On the origins of the last big hurdle to graduation – The Thesis

Your thesis or project somehow proves that you have learned something in the time you spent studying at Karolinska Institutet or in any institution of learning for that matter. It also induces a lot of discomfort, self-doubt, songs of despair, breaks from reality and, for many, a surprising self-discovery of the capacity of the human spirit to “read” and endure abstruse academic literature viewed by hundreds, read by a handful and understood by no one other than the author.

And while I go through these flurry of emotional states myself I have also wondered who started this ball rolling? Who had thought that writing a thesis was such a great idea?

So I scoured Google’s first page and found that  my search terms for this topic were problematic since the search yielded about 21 600 000 results (in 0,47 seconds) on how to write a master’s thesis in history. However, one useful webpage though somehow confirmed what I had suspected – that the thesis as a requirement to graduate dates back to the early days of medieval universities and the formation of guilds.

Back then the task of the student is to defend a thesis – a proposition, a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved – and guess who wrote the thesis. The teacher!

Or so Peter Jansson at academia.stackexchange.com claims. This also solves one of those puzzles in my (mis)understanding of history lessons – how Martin Luther was able to write 95 theses that started the Reformation. He only had to write propositions and not 30-50-paged documents reviewed by three supervisors and an opponent.

Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses 


But how things have changed – from nailing 95 theses on an old door to writing 30 pages minimum of text for a master’s degree and loads more for a PhD. Now, the student is expected to come up with thesis and defend it using rigorous methods developed through the ages.


At Karolinska, students are given the first one and a half years to think about a topic or choose from available ones and the last semester to write about a thesis. For PhD students, a nailing of theses similar to what Martin Luther did happens towards the end of their studies – an affair usually capped with a bottle of wine or two and lots of hurrahing.


A note on the featured image. Umberto Eco was an Italian essayist, critic, philosopher and a semiotician. He died on 19 February but before that wrote books and tons of academic material, which could occupy thesis writers for years to come. He also wrote a book called How to Write a Thesis.  I am sure that he also wrote a thesis but I don’t know if he nailed it like Luther did.


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