Graduate Student Handbook
12. OPTIONS: MASTER'S THESIS vs. MASTER'S RESEARCH PROJECT
In order to graduate, each M.S. student must successfully research, write, and orally defend either an experimental thesis or a departmental research paper. Each option carries with it different course requirements (see the section on Degree requirements in this handbook). Either option must involve new learning for the student.
An experimental thesis is research which involves generating original scientific data and allows you to discover something new, something which has not been discovered before. It usually involves field or laboratory work and generating, collecting, and interpreting data. A departmental research paper allows you to analyze and synthesize work done by other researchers. It usually does not involve field or laboratory work, although it may require that you collect and interpret other workers' data.
You must choose the option which is best suited to your own situation and meets your own needs. It probably will be helpful to discuss the options with one or two faculty members. Some things to consider are the following:
Students may not "double-dip": that is, submit (as either option) work done for some other reason. Examples of this include projects done for pay or for another degree program. If work you did for pay results in the generation and collection of data, and you use those data in a new way, not used on the job, you might be permitted to use the data for an experimental thesis. If you are unclear on this, consult with your thesis advisor and the Graduate Advisor.
In order to declare the option you choose, register for either ESCI 499 (Master's Thesis in Earth Science) or ESCI 498 (Master's Research Project in Earth Science). Registration for either of these options takes place during the university's registration period. You may obtain the appropriate registration forms in the department office.
Before registering, you already should have done a significant amount of investigation into the topic, and you MUST have an advisor. You will need to write a proposal for your topic and have it approved by each member of your committee before you will be allowed to register for ESCI 499 or ESCI 498.
Please be aware that in general, students are NOT permitted to register for ESCI 498 or ESCI 499 during any summer session.
Master's Thesis Option
a Thesis Topic
Selecting a Thesis Advisor
Choosing a Thesis Committee
Writing a Thesis Proposal
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Methods
Chapter 3: Results
Chapter 4: Discussion
Chapter 5: Conclusions
Other Parts of the Thesis
Preparing the Talk
Rehearsing Your Defense
Begin by identifying your major areas of interest, or by coming up with a tentative thesis topic or topics. Elsewhere in this handbook is a list of each faculty member's areas of expertise. Consult this list, and schedule an appointment with the faculty members who have expertise in that area. Ask about their ongoing work. Ask about their work load. Tell them your ideas about your thesis, and ask their opinions.
After the meetings, consider your options. Who has the most expertise in your area of interest? Who was interested in your ideas? Who seemed as if they could make time to advise you? (It's possible that a faculty member with a heavy work load or a large number of advisees might not be able to devote much time to you. On the other hand, if you are motivated and self-directed, this might not be a problem. Be honest with yourself.) It would be helpful if you got along with your advisor personally.
Schedule another appointment with your first choice. Tell that person what your plans are, and ask if she/he will be your advisor. If the answer is no, then try your second choice. But if the answer is yes, then it's time to get to work on your thesis.
If it seems appropriate, one of the committee members MAY be someone from outside the department. For example, the outside person might be someone from another department in the university, a geologic survey, museum, or other earth science organization. An outside person must have an M.S. or Ph.D. degree in an appropriate field. Ask your advisor and committee members if the outside person is suitable.
Your proposal is a contract you make with yourself and with your committee. What will you investigate? How will you do it? What's your time schedule? By the time you are at the proposal-writing stage, you should have already done quite a bit of research and should have a good idea of what problems you are investigating and how you'll approach them.
It's very important to have a good, solid, well-developed proposal. Developing and writing your thesis proposal is NOT wasted time. On the contrary, it saves you time: it helps you define your research so that you don't waste time researching things which aren't useful. In addition, a well-done proposal can be used as part of the rough draft of your thesis.
Your proposal will probably go through two to four drafts with your advisor. Once it's in a finished form, give your advisor four copies and ask her or him to circulate it to the committee members to see what comments they have. Have the committee members and your advisor sign off on the Thesis Proposal Acceptance form, available from the Graduate Advisor.
Length of the proposal will probably be no less than about five pages of text. Discuss the following things in this proposal:
A. Explain the methods by which you expect to meet the objectives. Be very specific. Be sure that the methods specifically address the objectives.IV. REFERENCES CITED:
What information will you need to collect? Tell where you think you'll find it.
What analytical methods will you use? What instruments will you use? (Give brand names and model numbers.) Will you use computers? Lab space? Storage space? Other things?
B. Give a timeline for your research.
List references you cited in your proposal. Use standard format--check Kate Turabian's book if you are unsure of how to do this. This list of references will probably form the nucleus of your thesis bibliography.
Collection of the second type of data might involve anything from finding strike and dip of a bedding plane to measuring the depth of a water well to doing an aerial reconnaissance of your study area. Whatever your methods, check your own work carefully to ensure that you are using the method correctly.
Safety is of paramount importance. Whether you are in the lab or field, follow all safety procedures, and don't take chances.
If you must travel to do field work, make an equipment list. What will you need? What will you do if something goes wrong? Do you have the tools and the know-how to fix the equipment if it breaks? Are all batteries charged? Does the equipment work? The technical assistant can help you find the equipment you need, and will sign it out to you. Practice using the equipment here at NEIU, so that you know what to do when you get into the field. Pack the equipment carefully so that nothing is damaged or broken in transit. When you return, sign the equipment back in promptly, and be sure to report any damage or problems right away, so that the equipment can be repaired before the next person needs it.
Record your observations and the results of your measurements immediately, while you are in the field or lab. You may want to use a field notebook to do this , or you may want to use a stiff-backed composition notebook (both are available in Beck's bookstore). It will be helpful to you to keep all of your field or lab notes in one notebook. Before each entry, write the title and the date. Number the pages, and keep a running table of contents so that you can find your observations when you want to refer back to them.
Eventually, you will write your methods down, for the methods chapter of your thesis. It is wise to do this soon after you actually do the method, so that what you did is fresh in your mind.
After collecting data and doing library research, you will need to interpret the data. Come up with some ideas, and try them out on your advisor. Show your advisor your preliminary maps, diagrams, sketches, or data tables. Talk about what you have done. Give your ideas, and ask your advisor's opinion. Do you need to collect more data? Can you start writing?
It's pretty simple to write a paragraph.
Here is a Secret for Thesis-Writing Success: don't write a thesis. Instead, write many paragraphs, one at a time, in whatever order you like. Then, collect them all together, and PRESTO! You've got a first draft of a thesis!
Start with a brief outline (1 page or so). Sketch out the major headings. Most theses have five chapters. (See the description below for topics to be included in each one.)
Next, enlarge the outline. Choose subheadings. Make smaller headings under those. Make even smaller headings. Keep making smaller subheadings until the topics are so finely subdivided that each one represents just a paragraph. This outline may take several weeks to develop. Keep it fluid, revising as you go along.
Next, take a huge piece of paper, and write the entire outline on it. Put a blank ( ) before each paragraph's topic.
Now, choose one topic, and write a paragraph about that topic. Pick the easiest one. Maybe it'll be a paragraph about the location of the study site. Or maybe it'll be a paragraph about the method you used to sample water from a river. It doesn't matter, as long as it's easy. When you finish that paragraph, put the paper in a brand new folder, all by itself. Now, put a check mark by that paragraph on your outline on the huge piece of paper.
Now, pick another topic, and write a paragraph about that topic. When you finish it, put it in the folder with the first one.
Keep going. As you go along, when you cite another author, write that author's name and publication date on a "REFERENCES" page. Keep this page in the folder with the completed paragraphs.
Write more paragraphs. Skip around. Do the easiest ones first. Put them all in the folder. Don't put anything else in this folder.
If you finish enough paragraphs to complete a whole section, put a big "X" through this section on the huge piece of paper. Type the paragraphs into your favorite word processing program, if you haven't already.
Before you know it, you'll have a thesis.
Here's what goes in each section of your thesis:
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION. In this chapter, you introduce the reader to your project.CHAPTER 2: METHODSA. On the first page, describe the PROBLEM which you studied. Why did you do this research? Why should your readers be interested in this subject?
B. Then, put your research in a context by presenting previous research. Who investigated this problem or similar problems? What did they find? How does it relate to the problem you're investigating? By the time the reader is through with this section, it should be very obvious to her or him exactly what is known about this topic. It should be clear that your project is the next logical step in investigating the topic.
Some people refer to this section as the "Literature Review". That's dangerous. This section is not a laundry list of all papers ever written about the topic. Do not move from paragraph to paragraph by starting one with, "A study by Blahblah (1962) showed that....", and the next with, "A later study by Yukyuk (1973) indicated that...." The purpose of this section isn't to discuss papers. It's to discuss topics. Give yourself major topic headings describing 2-5 major areas of study which a person needs to know about in order to understand your thesis. Choose subtopics within each major topic. Then look at research relevant to each subtopic, and discuss it in terms of what is known about the subtopic (NOT in terms of which papers were written about the subtopic).
In most geologic theses, this section begins by describing the GEOLOGY of the study site. Geology might involve many things: geologic history, structure, stratigraphy, tectonic setting, petroleum geology, hydrogeology, mineralogy, or other geologic aspects. Of course, you must reference all this information (see REFERENCING, below). This information should come from other sources, and should not be the new information you learned by conducting your own study of this geologic area. Save that (the good stuff) for later.
If your thesis involves developing a new method for doing something, then this section might also describe the history of previous methods for doing this thing, and what their strengths and pitfalls were.
If HUMAN HISTORY is important in understanding the research, include it here. For example, a hydrogeology thesis might discuss the history of pumping an aquifer, or waste disposal at the study site.
C. OBJECTIVES: Describe the objectives of your research. Look back at your thesis proposal for help if you've forgotten what your objectives were. Here, you might say something like, "This study tests the hypothesis of Dinkdink (1988) by examining . It also investigates the possibility that , and it shows that what is actually happening in this area is ."
The methods chapter describes everything that you did during your study. It will be helpful if you write this chapter as you perform the methods, because it's easy to forget what you did.CHAPTER 3: RESULTS
Start this chapter with a description of your study site. This should include a location map, with an index map (see ILLUSTRATIONS, below).
This chapter should give a great deal of detail on what you did, including the name, manufacturer, and model number of any instrument or equipment you use. If you construct your own equipment, describe it and, if appropriate, show a diagram of it.
Be very, very specific. If you took 14 samples, say so. DON'T say "a number of samples were taken".
Even if a method you tried didn't work out, include it in this section. You can say, "an attempt was made to take samples from all 15 wells. However, wells MW-1 through MW-14 had clogged screens, and no samples could be extracted from them."
Remember that "methods" include many procedures, not just procedures that use fancy equipment. For example, looking at two rocks to decide which one is darker in color is a method. Looking at a thin section through a microscope is a method of study. Drawing a cross-section is a method of study. Examining two sets of data to determine which is more reliable is a method of study. Describe ALL of your methods.
In this chapter, give results of your methods. For the most part, this chapter is nothing but maps, data tables, cross-sections, and the like. Mostly, all you have to write here are sentences like, "Results of grain-size distribution tests are shown in Tables 1-5." "A cross-section drawn along B-B' appears in Figure 8."CHAPTER 4: DISCUSSION
In this chapter, do not interpret your results. Show a data table giving calcium concentration of two water samples, but don't interpret what the data mean. Don't even say "Sample A has more calcium than Sample B;" that's an interpretation. In this chapter, just present the facts; don't tell what they mean.
If a method didn't work, say so.
Here's where you get to interpret. Organize this chapter by picking out 2-4 major ideas, and discuss each idea on its own. Support the discussion by using and referring to the results (Chap. 3). Do NOT arrange this chapter by the tests you did or methods you used.CHAPTER 5: CONCLUSIONS
In this short chapter, first summarize the main points of the thesis, emphasizing what you LEARNED over what you DID. Second, put the research in context. In what larger context might your research be viewed? Third, tell what areas of future study might be investigated.OTHER PARTS OF THE THESIS
So far, you know that a thesis has 5 chapters. But there's more to it. Here's a list of the other parts of your thesis. These should appear in your thesis, in this order:ABSTRACT
Title Page (see sample in the Graduate College's thesis handbook, which you can pick up in the
Classroom Building, Room 4-029)
Table of Contents
List of Tables
List of Figures
List of Plates (if applicable)
Hints for writing these other parts are given below.
Your thesis must contain an abstract. This is a brief summary, one page long (or not much longer). A reader in a hurry should be able to read the abstract to get the main ideas of the thesis.
Basically, the abstract follows the structure of the thesis itself. It should give a 1 or 2-sentence statement of the problem, followed by a brief (a few sentences) description of the methods used to study the problem. Following this should be a few sentences about the results. If numbers are important in the results, then give them here. (For example, say "Age of the formation is somewhere between 150 and 175 million years," instead of saying "Age of the formation was determined.") Finally, use a few sentences to tell what the results mean. Say what your conclusions are, and write a sentence or two putting the work in a larger context.
Here's something to avoid in the abstract: do not talk ABOUT the study, as if the abstract and the study are two different things. Instead, say what the study says.
DON'T SAY "This study shows that the contaminated water flows from north to south."
INSTEAD, SAY "The contaminated water flows from north to south."
DON'T SAY "Possible explanations for the phenomenon are explored in this thesis."
INSTEAD, SAY "Possible
explanations for the phenomenon are that climate conditions have changed
since 1990, that the wells were installed incorrectly, or that the measurements are not
The References section is a list of every single source which you cited in your thesis. Arrange the list alphabetically by author's last name. If two works were written by the same author, put them in chronological order (the older work first; then the newer one). If the author wrote two things in the same year, then assign a letter to each one; for example: "Dupa, 1983a" and "Dupa, 1983b". When you cite these works in the thesis, give the letter along with the year.
Virtually EVERYTHING in the thesis which did not come out of your own brain MUST be referenced, even if it's only a word or a phrase. If it's not something that you personally have researched, then you got it from someone else. Give them credit.
Don't plagiarize. Everything you write must be in your own words. It is NOT enough to just change one or two words in somebody else's sentence. You MUST compose original sentences. (This shouldn't be hard, since nobody else has ever done the work you are doing now.)
If necessary, you may quote someone else's words by putting quote marks around them, and citing the page on which the original quote appears. But this should be reserved for a sentence which is so amazingly poetic that you simply couldn't have said it more beautifully or liltingly than the original author. Since it's YOUR research, you can say almost ANYTHING better than another author. So use quote marks sparingly, if at all.
In general, cite a study by giving the author's last name and the year of publication. You can do this two ways; note the punctuation in each example.
1) You can use the author's name as part of the sentence. In this case, put the year in parentheses:If there are two authors, give both last names. If there are three or more authors, you can use "et al." or you can use "and others". For example, you might say "Goofy et al. (1985) showed that...." Or you might say "Goofy and others (1985) showed that...." Pick one method and stick with it. When you list Goofy et al. in the REFERENCES section, give all three names.
"Ducky (1984) showed that the Yore Fault was active throughout the Eocene."
2) You can put the author's name at the end:
"The Yore Fault was active throughout the Eocene (Ducky, 1984)."
A minor but nagging point: the abbreviation "et al." stands for "et alias" (meaning "and other names"). Here's the catch: "al." has a period after it, but "et" doesn't. Ask your wordprocessor to search for this little problem.
Referencing style is given in Kate Turabian's book.
Do you have lengthy tables of data which are not critical to the reader's understanding of the thesis? If so, put them in the appendices. Appendices should be numbered, in order. Each appendix should be preceded by a page giving the number of the appendix and its title.
Illustrations should be clean and clear and readable. They should illustrate the point you are trying to make, and should not contain extraneous information.
Some critical rules:
Maps all must show a NORTH ARROW and a SCALE. In general, north should be up. Do not use a scale like "one inch equals one mile", because when the map is photocopied or projected on a screen, one inch will no longer equal one mile. Instead, show a graduated bar with miles and kilometers (or feet and meters, or inches and centimeters) marked on it.
Some maps might need a small index map showing general location of the larger map.
Cross-sections must be accompanied by a map showing the line of the cross-section. (Vertical exaggeration must be noted.)
If you take a figure from someone else's work, you must cite that work and include it in your list of references. If you modified someone else's figure, say so: "Modified from Beanie (1992)." Be especially wary if the figure itself contains citations; these citations must appear in your list of references.
Do not photocopy someone else's caption. Retype if necessary.
Illustrations should be numbered with arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) in consecutive order.
Tables may be used to present data. They should be numbered with arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) in consecutive order.
Each table must have a title.
At the top of each table should be the number (for example, "Table 1") and the title.
If you take information in a table from someone else's work, you must cite the work and include it in your list of references.
Avoid photocopying someone else's table. If you must do this, then be especially wary of citations which appear in the body of the table. If they're there, then they must also appear in your list of references.
Do not photocopy someone else's caption. Retype if necessary.
Here are some hints on presenting your work:
PREPARING THE TALK
You can't say everything in 45 minutes. So select the most important ideas from your thesis, and present those. Structure of your talk should roughly follow the structure of your thesis. Begin with an overview of previous work in the field. Put the research in a context. Indicate gaps in knowledge, and then explain the objectives of your study, showing how it attempts to fill those gaps. Describe the methods you used. Say why you chose each method, and if you considered any methods but rejected them, explain why. Give the results of the methods, in the same order in which you gave the methods. Then, interpret and discuss the results, telling what everything means. End up with a summary of your work, indicating possible larger implications of the work and what future studies might investigate.
Visual aids are not necessary, but they may be helpful. If not well-prepared, they may also be a distraction and source of anxiety. Visual aids might be slides, overheads, large photographs, models, handouts, or other items. Any visual aid which you use MUST be clear, readable, and easily seen by every member of the audience. In general, it doesn't work to mix overheads and slides. Stick with one or the other. Visual aids should help the audience members understand your work. If they don't help, don't use them.
To decide what to put on the transparencies or slides, first write an outline of your talk. Then take a blank sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. Turn it sideways and draw three lines to divide it into eight rectangles. Turn the page so it is upright again. In each of these rectangles, use your outline of the talk to help you write what you want to put on one overhead or slide. Most of your slides should be oriented horizontally; vertical slides often have their top or bottom chopped off when they are projected on a screen.
Use each slide to convey about three points or concepts. More than that, and the audience will get confused. Fewer than that, and they will be bored.
To make "word slides" or overheads, print the words you want to show on the overhead with a typewriter, graphics program (like PowerPoint), or word processing program (like MSWord or WordPerfect). If you want to display graphs or diagrams, make a clear, dark copy of each one. You might use something from a published source, from your thesis itself. Delete any extraneous information from the diagram or graph. In general, it is a bad idea to show a huge table of numbers, since it will not be readable and since too many numbers overwhelm the audience members' abilities to take in information. Clear, simple figures are best. Follow the general rules for "Illustrations", above.
To make overhead transparencies, make a photocopy of the item you want to display. Blow it up on an enlarging photocopier so that it nearly fills a page. Then use a thermofax machine (at most copy shops) to make the overheads. You may also get blank overheads and use special pens to write on them. If you need help, ask in advance.
Slides look more professional, but take more time and work to prepare. To make slides, prepare your "artwork" well in advance. Make arrangements with someone to take photographs of the artwork using a special camera lens, film, and stand (some faculty members may be able to advise you on this). Then, develop the film. All of this takes time, especially if you change your mind about a slide or if it doesn't come out well. You may also take your artwork to a commercial graphics company; they might be able to do it for you with faster turnaround time, but at significant cost.
Used judiciously, PowerPoint or similar presentation software can be a very effective way to present your thesis work. Save your presentation to a zip disk or laptop computer that can be hooked up to an NEIU projector. If you do use PowerPoint, be careful about overusing animated graphics, which can become distracting. Remember, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
REHEARSING YOUR DEFENSE
Rehearse your talk, with any visual aids you're using, six times. By the second or third rehearsal, begin timing yourself to make sure that you stay within the time limits. You may find it helpful to practice while standing in front of a mirror. It may help you to have someone else listen to your presentation and give you feedback. Consider asking your advisor to do this. Do your last rehearsal or two in the room in which you will deliver your talk.
Practice these things: Speak loudly and clearly. If you are using an overhead projector, practice using it to make sure you know how to turn it on and off, and which way to place the overheads on the machine. When you set an overhead on the machine, immediately check to see that it is oriented correctly, and that it does not spill over the edge of the screen. If you are using slides, practice focusing and using the remote control button to move forward and back. Be sure all of your slides are in the carousel correctly. If you use a computer presentation system, practice linking it to an NEIU projector ahead of time. The NEIU computer projection systems can be very fussy. To avoid problems, test your presentation on an NEIU projector a day or two in advance of the talk. If you get it to work, give the AV department the cart number and ask them to give you the same cart on the day of the actual presentation. On the day of the talk, have the projection unit set up in your presentation room a few hours in advance, so that you will have time to work out any bugs. And consider bringing a backup copy on transparencies, just in case.
Practice pointing to the screen at things you want to emphasize (you
may use your hand, wooden pointer, or laser pointer). If you speak
while pointing, turn to face the audience so that they can hear you.
Practice standing to the side of the projector and screen so that you do
not block anyone's view. Practice projecting energy, enthusiasm,
and confidence. Use humor to engage your audience. Do not use
sexist, racist, or otherwise offensive humor. Anticipate questions
which might be asked, and prepare answers for them. You may find
it helpful to have a friend ask you questions so that you can practice
answering them. Practice until you feel comfortable with your presentation.
Choose a topic in which you have a particular interest. For example, this might be something which you learned of in a course or while doing your own reading, and you want to investigate it more thoroughly; or it might be something of current interest in the geologic literature.
Discuss your interests and plans with faculty. Also, read the
most recent issues of geologic periodicals in your general areas of interest
in order to learn what is going on in the field.
Read the section in this handbook on how to select a thesis advisor. Identify your major areas of interest and come up with tentative topics, meet with faculty who have expertise and interest in that area, and then consider your options
The Committee must be made up of three faculty members, including the
advisor. If desired, a fourth person may be included at the discretion
of the student and advisor; this person need not be a faculty member.
Choose the committee early in the process; they can help as you formulate
plans and begin your research.
Look at several sources to begin your search. Your advisor may have some suggestions. For a general overview of a topic, look at your textbooks. Check the references; these might lead you to even more sources. Look at the periodicals in your area of interest; they usually have a 1- or 5-year topic index. Use the computerized catalogues in the library to do a subject search. If you are not sure how to find information in a library, then schedule an appointment with a reference librarian. They are wizards at finding things, and they can probably save you lots of time. Cruise the internet to see what might be available online.
One index you should look at early in your research is the Bibliography and Index of Geology, in the NEIU library, second floor (ask the librarian at the second floor desk if you can't find it). This index lists virtually every geological paper/publication in the world. It's an excellent resource.
Check government documents, especially publications of the geologic surveys and environmental protection agencies. Use Infotrac (computerized bibliography, in the library) for this, but don't underestimate the usefulness of looking through the stacks yourself.
You will need to spend a great deal of time in libraries. Use Northeastern's library, but don't limit yourself to this one. The University of Illinois at Chicago has a good collection; several other area universities have good collections, too, although some of the private schools limit access to people who are not enrolled there.
Don't overlook the public libraries; some of them have items which can't be found anywhere else. Check the computerized catalog (Illinet Online).
You may be interested in doing a search of a computerized database such
as GEOREF. If you are comfortable with searching online databases,
you may want to try it on your own, using the Library's computers.
For help, make an appointment with a librarian, who will give you more
details. Some suggestions about this kind of search: your best bet
is to be organized before you begin. Usually you will need a list
of keywords under which the computer will search. If the first keyword
you choose doesn't give you any references, then you'll need to choose
another. Or, if your first keyword is too general, and comes back
with thousands of references (like the keyword "GEOLOGY"), then you will
need to narrow your search. Although this service is free to you,
the library pays per minute on-line, and it's very easy to ring up a hefty
bill. So they want you to be organized. A final comment: these
computerized searches are likely to use the Bibliography and Index of Geology
as their database, so it might be helpful to work with the Bibliography
before trying the computer search, to identify the most appropriate keywords.
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Last updated January 16, 2004.