Why would I want to work on a M.S. Thesis?

Marek J. Druzdzel
Department of Information Science and Intelligent Systems Program
University of Pittsburgh

The question "Should I do thesis or not?" is asked by most graduate students entering the Master of Science in Information Science (MSIS) Program. Working on a thesis is optional and (quite unfortunately, I believe), statistically only a small fraction of the students will decide to do thesis work. I respect each individual decision and I am far from judging whether in each individual case it was the best decision possible. As a researcher working in the area of decision making under uncertainty, however, I am too familiar with problems that a human decision maker typically faces and the suboptimality of decisions that result. I would like to make sure that whatever decision is made, it is well informed. This short essay is addressed to the incoming MSIS students in the Department of Information Science of the University of Pittsburgh. In what follows, I will try to outline my view of the reasons for and against doing M.S. thesis work. I hope that reading this will help you to make a well informed decision. I would like to appeal to the readers for comments - this is a personal view and I might have left out something important.

Let me start with negative consequences of thesis work. Doing a thesis will typically earn six credits towards the MSIS degree: three credits for an Independent Study course and three credits for the actual M.S. Thesis work. The single down side of doing thesis work is that it may take more than the amount of work typically spent on two three credit courses. If your goal is to finish the studies as soon as possible and perhaps with as little effort as possible, this may be an important factor in your decision.

Fortunately, as everything that is worth doing in life, working on a thesis has good reasons. This may be just my attitude to life, but I believe that once you decide to do something you should try to do it the best you can. This is true especially for something as serious as devoting two years of your life to studying. You should try to learn as much as you can in these two years so that you get a good start once you are back on the job market or pursuing a doctoral degree. With the imminent job search in mind, you might want to do something that will distinguish you from an average graduate of the program and, therefore, make your skills attractive on the job market. One way to distinguish yourself is to get high grades. Unfortunately, grades have undergone quite a devaluation (this is true for most US schools) and getting an A for a course is not that unusual. In fact, every MSIS student in the Department of Information Science is required to maintain "above B" average and most graduating students will have rather high grade point average. I believe that the most effective way to be above average that has been set out by our department (and by many other US schools) is to work on a M.S. Thesis.

By writing a thesis you will be doing more work than what you would do following courses, but you will also gain more knowledge. This knowledge is different from what you typically learn in courses and consists of such useful skills as independent and creative thinking, persistence, confidence, and technical writing. You will be working with a faculty advisor and you will certainly not be alone in your pursuits, but you will be most likely working on a problem that does not have a textbook answer and you will have to actively search for the answer or develop the solution yourself, if nobody has done that before. This will teach you independence, creativity, and persistence. You will have to produce a written thesis. Writing a thesis is a very useful skill and it is very different than writing a class report. The main difference is that a large part of it will describe something that has not been done before and that is a non-trivial product of your thought. If your results are interesting for the scientific community, you will have the opportunity to write a research paper, usually with your faculty advisor. Your thesis and possible papers will be the only real and permanent pieces of work that remain from your studies. You may be able to publish them, to attach them to your job applications, and to refer to them in your resume. Finally, perhaps most important of all, a completed thesis work should contribute to the development of your academic self-esteem.

Working closely with a faculty advisor is a learning experience that goes far beyond what you can experience in the classroom. You will be de facto an apprentice who receives tailored, personalized training in science. Remember that for most faculty members research is their most important activity, something that they do with pleasure. Working on a research problem with them may be the best, if not the only, opportunity for you to learn them well. By working with your faculty advisor you will give him or her the chance to learn you better and write more convincing letters of recommendation once you are back on the job market.

Publishing conference or journal papers that result from your thesis work gives you a whole step ahead of other beginning researchers. Another potential benefits are awards in several "best paper" type competitions in our school, such as Harold Lancour Award, The Catherine Ofiesh Orner Award, Beta Phi Mu Research Paper Award, Fritz Froehlich Award, Allen Kent Award, or Information Engineering Competition. All of these increase your chances for admission to a doctoral program of your choice, both in the Department of Information Science and elsewhere. Many students continue with their M.S. Thesis work towards their Ph.D. This shortens their doctoral studies significantly.

Very often, entering students feel scared about writing a thesis - they think that it means a lot of work, that it requires unusual skills and coming to the department already with a research idea. These fears are not substantiated. There is more work than "run of the mill" studies, but it is doable if you plan your studies accordingly. Most incoming students are intelligent enough to do the work, and finally they will never be really on their own when choosing a topic and working on it - they will benefit from the guidance of their faculty advisor. In fact, they can get as much guidance from a faculty member as they need. Often, by the time a student realizes all that, it is too late to start working on a thesis. It is important to think about doing thesis work early, put together the course of studies, and plan the studies so that they culminate in a thesis.

I believe that most of the students in the MSIS program are intelligent, motivated, and have a high potential for success. Many of our incoming students have interesting work experience and are coming into the program with valuable skills that could be developed further. I personally find it a pity (and perhaps feel a bit of a failure as one of the department's MSIS advisors) to see excellent students who do not get the most of their potential in our program.

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marek@sis.pitt.edu / Last update: 13 May 2005