What is an MLA Thesis?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

An MLA thesis generally is a master’s level work of a certain length, about 60-100 pages, that adheres to the writing formats prescribed by the Modern Language Association (MLA). A thesis may also be a shorter senior work completed prior to gaining an undergraduate degree. This type of thesis may require an MLA format, or it may alternately be the primary point of argument in any length paper, as with the term thesis statement. The first type of MLA thesis is usually a requirement of graduation from a master’s program and this format is used by most of the humanities disciplines. Sutdents in the social or straight sciences tend to use other citation and writing formats for their theses.

Most students working on an MLA thesis already have some familiarity with MLA format.
Most students working on an MLA thesis already have some familiarity with MLA format.

Many different subjects are allowable for an MLA thesis, but all will have the formatting in common. The one difference occurs when people do a creative thesis. They may complete a creative work and then a shorter paper (20-30 pages) on the work process. The creative part doesn’t normally contain citations, but the paper may, and these will need to be in proper MLA form. Any type of bibliography, works cited or consulted list must follow MLA guidelines, too.

For the MLA thesis that represents a standard research project, MLA handbooks and guidelines detail exactly how a page should look. They may measure to the inch the margins on either side of the page, specify precisely what spacing to use between lines, dictate where on a page the name is located and whether pages should be numbered. MLA guidelines also stress how to capitalize, italicize, underline or put into quotations works of others mentioned in a paper, and they tell how to cite different types of works, and different lengths of quotations within the thesis and in any accompanying works like works cited lists or annotated bibliographies. Though these citations can seem nitpicky, they are the standard for the person’s area of study, and by having an agreed upon format, everyone doing research can better understand the work of others.

Most students working on an MLA thesis already have some familiarity with MLA format and have written shorter research works using it. With a greater body of research, it can still be daunting to make sure everything is formatted properly, and theses can be rejected on the basis of nonconformity to guidelines. It behooves anyone entering a graduate program requiring this format to master it early, and many schools have research seminars to help students become expert. Even without such a class, students should study the MLA format using guidebooks, and available online tools like the O.W.L. at Purdue. Familiarity with the format can definitely pay off in fewer potential mistakes on a finished thesis.

Some schools have an MLA expert who reads the MLA thesis prior to it being accepted. Getting to know teachers who are especially competent in the form could be useful, and they might serve as advisors during early thesis creation, pointing out errors to students.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@Pippinwhite -- I'd say a works cited page is really the common sense way to do the old bibliography. Mostly, what MLA did was streamline the citing process. The formatting is usually common sense, too, when it comes to margins and so forth. And since you don't have to leave room at the bottom for footnotes, it's much easier. Plus, superscript is a pain in the neck in a word processing program.

When I had a professor who wanted footnotes, I just put my numbers in, and then next to the numbers, I put some kind of special character, like a subsection mark. Then, I ran a macro that would search for numbers followed by the character, and superscript the numbers and omit the character. You have to jump through a bunch of hoops and MLA is much, much easier.


MLA formatting is so much easier than the old Terabian! I hate footnotes and endnotes! With MLA, if you quote a work, you just put the author's name and page number in parenthesis after the quote.

For example: "The man hates pie" (Smith 123). And that's it. I've never had to write an MLA paper with attention to margins and so forth. I just had to make sure it was double-spaced. I think double space is hard to read, though. To me, a space and a half is optimal for easy reading.

I also like the way the works cited page is put together. I'd have to go back and look at the way it differs from a Terabian bibliography, but I remember it being much less annoying to cite sources like magazines and newspapers.

Post your comments
Forgot password?