Many master’s degree programs in applied behavior analysis require completion and successful defense of a thesis project in order for the degree to be conferred. The master’s research project is intended as a capstone to the degree program, providing the student with an opportunity to investigate a behavioral science topic of their choosing and develop independent thinking and research skills in the process.
Your master’s thesis project is expected to involve significant independent research on a behavioral science subject that you will choose in concert with your faculty thesis advisor. The project should represent novel research or ideas in the field of behavioral science, although it need not be groundbreaking research. Expectations for subject matter and scope of the research are scaled to the level of the student so you are not competing with full-fledged academic researchers.
If you undertake a thesis project, it will typically be in the final year of your program. You will select one of your professors to serve as your thesis advisor and confer closely with them in the course of choosing a topic, conducting the necessary research, and writing the thesis paper.
Despite the input from your advisor, however, you will be expected to take the initiative in all aspects of the thesis project and maintain your own motivation in developing the topic, creating a research program to study it, and writing a scholarly document to substantiate your theories.
The Thesis Process
The thesis process is very formalized and has a large number of required steps that involve a considerable amount of paperwork and presentation. The steps will vary from school to school, but typically fall into these general categories:
- Acquire an academic advisor for the project and file a formal notice of intent with your department chair
- Select an acceptable research topic and file a thesis proposal with your department
- Select a thesis committee to review and approve the project
- Conduct the necessary basic research on the subject
- Write the thesis paper according to university and department style guides
- Present and defend the thesis paper before the thesis committee
You will have to conduct all of these steps while still attending classes and conforming to other requirements for your program.
The Thesis Proposal
Developing your formal thesis proposal will require a significant amount of work and writing before you can even begin the primary research on the topic.
Together with your advisor, you will select a suitable subject and write a proposal document to support the selection. You will have to outline the process you intend to follow in the course of your research and state the elements that will be required to either prove or disprove the thesis statement. The proposal will include:
- An overview of the topic
- A review of existing literature that discusses the topic, including any previous research projects
- An outline of the methods and procedures you intend to use while conducting your own research into the subject
Many students operate under the common misconception that thesis research should be on a topic never before explored. Although it is true that research is expected to be original, it’s a mistake to interpret the requirement to mean it should be ground-breaking. According to a 1990 article published in The Behavior Analyst journal, an appropriate thesis topic should fit systematically into the existing literature. That is to say that it should logically extend existing investigations in a novel manner, such as researching the effects of Pivotal Response Training (a widely-implemented ABA treatment technique) as applied during a specific environmental scenario with a particular category of patient, as one recent thesis paper did.
This approach to selecting a thesis topic helps the student in extending their understanding of a broader subject area, but also furthers the science of ABA generally by testing its applications in specific areas in a way that more innovative research cannot always do.
Some recent ABA master’s thesis subjects have included:
- Peer-implemented pivotal response training during recess with an ASD patient.
- Video modeling and feedback in a gymnastics skills program.
- Implementing behavior contracts with runaway youth.
- Functional skills teaching with video prompts for developmentally disabled students.
As a field that was founded relatively recently and remains small and somewhat unexplored, potential applied behavior analysis thesis topics are not difficult to come by.
Creating the proposal will take several months and involve a considerable amount of research and discussion with your advisor. Once you have completed the proposal, you will have to present it to your thesis committee before actually beginning the project. Their review will be intended to validate that the proposed research methods and procedures could actually serve as a legitimate investigation into the subject matter. This way, regardless of the outcome of the research, they will be able to assess the project on the merits of your conduct and analysis.
The Thesis Research Project
The greater part of the time you spend on your thesis project will be in the research phase.
It will be important to closely follow the procedures you outlined in your proposal. Because applied behavior analysis relies heavily on observation, your protocols for observing and recording the object of study will be heavily scrutinized. The consistency of your observations will be crucial to establishing accurate data for analysis.
In addition to conducting your own investigations, you will probably spend a great deal of time analyzing data generated by other research projects. This will both shape your own research and provide input beyond data you could generate on your own.
Once the research and analysis has been completed, you will have to write the thesis paper itself.
Many schools and departments have very strict rules for the organization of your paper. Most require the following components:
- An introduction to the topic
- A review of the existing literature relating to the topic
- The methodology with which the research or investigation was conducted
- The results of that research
- A discussion of the results and their bearing on the thesis statement and conclusions that can be drawn from them
- An overall summary of the paper
- Citations and references
This generally is wrapped up into around 100 pages of clear, focused, informative writing. Getting to the final product will require a number of drafts, each reviewed closely by your advisor. Only when the advisor believes that you have achieved a version that will be acceptable to the thesis committee will you be allowed to make your presentation.
The Thesis Defense
The final step of the thesis process is known as the thesis defense. This involves presenting the results of the research to your thesis committee and going in front of them to demonstrate your grasp of the research and conclusions.
Many graduate students shrink at the prospect of having to articulate original research and defend their ideas and conclusions in front of a thesis committee, but the experience is intended to be about learning and will naturally push you out of your comfort zone a bit. Very few thesis papers are ever rejected outright.
The process begins by distributing copies of the thesis paper to all the committee members several weeks before the final presentation. This gives the committee time to familiarize themselves with your work and conclusions and formulate any questions they might have about it.
During the formal presentation, you will have to speak for an hour or more to present your project and findings to the committee. Committee members may include faculty from your department and outside experts in the field, depending on the requirements of your department.
You can then expect to spend another couple of hours fielding questions from the committee members. Their goal will be to establish to their own satisfaction that you have genuinely understood the material and that your facts are accurate and your conclusions well-reasoned and supported.
Even the best thesis papers are usually not accepted outright. The thesis committee is likely to have a number of revision requests they feel will be necessary, based on issues raised during the defense, before the paper can be accepted.
Your thesis project will be an enormous undertaking as part of your ABA master’s degree, but it will also serve to provide a tremendous foundation for your career in applied behavior analysis by giving you a depth of insight into the field that would not otherwise be duplicated.