Department of Earth Science 

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:

  1. an experimental thesis may take a longer time to complete.  It involves planning and carrying out field and laboratory work, which may mean using--and sometimes repairing--equipment and instrumentation.   You are likely to incur expenses related to the field and laboratory work.  However, if the project is planned well, and well in advance, you may apply for grants from various organizations to cover some of these expenses.  (Your thesis advisor may be able to help you with finding appropriate grant programs and with grant-writing.)  An experimental thesis gives a student invaluable experience in directing a research project.  It may result in a publishable paper.  If you are interested in a career in research, this is likely to be the better option.  If you plan to go on for a Ph.D., you probably should choose this option.

  2.  
  3. a Master's Research Project may take less time to complete.  However, extra coursework is required with this option.  Considerable depth of research is required.  This option is less likely to result in a publishable paper (depending on the subject matter and the method of dealing with it).
Your thesis or departmental research paper must be scientific.  It must deal with Earth Science.  It must involve new learning.  That is, it should be something more than a homework problem; you should learn to do something new as a result of this project, rather than simply practicing something you already know.

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

           Selecting a Thesis Topic
           Selecting a Thesis Advisor
           Choosing a Thesis Committee
           Writing a Thesis Proposal
           Data Collection
           Thesis Writing
           General Outline
           Chapter 1: Introduction
           Chapter 2: Methods
           Chapter 3: Results
           Chapter 4: Discussion
           Chapter 5: Conclusions
           Other Parts of the Thesis
                                    Abstract
           References
           Appendices
                                    Illustrations
           Tables
           Thesis Defense
           Preparing the Talk
           Visual Aids
           Rehearsing Your Defense

GENERAL OUTLINE

Here's what goes in each section of your thesis:

CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION.  In this chapter, you introduce the reader to your project.
A.   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   ."

CHAPTER 2: METHODS
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.

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.

CHAPTER 3: RESULTS
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."

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.

CHAPTER 4: DISCUSSION
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:

Title Page (see sample in the Graduate College's thesis handbook, which you can pick up in the
        Classroom Building, Room 4-029)
Abstract
Acknowledgments
Table of Contents
List of Tables
List of Figures
List of Plates (if applicable)
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
References
Appendices

Hints for writing these other parts are given below.

ABSTRACT

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.

For example:

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."

Another example:

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
                                        reliable."

REFERENCES

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:

     "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)."

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.

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.

APPENDICES

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

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

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.
 

  • Thesis defense

  • Every thesis and departmental research paper must be orally defended.  At the defense, the student presents a summary of the work in about 40-50 minutes.  Then, the committee members and other audience members ask questions about the work, which the student answers.

    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

    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.
     

  • Research Paper Option

  •            Selecting a Research Paper Topic
               Selecting a Research Paper Advisor and Committee
               Data Collection
               Research Paper Writing
               Research Paper Defense Graduate Student Handbook, Table of Contents
    Previous Section: Advising of Graduate Students
    Next Section: Student Input into Course Offerings
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    Last updated January 16, 2004.