Student Theses

Students take a two course sequence of research methodologies and research design that culminates in a written thesis proposal by the end of their third quarter of study. If the research plan involves any human interaction (surveys, interviews, experiments, etc) then the proposal must be evaluated by the Institutional Research Board (IRB) to ensure compliance with DoD guidance and federal law. The department's faculty use a locally produced checklist to help determine whether IRB review is warranted. 

We encourage our students to tackle questions or concerns that are of importance to the special operations community and/or contribute to a better understanding of the irregular warfare environment. The Joint Special Operations University compiles a list of proposed research topics on behalf of SOCOM and the components, which students can use as a starting point in choosing their research question. However, students are not prevented from looking elsewhere for relevant and timely topics. The NPS SOF Chair, an active duty SOCOM O-6, also compiles thesis topics directly from ASD/SOLIC, the TSOCs, and individual units. The SOF Chair is available to assist our students as required. While unclassified theses are encouraged, students can conduct classified research when warranted or requested by a sponsor. NPS has access to SIPR, JWICs, and JIANT. We are hoping to bring BICES on-line in the next year for use by our international students.

Students can also travel, if needed, to conduct their thesis research. The department is fortunate in that SOCOM and the CTFP Office provide additional funds to allow our students to do field research.

Influential Theses

Several department theses over the years have had considerable impact not only the special operations community, but on DoD at large.  The following theses titles and subject areas represent a small sampling of the research undertaken since the program's inception in 1992:

CDR Bill McRaven: The Theory of Special Operations

CPT Marc Flicker/CPT Kirk Nilsson: An Interdiction Model of the Cocaine Trade

LT James Papineau: Special Operations Forces' Role in Counter-Proliferation

MAJ Ben Higginbotham: On Deceiving Terrorists

Mr Durga Mitra: Understanding Indian Insurgencies: Implications for  Counterinsurgency Operations in the Third World

Maj Kent Landreth/ Maj John Glass: Extending the Horizon:  Networking Unmanned Aircraft to Enable  Persistent Surveillance and Target Development

MAJ Bill Edmonds/ MAJ Pete Twedell: Statistically Supported Human-Targeting: Using Historical Data to Improve Human- Targeting Decisions

MAJ Tommy Stoner/ MAJ Pat Colloton/Maj Ben Maitre: An Adaptive Security Construct: Insurgency in Sudan

MAJ Stephen Schnell/CPT Richard Hagner/MAJ Robert Pawlak/MAJ Rafael Rodriguez: Information Operations in Afghanistan: Expanding the COIN Toolkit


Thesis Guide

What is a thesis?

The masters’ thesis is the capstone element of your MS degree in Defense Analysis from NPS.  The degree shows that you have obtained mastery in your discipline. As such, in your thesis, you will embed your specific topic or research within the context of existing knowledge (usually shown in a literature review in your thesis) and then add value to that body of knowledge through your own thesis research.  In your thesis, you will pose a research question (or series of nested questions) and answer that question.

Having said what a thesis is, it may be helpful to say what it is not.  A thesis is not an extended op-ed piece in which the conclusion has already been drawn, and for which the only purpose of research is to select the highest and best collaborating support.  If you have an answer and you are only seeking the right question, you need to stop and put things in their proper order.

The role of advisors

The first important decision you can make regarding your thesis is who your advisors will be. Your advisors are the mentors that will help your project along, but they are also gate keepers who determine whether or not you will graduate with the MS degree.  They retain both control and judgment over virtually every aspect of the thesis process and will provide final assessment of the product.

As such it is not a good idea to lose contact with your advisors after your thesis proposal is signed.  Thus, it is critical that you follow two fundamental rules: 1) maintain contact with your advisors, and 2) submit a completed thesis absolutely no later than six weeks before graduation.  Doing so will allow for revisions.  Expect revisions, they are part of the knowledge creation process.  The job of your thesis advisors is NOT to be your editor, although both readers play that role to some degree.  In the end, however, they are in the idea business, not the editing business. It is your responsibility to ensure that the thesis is well written.

You should choose your advisors based on the following hierarchy: 1) expertise, 2) availability, 3) compatibility.  Generally speaking, your first reader is the most important voice, but do not neglect the input of your second reader.  Sometimes, a second reader may become the most influential mentor as your thesis develops.  The bottom line is that both signatures are needed before your project is deemed complete; thus, make sure both your first and second reader are on board with all decisions that are made as you write.  Select your first reader first, and with his or her assistance, identify a second reader.

How long should it be?

There is no set length for a thesis.  Typically, theses range in length from 40 pages to 400.  The length will be determined by the scope of the project and expectations of your advisors.  A rule of thumb: most thesis questions in Defense Analysis can be completed in 70 pages or less.  All other things being equal, answer your thesis question in the shortest number of pages possible.  Spend less time generating pages and more time ensuring that the pages you generate are well written and actually contribute to your thesis goal.

Multi-authored research

Due to the relatively specialized subject matter in the SO and IO curricula, students are often drawn to very similar research interests.  As such, and in keeping with the collaborative élan of the military profession, multi-authored theses are highly encouraged.


Generally, student theses are not released for public distribution.  However, in the case of theses of exceptional quality, students will be invited to submit their work for distribution to a wider audience. The decision to release your thesis will rest solely with your thesis advisors, who will assist you in compiling an appropriate distribution list.


The Thesis Process

  1. During your second quarter, you will enroll in SO4450, Analytical Methods where you will develop a general idea or topic for your thesis. You will become acquainted with various research methodologies and the respective strengths and weaknesses of each.
  2. Enroll in DA4470 Designing Operationally Oriented Research Studies, your third quarter.
  3. Initiate a literature survey to determine what has been written on your general topic or idea. Include in this survey prior NPS theses that may be appropriate. Determine if there is sufficient available information on this topic and whether or not this topic has been covered extensively by others.  Look for gaps in the literature that your project might fill.
  4. Select a thesis advisor and second reader for your thesis. In doing so, consider both the subject matter expertise and availability of specific professors.
  5. Based on your preliminary literature survey, narrow your general topic to a research question(s) that can be answered fully during your remaining studies at NPS.
  6. Restate your research question(s) in the form of a hypothesis that can be proven true or false as a consequence of your research. (See your advisors on this requirement
  7. Determine the appropriate research methodologies to pursue in testing your hypothesis and/or answering your primary research question.
  8. Develop a tentative bibliography for your thesis project.
  9. Complete the Thesis Proposal Template. Submit to your advisors, and EXPECT that a number of iterations of your proposal will be required before it is signed.
  10. Secure the approval and signatures for your Thesis Proposal from your advisor, your second readers, the Associate Chair for Instruction, the SOF Chair, and the Program Director of the Department.
  11. Thesis travel, if necessary, will only be authorized after you have a signed proposal.
  12. Undertake the necessary readings, research, travel, and interviews for your thesis project.
  13. Discuss with your advisor and second reader any changes to your thesis which occur as a result of your research, readings, interviews, etc. Almost all theses change a bit in the writing process.
  14. Write your thesis. Give yourself more than enough time. When possible, choose paper topics in your curriculum course work that are related to your thesis work and can be used subsequently in the thesis.
  15. Submit an edited draft of your thesis to both of your advisors no later than six weeks before graduation.
  16. Give your advisors two weeks to get back to you on your edited draft. You should EXPECT your thesis will go through a number of drafts. However, you should submit each draft as your best possible work.
  17. Secure the approval and signatures of both your thesis advisor and second reader.
  18. Secure the signatures of the Department Chair and SOF Chair.
  19. Submit your thesis in the proper format to the NPS Thesis Office.
  20. Secure final format approval from the NPS Thesis Office.
  21. Submit your approved and formatted thesis in a .pdf file to the NPS Thesis Office.
  22. Receive your Green Card, signifying completion of the thesis process.
  23. Go forth and do more great things for your country.