How Long is a Masters Thesis?

Editor’s note: this article, published in 2018, makes reference to a previous edition of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook that is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).

Earlier this week we looked at the length of a ‘typical’ doctoral thesis in different fields. (If you haven’t read the post, spoiler alert: there’s a lot of variation but the median is around 200 pages / 7-8 chapters). Today, we’re doing the same for Masters theses.

If you’re starting a research Masters degree this year, you’ll probably have the figure “40,000” in your head. That’s the word count that is often thrown around as a goal for a traditional Masters research thesis. However, there is quite a lot of flexibility around that number. According to the AUT Postgraduate Handbook (p.97), a Masters thesis is “normally” between 20,000 – 40,000 words, with an upper limit of 60,000. Different guidelines apply for a Masters with a practice-led component.

But because there are so many types of Masters degrees (taught, research, taught with research, by thesis, or practice-led with an exegesis), there is a huge amount of variety in the types of Masters theses. Some are worth 60 points, and might be shorter; some are worth 120 points, and might be longer. Even disregarding the formalities of points values and word counts, it’s perfectly normal for there to be variation in the length and structure of Masters theses – simply because each research project is different!

OK, so none of this actually answers the question: how much should I write? Sorry.

The realistic-but-frustratingly-vague answer is this: you should write a suitable amount, within university restrictions, to clearly and concisely communicate your research findings (or, in the case of an exegesis, to clarify the academic value and context of the creative work).

Enough vagueness! Want to know how long actual Masters theses are? Of course you do.

I sampled the last 30 Masters theses available in AUT’s Tuwhera open access research repository. Overall, the median length was 91 pages (excluding bibliography and appendices), and the median number of chapters was 6.

Here’s how that broke down by field (note that these were the fields represented in the sample, so apologies if your specific discipline is not included):

Median # chapters Median page length
Art & Design 5 64
Business 6 85
Computer Science 6 96
Education 6 91
Health 7 108
Humanities 6 97
Science 4 75

These are only medians, and the true range of thesis lengths is much wider than these figures might lead you to believe. There were some theses in the sample over 200 pages in length; some under 60 pages. The number of chapters varied from 3 to 10.

So the bad news is that there’s no magic number of words, pages, or chapters to write. But the good news is that you have a lot of freedom. You needn’t be completely shackled by institutional rules or limits; you can, within reason, write up your research in a way that makes sense for your project specifically.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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