students get interested in a particular topic, participate in reading groups, wait for a term when a professor with whom they want to do a directed reading course is available, etc.
  • Professional Paper, pt. 1: You are supposed to revise an already good paper from a course you have taken to a standard that is close to ready to submit to a journal or, at any rate, that would make a good writing sample for applying to a PhD program. But that means you have to have such a paper on hand to revise, and a surprising number of students don’t actually have a paper that satisfies the twin requirements of being good already and being in the area they wish to work in.  So they carry on until they get one, or write a brand new paper for the purpose. This takes time.
  • Professional Paper, pt .2: There is some confusion about what the paper is supposed to be like. It is not a thesis or even a project (by SFU definition). It is just a paper, only it is supposed to be good, and glossy and shiny and polished.


Still, shouldn’t two more terms take care of these delays, still keeping completion in 2 years?

Yes, except here is the number one reason people take 3 years:

  • They are not ready to apply to PhD (or other) programs when they need to be - at the end of the Fall term of their second year.

So, if you are taking a year off, or are not planning on going on to further post-graduate programs, you do not need further advice. But, if you are, you need...


A strategy for being ready to apply to PhD or other programs by the end of the Fall term of your second year.

What we aim to provide our graduates with, so they can succeed in their applications, are three things:

a) a broad philosophical education
b) letters of reference from people who know the student
c) a writing sample

No one can get into a good PhD program without the latter two items, so that is what you need to get by the Fall of your second year. In other words you need:

  • Courses in your area of interest so the professors in that area get to know you
  • Your Professional Paper finished.

The first thought students have when they arrive in the program is that the way to proceed is to first get the course-requirements out of the way, especially the distribution ones, and then concentrate on their area of interest to come up with a professional paper.

This approach, natural as it is, will not work if you want to be applying for PhD programs in the Fall of your second year. The ideal procedure for that is to:

  • immediately start taking all courses in your area of interest with a view to getting a good paper to revise and getting to know the professors in that area.
  • Aim to revise your paper to Professional Paper standards in the Fall of your second year or, ideally, in the Summer preceding (The Summer term - whether of your first or of your second year - is the best term to do the Professional Paper: there are fewer courses offered and most non-TAship support)
  • Worry about the breadth requirements in the Spring (and Summer, if needed) after you apply to PhD programs (So, at the time of application, point (a) above is discharged by a promissory note).

In other words, there is no reason why the Professional Paper needs to be the last thing you do in the program - it is needed as a writing sample, and that takes priority.  You can present it as soon as you finish it or, if you want the presentation to be the final event of your degree, hold off on it.