Every semester I advise a few students on their Masters papers. Last semester I had two students who, for very different reasons, had trouble collecting data. In the end, both students were fine, they collected good data, their papers were interesting, they got their papers submitted on time, and all’s well that ends well. But the fact remains that the middle part of their process was rocky. This has stuck with me. In this post I will reflect on the following question: To what extent is this my fault?

My immediate reaction to even thinking that is to then think: Pomerantz, you have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. Bordering, perhaps, on megalomania. Certainly you have too much of an internal locus of control.

Then, my counter-reaction is that no, these are my advisees, and if they’re having trouble with the mechanics of their studies, then I should have done something differently prior to their arriving at that point. I’m supposed to be the expert in how to conduct a research project, not them. How have I failed if my advisee is running into problems conducting said research project?

Then, my counter-counter-reaction is to remember what I say to my advisees — inspired by Huxley (“The great tragedy of science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”) and Einstein (“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”) — that research is a messy, unpredictable business, and the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. (Ok, I don’t really say that in Scottish.) Part of the process of learning to do research is learning how to make a graceful recovery when things go sideways. Because they almost always do.

So the question I have to ask myself is this: What is the educational goal of the Masters paper? When the topic comes up (which is more often than you might expect), I tell people that, at least in part, the goal is to get students thinking about doing research right before they graduate and leave us to join the professional world. So hopefully our grads will carry that mindset out into the profession, and will be inclined and unafraid to conduct research in their places of work. And that this research will be of good quality. Because academics in ILS are always saying that what this profession needs is more good (emphasis on good) practitioner research. So… if this is in fact the educational goal of the Masters paper — to give students experience with conducting a full research project — then my counter-counter-reaction is the right one: let them dangle. Trial by fire makes for effective learning. No, I’m being melodramatic. It’s not trial by fire: it’s not like I make my students figure out how to recover from problems in their research by themselves, without any assistance from me. But it is true that educational research shows that the best, and possibly only, time for people to learn is at the point of need.

So the next question I have to ask myself is this: Is “experience conducting a research project” the only educational goal of the Masters paper?

We do have the option for students to do a Masters project… though, interestingly, I have at least one colleague who will not advise students if they want to do a project instead of a paper. But never mind the fact that, if we’re unwilling to advise on this, we should probably not have that option on the books. The fact remains that the Masters project is on the books as an option for students. And at the risk of being pedantic, the Masters project is not a research project. The description says that the Masters project can be an evaluation… and I’d be the first to advocate for the value of conducting an evaluation. Indeed, I’ve had students conduct evaluations for their Masters paper research. So perhaps that’s not such a useful option for the Masters project. The description also says that the Masters project can involve system design. In all my years in SILS, I’ve had one student do a Masters project and build something. So clearly this is not a very popular option among the students.

Still, it is an option. So, what is the educational goal of the Masters project? Harder to say, since I’ve thought about it so much less. But as a first pass, I’d have to say, to give students experience with managing an entire development project. The problem with that is, project management isn’t exactly something you can do by yourself. To do project management right, you need to be managing a team, or something like that. Without that, the Masters project becomes simply an opportunity for teaching oneself new skills: a new programming language, perhaps. Which goal is probably better suited to a field experience or an internship. So I’m talking myself out of the usefulness of the Masters project, here. I’m one step away from becoming like my colleague who won’t advise students on Masters projects.

But let’s put that aside for the moment. If a goal of the Masters project is to give students experience with (individual) project management, then certainly you could say that that’s equally a goal of the Masters paper. Time management and managing one’s own workload are valuable skills, and ones that you really shouldn’t be allowed to graduate from grad school without having acquired. But I think it shouldn’t be the job of the Masters paper / project to get students those skills… the acquisition of those skills is really built into the entire process of grad school. I think we don’t need to belabor the point at the Masters paper stage. Plus, if a student gets to the point of doing a Masters paper and hasn’t yet acquired those skills, it’s probably too late anyway. I’ve had one student in that position, actually. He hasn’t finished yet.

I’m left with the conclusion that the educational goal of the Masters paper — at least the primary goal — is to give students the experience of conducting a research project. So I should allow them to hit snags. Next question: How can I help my students do their research projects in the most educationally and professionally useful way possible? Actually, I think I’m doing a pretty good job with that. Though I feel like Descartes, saying that: he started from first principles (cogito ergo sum), and ended up reconstructing the world exactly as it was, complete with monotheism and monarchy. Suspicious, if you ask me. But anyway, that last question boils down to the perennial question that someone in my line of work should be asking themselves every day: How can I be a better teacher? Not a question I can answer here.