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Graduate School Theses and Projects: Planning and Completion

Lessons which might be of value to anyone planning a masters thesis or project. I can't say how applicable this advice is to a PhD candidate.

Academia is not a charitable endeavor

I suspect most people would know this well, and I think I understood it intellectually. The reality of academia at a competitive research institution is that faculty are smart, driven people who work very, very, long hours. They want to see you do well, but they can't give away time. In order to help you, you have to help them. They don't get your tuition fees, at least not directly, so you have to help them through the work you do on something they're interested in.

Choose your advisor and exam committee with great care

The choice of advisor and exam committee is the most important choice you can make. You need an advisor who has enough power to push things through, who has a good track record in getting students through on time, who will live up to a negotiated deliverable, and who will not demand excessive labor.

You need to do your research by locating an advisor's past advisees and interviewing them. A good teacher, or a good researcher, or a good administrator, is not necessarily a good advisor. These seem to be somewhat distinct skill sets. You don't have to necessarily like your advisor, but it helps. On the other hand your advisor can also be a mentor and guide, which are still different skills. Very few people are going to have every skill.

Remember, academic faculty are intensely busy, and they work hard. They need to get something from you to allow them to put time and work into your project. Your work should contribute to a publication or a key grant application. (See choice of project, below.)

Choose a Supported Project

For a masters degree I think it's a mistake to invent your own research question, project, etc. Most of us don't have enough experience to do this, and the work involved is enormous. Most importantly, if it's your project you'll be truly on your own. Research needs money, and you don't want to have to raise a grant or do unfunded research.

Choose a project that is of intense interest to your advisor, something that they want to see completed promptly. You should not be expected to do an entire de novo project; you want to complete a well-defined portion of larger project.

Negotiate Deliverables

You need to pin down, as precisely as possible, what will constitute successful completion of your project. Ideally this should be negotiated with all members of your exam committee, though that may not be feasible or politic. Whatever you negotiate with your advisor, have it in writing. This will be required by most institutions anyway; don't treat this as simply another bureaucratic requirement. A clearly written contract is everyone's friend.

Try to negotiate downwards, even if you think you can do more. If you exceed modest expectations you will be far better off than if you fall somewhat short of a very ambitious goal.

Have a Backup Presentation Modality

Despite years of professional presenting, my project presentation was a certified disaster. Some of this involved calculated trade-offs; I had to go forward with what I had or give it up altogether. Relying on electronic presentation sofware, without backup overheads, was, however, pure hubris. Don't do it. In my case a technical problem with a new high tech projector meant I had to do a complex presentation by memory.

Create Deadlines

Even a three month project can be sidelined by competing priorities. I found I needed to create artificial external deadlines. Internal deadlines, that relied on my wife or me, were not enough. External deadlines that worked were presentations, meetings, etc. Set these up throughout your project.

Start Writing at the Start

Start writing your formal report when you begin. Fill it in as you go along.


Confidence (1 to 3): 2. Date Created: 3/1/98. Last Revised: 4/22/98. Expires: . Language: english. Domain: .us. ID: 15. Topic: education. Subtopic: UMinn. Keywords: education; thesis; plan B; University of Minnesota; studies; how to.

Author: John G. Faughnan.  The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author. Pages are updated on an irregular schedule; suggestions/fixes are welcome but they may take weeks to months to be incorporated. I reserve copyright except where noted, if you want to repost or quote a page just ask. Anyone may freely link to anything on this site and print any page; no permission is needed for linking,  printing, or distributing printed copies.