THE JOURNEY BEGINS:
Before embarking on your journey toward your Masters Scholarly Project, you must be prepared, at minimum, to:
1) Pursue research or scholarship that will further your own life goals or interests and be useful to field-based practitioners,
2) Become familiar with the format for Scholarly Projects as explained in both the CSUSB College of Education Guide and Office of Graduate Studies Guide,
3) Successfully complete EDUC 306, 603, 695, and 663 (I suggest this order).
4) Enlist the support and guidance of professors, and formally establish your Project Committee, and
5) Dedicate yourself to successfully complete this initiative by reducing distractions in your life, making sure that your course load and / or your job hours will permit you to devote the necessary time to be successful.
The Project Experience
This can be the most valuable experience of your Masters’ degree program for several reasons: First, it challenges you to integrate and consolidate all your previous training and experience, together with your graduate course work, around a subject focus of high priority to you. Second, it has the potential to open the door to that next job or future study opportunity that you would most like to have. Third, it provides experience in designing, conducting and reporting a research and/or scholarly project with a degree of independence and complexity that frequently exceeds previous academic assignments and more closely approaches the future challenges you will confront.
These beliefs strongly influence my approach, and the ways in which I work with students.
How Long to Graduation?
You have a great deal of control over how long it takes to complete your program as long as you are aware of the choices you have to make. The likelihood of achieving this is improved:
the more you come into graduate school well-prepared for your chosen studies;
the more you select a relatively straight-forward project;
the earlier you select your project topic;
the more you select your courses and design your assignments to support your project focus;
the more you are able to complete substantial work on your project; and,
the more you are able to devote your energies and time exclusively and productively to your studies.
If you leave the campus for whatever reason before your project is completed, or don’t regularly communicate with your project committee, the odds on it taking longer are greatly increased. It is extremely difficult to complete a project when the time and energy have to be found after meeting the demanding requirements of a full-time job. Students who do this, frequently take longer than planned and ultimately many wish they had never embarked upon it. A very few, are unable to complete their project within the time allowed.
It is never too soon to begin thinking about your choice of topic and choice of project chair (supervisor) and readers (advisors). You should begin by preparing a statement of interest; use this to begin the topic selection process but be prepared for your ideas to evolve as you take courses and talk about possibilities with others.
Get started on actively exploring your choices at the beginning of your first term:
Progress begins to be made as soon as you consciously reject possibilities.
Put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard; you will progress further and faster if you clarify your ideas by expressing them in writing.
Focus on generating and revising a one-page outline; in the early stages of developing your ideas, it is much more productive to explore possibilities within the discipline of one page.
Get comments on it from other students, faculty, professionals; you will advance your own thinking more quickly if you seek comment and advice from others with diverse perspectives.
In searching for topics, think about your past, present and future:
What is your previous training and experience that you could build on?
When the project is done, what are the next steps in advancing your career that you would like it to facilitate?
In light of your answers to these two questions, what is the range of possible project topics and associated study programs that are potential choices for you?
Process vs. Product
It is critical to recognize the differences between the process of "doing the project" and the "project document" that is the product ultimately approved of, and put into the library. At the same time, it is equally important to understand the strong linkages between the process you use to get there and the final product.
I suggest you approach your “product” in a 3-stage “process”:
The Project One-Pager
The Project Proposal/Prospectus
The Project Document (final form)
The Project One-Pager
I recommend that you start with a one-page outline of your project and that you continue to revise and evolve it from the beginning to the end of the research and writing process. The suggested approach for getting started is summarized below, and some of its key components are elaborated.
The Project Goal Statement:
It is one sentence: "The goal of this project is to do something."
It is THE most important sentence in the process of writing a project and in the final product.
It expresses the purpose and focus of the whole research/scholarly effort and final document.
At the end of the day, successful completion (your committee signs off) depends fundamentally on your ability to demonstrate that this goal has been achieved.
The choices are infinite (to a certain degree).
It is your choice; it is your project.
This is the easiest and yet hardest place to get started in developing ideas for a project. It is a sentence that you will refine many times as you learn exactly what you want to focus on.
In the early stages of exploring a project topic, it should be re-worked many times. Attention should be given to the selection of each word and the structure of the sentence. You should expect to be concerned about how well this sentence serves you until the day you put the project in the library.
The sooner you can settle on a sentence that meets your needs, the better. It should be crisp and concise. The shorter, the better. It should leave elaboration to the statement of Objectives (which are the objectives that have to be achieved to reach the goal).
All goal statements begin with a verb.
The choice of this verb says an immense amount about your project and has major implications for its design. Imprecise verbs, such as "to see if,” "to look at,” "to consider,” "to examine,” "to explore,” "to figure out" should be avoided; more often than not, they indicate the true purpose has not yet been identified.
In general, it is not enough merely "to describe"; and, again, this often reflects a lack of clear purpose. Possible verbs that are commonly used include "to analyze,” "to assess,” "to evaluate,” "to design, “"to develop,” "to test,” "to pilot,” "to recommend," “to discuss.” Other possibilities might include "to integrate,” "to synthesize,” "to create,” "to establish,” "to build,” "to model,” "to implement,” but these are less common and may well be better expressed by one
from the previous more common set.
It is important to appreciate that there is generally a hierarchy implied by the choice of verb. "to describe" is generally not enough for a Masters’ project.
"to analyze" or “to discuss” are generally the minimum.
"to assess, evaluate, design, develop, test, pilot, recommend" each carry implications of involving some analysis and going beyond to apply some form of judgement or criteria.
"to design, develop, test, pilot" each carry an additional connotation of going beyond analysis and judgement to include elements of creation.
"to recommend" carries each of these connotations one step further still and explicitly begs the question "to whom?"
Project Objectives and the Literature Reviews:
Each project usually involves specific objectives with respect to developing a conceptual and analytical framework, which involves reviewing the literature (out of which come the questions or criteria that you will apply ), which raises questions of methods for generating information (which again requires reviewing literature, this time about methods and the case); presenting the results of the case study in terms of the data, analysis, conclusions and recommendations (which again raises questions of methods, as well as issues about how to present the results in ways appropriate to your goals and the intended audience).
Strategies for Reviewing the Literature:
The following are strategic approaches for progressively getting into the literature in more focused detail:
Review the references and notes from your courses; they are a gold mine.
Talk to knowledgeable informants; they can open up your perspectives and accelerate your learning.
Look for people who have already reviewed the topic for you in theses or publications; why start from ground zero when somebody has already done a lot of the work for you.
Use the Library's on-line and CD-Rom search options as well as WWW search engines; but use sparingly until you have good ideas on key terms, authors and organization to search by;
specialist in the Library can be a great help in showing you how best to proceed.
Mechanics of Literature Review:
Here are some ideas on mechanics, but find out what works best for you:
Skim read at first, continually asking questions about the relevance of what you are reading to your central questions (leave detail to later).
Use "piles" or "stacks" of documents, it seems to work for many people.
Make photocopies of materials that you find particularly relevant, read them more carefully and mark them up with your comments.
Make a summary of what you have concluded from your reading as soon as you feel you have learned something.
Keep notes as you progress with your reading and project - you'll be amazed how often you'll want to retrace your steps; many people find it useful to keep a diary.
There are now good database programs specifically designed for keeping all your references and notes together and that interface with word processing programs and enable you to change styles with the click of a mouse (e.g. EndNotes is one).
Set some limits as to how many things you are going to read, how long you will spend on them before you take stock of what you have learned and decide whether to make another iteration -there'll always be more to read, you are interested in identifying what is enough to provide a good basis for your project; you are not trying to undertake the definitive literature review, an increasingly impossible task.
Order of Literature Review:
Progressive steps to take in moving into the literature might involve the following:
Begin by examining the literature most relevant to your substantive topic and planning issues; in the beginning, you are opening up your mind to a better understanding of who has already done what on your issue, but it is never too soon to start questioning what is your specific focus of interest.
Once you have made some progress, begin to think about how a scholarly project might be undertaken; and what special characteristics might suggest particular choices.
As soon as you have some ideas on a potential topic, it is worth beginning to think about the methods you will want to use and deciding what you need to do so as to be able to employ them (e.g., you might need to develop knowledge of techniques that you have not previously used, such as interviewing and qualitative methods.) Overall, the approach to the literature review should be one of a series of iterations that become increasingly focused as quickly as possible.
Back to the One-Pager: (OK, 2 sides but 700 words max)
A one-page outline is the most productive place to begin a conversation with yourself and others about your project. You can write a first draft of an outline any time and the earlier in your program the better. Its iterative revision, continuing throughout the process of generating the final product, is a powerful means for creating and maintaining the strong logic and tight argument that needs to flow from beginning to end of the document.
At any point in the project process, your outline needs to include six key headings:
Objectives and Methods
Table of Contents
Work Plan and Schedule
Even though you may find it difficult to develop ideas for some of the latter sections in your first iteration, try writing something down as this will get you started on refining your thoughts about the earlier sections in a second draft. Projects are most easily completed by taking small steps early and often.
List out your own personal objectives in undertaking the project.
Write a paragraph (150-200 words) that introduces your project topic and indicates why it is a problem or opportunity worth studying.
Project Goal Statement:
State the goal of your project in one sentence beginning, as appropriate,
To develop . . .
To analyze . . .
To assess . . .
To evaluate . . .
Etc . . .
Objectives and Methods:
Expand on your project goal statement in terms of more specific objectives, which elaborate on the goal statement and which, if met, would achieve the overall goal. It is useful to indicate at the same time the methods you would use in undertaking each one.
Table of Contents:
A generic table of potential contents can be envisaged from the outset and, as you progress, it can be evolved into a working table of contents to reflect the specifics of your project.
Work Plan and Schedule:
No matter where you are at, you should always be able to list out the tasks still to be undertaken along with a target date for their completion. I strongly recommend sitting down with the Chair and making up a timetable for writing the project: a list of dates for when you will give the 1st and 2nd drafts of each chapter to your Reader(s). This structures your time and provides intermediate targets. If you merely aim 'to have the whole thing done by (some distant date)', you can deceive yourself and procrastinate more easily. If you have told your adviser that you will deliver a first draft of chapter 3 on Wednesday, it focuses your attention.
It is encouraging and helpful to start a filing system. Open a word-processor file for each chapter and one for the references. You can put notes in these, as well as text. While doing something for Chapter n, you will think 'Oh I must refer back to/discuss this in Chapter m' and so you put a note to do so in the Chapter m file. Or you may think of something interesting or relevant for that chapter. When you come to work on that chapter, the more such notes you have accumulated, the easier it will be to write.
Make a back-up of these files and do so every day at least (depending on the reliability of your computer and the age of your disc drive). Never keep the back-up disc close to the computer in case the hypothetical thief who fancies your computer is smart enough to think s/he could use some discs as well. You should also have a rotating master back-up: use two disks, back-up one of them every week, and keep them physically separate from your main computer. That way you also have back-ups that are 1 and 2 weeks old, and if a file becomes corrupted you will have an older version of it available.
You should also have a physical filing system: a collection of folders with chapter numbers on them. This will make you feel good about getting started and also help clean up your desk. Your files will contain not just the plots of results and pages of calculations, but all sorts of old notes, references, specifications, speculations, letters from colleagues etc., which will suddenly strike you as relevant to one chapter or other. Stick them in that folder. Then put all the folders in a box or a filing cabinet. As you write bits and pieces of text, stick the hard copy, the figures etc. in these folders as well. Touch them and feel their thickness from time to time --- ah, the project is taking shape.
Whenever you sit down to write, it is very important to write something. So write something, no matter how rough. It would be nice if clear, precise prose leapt easily from the keyboard, but it usually does not. Most of us find it easier, however, to improve something that is already written than to produce text from nothing. So put down a draft (as rough as you like) for your own purposes, then clean it up for your Chair to read. Word-processors are wonderful in this regard.
In the first draft you do not have to start at the beginning, you can leave gaps, you can put in little notes to yourself, and then you can clean it all up later.
Your Chair will expect to read each chapter in draft form. S/he will then return it to you with suggestions and comments. Do not be upset if a chapter --- especially the first one you write --- returns covered in red ink. Your Chair will want your project to be as good as possible, because his/her reputation as well as yours is affected. Scholarly writing is a difficult art, and it takes a while to learn. As a consequence, there will be many ways in which your first draft can be improved. So take a positive attitude to all the scribbles with which your Chair decorates your text: each comment tells you a way in which you can make your project better.
As you write your project, your scholarly voice is almost certain to improve. Even for monolingual speakers of English who write very well in other styles, they notice an enormous improvement in the first drafts from the first to the last chapter written. The process of writing the project is like a course in scholarly writing, and in that sense each chapter is like an assignment in which you are taught, but not assessed. Remember, only the final draft is assessed: the more comments your Chair adds to first or second draft, the better.
Before you submit a draft, run a spell check so that s/he does not waste time on those. If you have any characteristic grammatical failings, check for them.