Carnegie Mellon University

Thesis Requirement

Students in the MSE Online program are required to demonstrate an aptitude for reflective practice. By completing a master's thesis, you will demonstrate your depth of knowledge in one of six key practice areas. To complete the thesis, you must: (1) declare a thesis topic and select an advisor; (2) conduct research appropriate for your topic and interests; (3) author a thesis document; and (4) present and defend your thesis work. 

Overview of Thesis Milestones

Deadline Student Action
Before or after submitting the proposal Enroll in an optional elective thesis research course to learn about research methods
Prior to completion of required coursework

Form a thesis committee and submit a thesis proposal with the advisor's signature and list of committee members

During the final thesis semester

Enroll in a required thesis writing course to work on writing the thesis document

Four weeks prior to the end of the final thesis semester Schedule thesis defense to within four weeks of the final semester. Part-time students may choose any semester within one year of completing their coursework
10 days prior to final semester grading deadline * Submit thesis document, and thesis committee signature page

* Students who fail to meet the above deadlines risk delaying their graduation by an additional semester. The final thesis document and signature page must be received 10 days prior to the final semester grading deadline.

Thesis Research Course

The MSE program offers a thesis research course that introduces students to the research process with examples of several research methods. You are encouraged to enroll in this course, if you are interested in learning about a wide variety of methods. However, you may choose any method for your thesis research in coordination with your thesis advisor, including methods not taught in this course. The chosen method must have an associated evaluation strategy to demonstrate the efficacy of the approach and results. The program covers the following methods:

  • Case Study — a situated description of an industrial or field setting. Students reflect on an industry or field setting. Students reflect on an industry experience motivated by their coursework and by the software engineering literature. This could be a past or ongoing experience.
  • Experiment — the study of an activity in a controlled setting with falsifiable hypotheses and statistics to test these hypotheses. This includes human subject experiments and computer experiments, including computer simulations. 
  • Survey — a planned data collection using survey questions. This includes surveys of human subjects, or surveys of programs or processes. The data is frequently analyzed using statistics and situated and interpreted in the context of the software engineering literature.
  • Technical Solution — a new algorithm, architecture, or process that is designed to address a well-documented, well-motivated problem. 

Thesis Committee

When you are ready to declare your thesis topic, you must select a faculty member to serve as your thesis advisor, and you must work with your advisor to form a thesis committee. Your thesis advisor will assist you in choosing a thesis topic and narrowing down your selected topic to meet the thesis requirements within the desired timeframe to graduate.

The thesis committee serves to provide the student with guidance in their research design and thesis writing, and to ensure that the thesis reaches a high standard of quality. The thesis committee consists of the thesis advisor and one associate member. The thesis advisor and associate member must be a member of the Carnegie Mellon faculty. An optional third   associate member may be added who is typically an  external area expert, chosen by the student in consultation with their advisor.

Thesis Proposal

The thesis proposal serves to document your preparation and readiness to advance to the thesis writing phase. The proposal includes preliminary work that will be used in the final thesis document, including:

  • Problem Statement —  a concise description of the problem and motivation for why the problem is important
  • Background — a detailed technical description of the history and state of the art in software engineering related to the problem and approach. The background section is typically the result of a preliminary literature review.
  • Approach — a draft description of the proposed research approach or study design.

The proposal is intended to document you and your thesis advisor’s agreement on a direction, to demonstrate the viability of pursuing research in the chosen direction, and to receive early feedback on this direction in the lead up to writing the thesis document and presenting the work at the defense.

Thesis Document

The thesis document is the final deliverable to complete the MSE Online thesis requirement. The document should extend the thesis proposal by updating the original problem statement, background and approach, as needed, and by adding the following sections:

  • Evaluation and Results — a description of the observed outcomes, including the evaluation
  • Discussion — the interpretation of the outcomes, situated in the author’s viewpoint
  • Conclusion — a summary of the thesis work, and any future work


You should decide if you want your thesis document to be published. Your thesis may be published free-of-charge by the program on the program website; published free-of-charge on KiltHub, a comprehensive institutional repository maintained by CMU Libraries; and/or indexed by a publishing service for a fee (e.g., ProQuest via CMU Libraries).  

There is no requirement to publish the thesis. However, publication enables you to cite the thesis in other public documents, and to share public links to the thesis document. In addition, you may consider submitting your thesis to a software engineering conference for external peer review and subsequent publication (e.g., by the ACM or IEEE). Students who are considering publication in any format and who are using corporate information in their thesis should review their corporate policies and seek necessary approvals prior to dissemination of that information.

Thesis Writing Course

The MSE program requires students to enroll in a thesis writing course after they have submitted their thesis proposal and prior to defending their thesis. The thesis writing course provides students with a structured, discussion-oriented learning environment across a rigorous, 7-8 week period. The course combines faculty guidance and peer-grading with writing deadlines that advance the student toward completing the thesis document.

Thesis Defense

Upon completion of the thesis writing and with the advisor’s approval, you will schedule a thesis presentation and defense. This event will be open for attendance by faculty and other students.