Writing a Thesis for Nursing School

by Nalea Ko
• 3 min read
Reviewed by Theresa Granger, Ph.D., MN, NP-C

Writing a thesis presents an opportunity for graduate students to pursue original scientific inquiry and connect with others in the nursing community. Here's what to expect from the thesis process.

Writing a thesis presents an opportunity for graduate students to conduct scholarly inquiry, with the potential of publishing their finished paper. A thesis requires nursing students to identify a problem in nursing, and review academic literature while developing advanced research skills. Thesis advisors and committees guide students from the proposal phase to the final oral defense, a process that spans about two semesters.

Not every nursing student is required to complete a thesis. Some nursing programs offer a non-thesis option, in which candidates complete a final capstone project or oral examination on topics such as nursing theories and clinical practices.

The thesis process and requirements vary by school. Ohio State University’s master of science in nursing program’s final examination includes oral and written portions.

Want to know what to expect during the thesis process? Read on to learn how you can choose a thesis topic and orally defend your paper.

Choosing Your Nursing Thesis Topic

Nursing students must choose a thesis topic before they begin the research and writing process, typically within the first two terms of nursing school. A solid thesis must present an original argument, manageable research scope, and worthy academic pursuit. A thesis advisor or research professor will help to guide each student through the process of choosing a topic.

In the conceptual phase, candidates research potential thesis topics based on their interests within their nursing specialty. Students may start with a broad topic such as obesity and weight management, depression, or cardiovascular disease. To narrow their thesis argument, graduate students might focus on racial or ethnic groups, socio-economic issues, or current events.

After settling on a topic, students draft and submit a thesis proposal to an advisor or committee chair. Once this proposal has been approved, students can begin the formal work on his or her approved thesis topic.

While graduate students must complete a thesis to fulfill the requirements of a master’s degree in nursing, the thesis process also offers a chance for future nurses to immerse themselves in current academic literature and collaborate with fellow graduate students, faculty, and professors. A thesis can also serve as the foundation for doctoral studies. A thesis at the doctoral (PhD) level is called a dissertation.

Completing Your Nursing Thesis

Brainstorming a thesis topic begins as early as the first semester of a master’s in nursing program. The formal thesis process, which typically spans multiple terms, does not take place until the student's final year, usually during the last term.

Thesis requirements vary by school, and students must meet specific deadlines and take prerequisite courses beforehand. At the University of Texas-Houston’s School of Nursing, candidates take a public health class before they submit a thesis proposal.

Future nurses work under the guidance of a thesis committee and advisor. The experience of writing a thesis trains students in original investigation, data collection, implementing research design, and public speaking. Candidates also learn to flex their analytical thinking skills and master a specific area of nursing as they develop the ability to analyze and draw conclusions through data.

At a program's conclusion, students submit their thesis as a bound manuscript or electronic file. In addition to submitting a written report, students orally defend their final thesis in front of the committee. Many graduates also submit their manuscripts for publication.

Presenting Your Nursing Thesis

Graduate students generally orally defend their proposal and present their completed thesis in front of their committee. This committee also includes the thesis mentor, a faculty member specializing in the nursing discipline of their scholarly inquiry. There are generally 3 total committee members on a thesis committee.

Fellow graduate students or consultants outside of the college may attend presentations, if the process is open to the public. Otherwise, the thesis defense remains a private session, with students presenting their findings. The oral examination of the thesis takes up to one hour, but can last longer depending on how many questions the committee has for the student.

During that time, the committee evaluates the thesis based on how the research experience has shaped the student’s graduate education and the findings' significance to the nursing field. When the exam concludes, the committee either accepts or rejects the thesis defense.

How is a Nursing Thesis Graded?

Nursing schools rely on each committee to formally grade each product in the thesis process. Some graduate nursing students may receive a letter grade, while other nursing schools adhere to a “pass” or “fail” policy.

To determine a grade, the committee assesses the thesis based on set criteria. Committee members look at the project's key components, including the statement of purpose, literature review, research methodology, analysis, findings, and implications. The process and grading criteria for the thesis process can be found in the school's graduate handbook. Most of these handbooks are published online for student review.

The thesis must identify significant issues or service gaps in nursing and present them in a concise and coherent fashion. Candidates must support all findings and analysis by research and explain the implications for healthcare.

The oral defense also factors into the grade. The committee grades the defense based on the quality of the student’s presentation, taking into consideration if the student spoke clearly and presented a logical and well-organized argument.

What is the Difference Between a Nursing Thesis and a Capstone?

A nursing thesis and a capstone demonstrate the student’s comprehensive knowledge and educational journey. Graduate students in a non-research track may have the choice of completing a clinical project. Doctoral of Nursing (DNP) students complete a capstone project.

Graduate-level nursing students work on an original scholarly inquiry during their thesis, while undergraduates recap their cumulative learning experience. The thesis process, which includes completing nursing courses and writing a proposal, takes place over the entire program.

Learn more about the difference between a thesis and capstone project on this page.

Reviewed by:

Theresa Granger, Ph.D., MN, NP-C

Theresa Granger, Ph.D., MN, NP-C

With over two decades of teaching and clinical practice as a family nurse practitioner, Dr. Granger is an expert in nursing education and clinical practice at all levels of education (associate, baccalaureate, and graduate). She has published and lectured extensively on nursing education and clinical practice-related content. Her expertise ranges from student advising and mentoring to curricular and content design (both on ground and online) to teaching and formal course delivery. Dr. Granger is one of the founding faculty members of the University of Southern California’s first ever fully online graduate family nurse practitioner program.

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