Master's Projects

Please refer to the MP Tutorials in Sakai for more information on MP project design, research approaches, data collection and analysis.


The Master's Project (MP) is an integral part of the education of professional students in the Nicholas School of the Environment. MPs provide MEM and MF students an opportunity to integrate their NS coursework and showcase their ability to use what they have learned at the NS to design and carry out a well-formulated and defensible analysis of a management-related problem. The project should demonstrate skills the student has learned during his/her master's program at Duke, it should provide original insights not available elsewhere, and it should be clearly grounded in the larger context of work in the relevant field of study.  MPs culminate in a public presentation to the NS community and guests at an end-of-semester symposium and a written report that becomes part of the Duke Library electronic archives: http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/

Subject Matter, Scope, Type

Some MPs address a specific problem for a specific client, such as prioritizing conservation values of specific parcels of forest and agricultural land in the Cape Fear Arch region for the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust (A. Smith, 2010). Other MPs address a problem that is of scientific interest in one of the disciplines of environmental natural and social science, where the connection to a “real-world” problem might be more distant, such as M. Carney’s 2008 laboratory study of mechanisms of naphthoic acid toxicity in medaka (a small fish used in laboratory toxicity studies).  As the diagram above suggests, the distinction between research and client-centered problem-solving is a continuum. An example of an intermediate type of MP might be to develop a method for analyzing a class of problems and applying that method to a particular case.  Some client-centered MPs are initiated by client requests to the NS, some are solicited from client organizations by NS students or faculty, and some are developed as part of the menu of client-centered projects presented to first year students in January. Click here to see examples of some Exemplary Master's Projects.

Working on a client-centered group MP provides experience with the type of work setting that almost all NS professional students will encounter on the job, where you will work in teams for which you did not choose the members, the supervisor or the clients.  The few MEM/MF graduates who plan to go on to PhD programs may be better served by individual research MPs, which more closely resemble the type of work done for dissertation research.

MPs may be done individually or in groups of various sizes.  Either individual or group MPs may be client-centered. The client-centered group MPs that are presented to first year students in January are usually for teams of three to five students working with a faculty adviser. Another type of group MP that will be available in the future, a capstone course, could involve up to a dozen students working with as many as several faculty advisers.  In many group MPs, the students produce a single, common product.  In others, particularly those addressing a research topic, the final product might be several coordinated products, each prepared by one group member.  Faculty or students may initiate group MPs addressing a research topic. The most common form for research MPs is individual.

What distinguishes master's projects from master's theses is that, although they may include original laboratory or field research, they may also take the form of management plans, handbooks, educational curricula, or other such products. Master's projects which are original research should not be as large as a master's thesis. They should be of publishable quality, although they need not be comprehensive enough to stand alone as a publication (although some are published either as stand-alone papers or as part of a larger piece of work). Master's projects that do not follow the usual format for scientific research (i.e., introduction, objectives, methods, results, discussion, conclusions), such as management plans, educational curricula, and some policy analyses, should follow a framework that is considered good practice in the relevant field (e.g., an accepted method for designing and evaluating educational programs). Not all projects need include quantitative analysis, but all, including those using qualitative methods (e.g., case study, text analysis), should explicitly follow an accepted method of analysis.


Risks and rewards of the different types of MPs

In the case of a research MP, the reward is the sense of personal accomplishment and the opportunity to contribute to the body of knowledge informing environmental science. The risks are mostly about control and timing:  a single year is not much time to collect the data needed to support a stand-alone analysis, and so anything that interferes with this can jeopardize a project (bad weather, ‘slow’ collaborators at agencies, and so on).  If the MP is based on an internship, you should not assume that your internship supervisor fully understands the research design of the project you hope to conduct, so what you do for your internship and what you do for your MP could diverge.

A client-based individual project offers the reward that the project will meet a real and current need in environmental practice; that sense of purpose and pragmatism can be quite compelling. The risk is in assuming that clients actually know what they need and have the capacity to provide a clear statement of goals and data needed to complete the project. A group-based MP most closely approximates the actual workplace experience of most NS graduates where a variety of participants with different expertise work together to pursue a client-based environmental management project. The reward of this, in terms of professional development, should be obvious. The risks stem partly from the group approach, in that individuals can have a huge influence on group dynamics. Again, this mimics the actual workplace, so it’s good experience to have in the relatively low-risk setting of school. The risks and rewards for group research projects are similar – the experience of working in a group is good preparation for the way graduates will be working in future employment and a group brings a variety of expertise to a project.  Managing group dynamics takes a bit of extra effort.


General principles of project design

Each of the types of MPs outlined above will have a research approach and methods of data collection and data analysis, but all such projects share a few common elements. In every case, there is an accepted approach for posing a question or stating a need, and a corresponding accepted set of methods for how that question is answered or that need met. In research, these pieces constitute the inferential design (or experimental design) of the project, and there are clear guidelines as to how the data will be collected and analyzed, and what inferences can be drawn from the analyses. The details depend on the particulars of the project, of course: data collection and analysis for a study based on interviews with stakeholders will be different from the details of a study based on field measurements of habitat selection by a rare salamander.

Dr. Lisa Campbell has developed a presentation on principles of research design applicable to MPs in a wide variety of fields. Watch presentation below: