To Write Or Not To Write: The Master’s Report

In my program, like many others, graduation is contingent on completing a culminating project.  At the University of Texas, that is called a “Capstone experience.”  The overwhelming majority of students choose an internship or semester-long project with a library, archive, or local business or nonprofit.  At the end of the semester, the student creates a poster detailing their specific project and what they learned/contributed/etc.  The idea is for us to synthesize the 4 or so semesters of learning into one final deliverable.

I love the idea of a capstone project.  The experience gives soon-to-be professionals the opportunity to network, fill out their resumes, get hands-on practical experience (which, ahem, our programs sometimes lack) and create and present a poster to the iSchool community.  There is, though, a second option: A Master’s Report.  A report differs from a thesis in that it is completed in only one semester. A report differs from a capstone project (always referred to as “the capstone”) because instead of an internship, the student writes about a 40 page academic paper on a topic of his or her choosing.

I am a rare student who has chosen to write a report. Why? Since grad school started, I’ve had an internship as a researcher at the Texas Education Agency and as a social media intern at Austin Public Library’s bookstore.  I am currently employed with two part-time internships: one, as a youth librarian at Austin Public Library, and another in a graduate student position in the reference department at the main library at UT.  My resume is bursting with internships.  Simply put, I just don’t need (nor do I have the time for) another one.  Between these positions, I have enough reference, outreach, and instruction experience for the types of entry-level positions I’m looking for.

Secondly, I just plain like writing academic papers.  As Rose aptly noted, the end-of-course research papers often feel unfulfilling.  I don’t usually feel like I’ve really learned enough about the course topic to do a research paper justice.  Similarly, when all my courses require end-of-course papers, I can’t dedicate as much time or energy into one kick-ass paper as I’d like.  Researching and writing get my juices flowing and it’s refreshing to get an entire semester to spend on one paper.

So, if your program requires a Capstone in some variety and offers a report option, I say take it!  If you need more compelling reasons, here are some reasons why it may be more fun than you think:

  • Master’s reports are, ideally, of publishable quality—for many types of positions, having something published or near publishable before entering the profession is quite advantageous.
  • As librarians, it’s important to stay on your research game, so to speak.  Of course we’re researching for course papers during our academic careers, but engaging in the kind of long-term projects (some of) our patrons do gives us a better appreciation for the art of research.
  • It’s rewarding! No, really.  After a capstone project, you’ll have great, tangible experience.  After writing a report, you have a 40-ish page paper you can return to for future research, presentations or papers, and will give you ammunition when your family members ask, “Are all of your classes about the Dewey Decimal System.”
  • Most importantly: You become a mini-expert in the topic.  Because of the relatively short duration we’re in school, there are not of opportunities to take highly specialized courses in specific topics.  For example, I’m writing my paper on developing comprehensive, environmentally sustainable weeding policies.  While UT offers a course in Collection Development which covers weeding, it’s not terribly in-depth.  At the end of the semester, I will have done enough research to speak comfortably and confidently about collection development, weeding, and developing trends in environmental sustainability to just about anyone.

So, what say you?  Does your program offer a capstone experience?  How do you feel about reports and theses?

20 replies

  1. I was thinking yesterday about how many of my classes don’t require us to write any research papers at all and how that actually hurts more than helps. When I see calls for poster or paper presentations, I don’t have any ideas or anything to show for it because I haven’t had to do any independent research. I think this is a smart choice and will set you apart from the crowd.


  2. I definitely want to write a thesis. The main obstacle is coming up with a feasible topic that I can write about within a year’s time. I’ll most likely be using a historical methodology, so most of my research will need to be conducted in local archives. Alternatively, I can try to find a topic with a lot of digitized material as well…


  3. I agree with both of you. However is a traditional thesis the best way to demonstrate your progress as an LIS student?

    Might it not be more beneficial to write a collection of blog entries on a variety of issues throughout a year or semester? In this way you could not only demonstrate your grasp of LIS issues, but also a wide breadth of knowledge, and evolving ideas. If I were hiring someone I honestly think that a series of blog entries would help me evaluate someone more than a traditional thesis.


    • Interesting idea! Kind of along the lines of an e-portfolio, or something like that. I like that a thesis requires me to think about LIS issues within the framework of current research, but there’s no reason a series of blog posts can’t do just that.


  4. Yes, University of Tennessee requires a capstone also. We have three options: comprehensive exam, thesis, and eportfolio. I’m doing eportfolio and think it’s the best option of the three. It gives the student a place to synthesize and reflect upon what they learn, then provide a place to showcase that learning and products of learning for a potential employer. I’m going to be writing a post about it one day.


  5. I’m in a tenure track position in an academic library and it is HARD. The biggest obstacle for me and for most of my colleagues is the publishing hurdle–we’re not trained to do it, it wasn’t a requirement in my program, it doesn’t come naturally, etc. If I could do everything all over again I would 100% take advantage of the access to real scholars who could guide my work and get me prepped for the wild and woolly world of academic publishing.

    We’ve hired six new people since I’ve been in this position, and the number one thing we look for now is “is this person tenurable?” And that’s measured almost entirely by their demonstrated capacity to conduct research and publish their work. Huge leg up to anybody who did that while getting the MLS.


    • On the other hand, I work in corporate IS, as a Content Manager, and I do not have the publishing hurdle. Rather it’s all about universal versatility. Not that you’re expected to be an expert on all things LIS, but more that you demonstrate an agile mind, wide breadth of knowledge, and ability to learn quickly. I think a list of relevant (issues wise) blog entries would better demonstrate to me that someone is intellectually capable of keeping up.

      It’s important to remember that as much as (in my experience) corporate LIS gets a bad rap, it is a viable and extremely diverse field with much different requirements than the more traditional LIS fields/jobs.


  6. My program at UCLA gives the option of a thesis or a portfolio, which is similar to the Master’s report described above but not presented in poster form. It’s a compilation of related papers that follow a single succinct theme or “issue statement.” I’m leaning more towards the thesis option right now because my goal is to produce publishable material.

    No matter which I option I choose I’m definitely going to create an accompanying blog or e-portfolio. I’ve heard arguments that claim there’s no point in writing a thesis because the people interviewing you won’t read it and neither will future employers. That may or may not be true, but I bet they will read (or at least look at) a website if you include the link in your resume.


    • Good point! Everyone that leaves the UT program will have a portfolio to some extent because its a requirement in one our core classes. I think they are invaluable. You’re right that most employers won’t actually read my report, but I will include that I wrote one in my resume and link to it on my online portfolio.


  7. My program (Pratt SILS) doesn’t require a capstone project BUT they’re soon going to require grads to submit a digital portfolio. I decided to make a digital portfolio too (even though I’m technically grandfathered out)–it’s a great way to highlight projects that you worked on in classes or in internships that don’t make it onto a formal resume and it’s a nice thing to have when applying for professional library positions.


  8. I like the idea of a culminating thesis as well — perhaps, and I know this is crazy, but I’d love to be able to do a big internship/practicum (which is required at UW Madison) and spend a semester on a large paper. Writing doesn’t come easy for me anymore but I figure the more practice, the better. And, like Rose spoke about in the previous post, I would appreciate more time to work on it, and give the topic some respect that way.


  9. A master’s thesis was required in my graduate program, and I find it crucial for all the reasons people mentioned. Writing is thinking. I don’t think you ever have enough time to do that in school or out. It’s also been a great experience to draw on as an academic librarian as I instruct students and help them with their research, not to mention my own.


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