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M.S. Essay Requirements

Guidelines for a Masters Degree Expository Essay

The writing requirement for the M.S. degree without thesis (Plan B) is satisfied by an expository essay. This essay must be approved by an individual member of the Graduate Program faculty, usually (but not always) the student's academic adviser. The essay is not "defended" as part of the final oral exam, and only the essay advisor's signature is required.

One intent of this requirement is to give the student a supervised opportunity to develop "armchair expertise" in an area of interest. Additionally, the student gains the experience of undertaking a longer term project and completing an extensive and intensive written scientific report.

There is considerable variation among faculty as to what they expect and will accept in an essay. The "requirements" described here are meant as guidelines only - other approaches, with prior approval, may be accepted.

In most cases, a scholarly, critical review of the literature on a topic is expected. (In some cases, original research performed as part of an Advanced Special Problems course or other laboratory, field, or data analysis experience may be substituted.) You may select virtually any area of environmental interest, although in some cases choosing a different faculty member as the essay advisor may be appropriate. Discuss the essay with this advisor as early as you like, but get preliminary approval before going too far. Then after a brief look at the available literature, submit an outline. This will not be binding, but will provide an initial structure for the review. You then are expected to read virtually all of the available literature on the subject, within reason (less important old or foreign language papers may be omitted).

For the essay itself, do not simply summarize each paper. The major contribution of the reviewer is to organize, or structure, the subject, citing the relevant literature where appropriate. If you come across a conflict between two references, try to resolve it if possible, or at least note the contradiction.

Submission of a draft in most cases is not necessary. The finished paper should be turned in at least two weeks prior to the oral exam.

Some additional points are given below.


To allow for editing




"Significant" - In scientific writing, this term is reserved for statistical analysis, and must be accompanied by the probability value (e.g., "p < 0.05").

Foreign words, such as et al., in situ, and species names, must be italicized (or underlined).


Read the whole thing through at least once yourself!


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