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Master’s Paper

About the Master’s Paper

The SILS Master’s Paper is designed for students who wish to gain experience designing and carrying out an independent empirical research study. The Master’s paper gives you an opportunity to demonstrate that you are capable of:

  • envisioning and carrying out a sustained, coherent, and significant process of work resulting in a tangible product;
  • managing that process over several months; and
  • presenting that work in written form.

The Master’s paper option might be a good choice for you if:

  • you intend to apply for a PhD program. The master’s paper will develop your understanding of research methods in LIS, give you practice writing a research proposal, and allow you to independently (with support!) design, carry out, and report on a self-contained research study. Many students go on to publish a version of their master’s paper in a professional journal. These are all valuable experiences for students who wish to continue their academic journey after SILS.
  • you already have a strong foundation in the practical elements of your field (for example, you have significant work experience in your field, or have already completed multiple field experiences).
  • you enjoy working alone and excel at self-directed learning.

Required Coursework

INLS 778: Research Methods and Proposal Development (3rd semester; fall only)

During their third semester, students enroll in the Research Methods and Proposal Development course where they will:

  • gain an understanding of the concepts and terminology used in LIS research and of the methods used to perform this research.
  • efficiently read, critically evaluate and appreciate research.
  • improve their ability to engage in discussions around the “ big questions” of methodology.
  • articulate the functions of a research proposal and its component parts.
  • formulate a concise and focused research question that will guide their master’s paperwork.
  • design and develop a literature review that supports and frames a research area.
  • select and justify the choice of research method(s) for a proposed study in the form of a research proposal document.

INLS 992: Master’s paper (4th semester)
During their fourth and final semester, students implement their proposed Master’s paper study under the supervision of a faculty advisor. Students should enroll in INLS 992 for the semester in which they will finish their paper.
Students should meet regularly with their faculty advisor during the semester to ensure steady progress toward the finished product. Finalized and formatted papers should be turned in to the SILS office by the due date listed on the SILS website for that semester.

Picking an Advisor

Any SILS faculty member can advise your master’s paper, and advising these papers is expected for all full-time faculty. However, individual faculty members may limit the number of papers they supervise in a given semester and are not expected to advise papers while on leave. In addition to full-time faculty, adjunct instructors, doctoral students, and faculty in other departments and schools may also supervise master’s papers in many cases. If you would like someone other than a full-time SILS faculty member to advise your paper, please reach out to that person and to your INLS 778 instructor as early as possible to ensure that this will be feasible.

Ideally, your paper advisor will be someone with content area expertise relevant to your paper topic, someone who has experience with the research method(s) you plan to employ for your study, and someone with whom you work well. With that said, topic area expertise is not always necessary; most SILS faculty can effectively advise papers on topics outside of their own area of expertise. Your INLS 778 instructor will give you more information about the advising process and how to approach the task of choosing a potential advisor.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Master’s Paper

Do I have to go through the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to complete the Master’s paper?

If you plan to collect data from human subjects (for example, if your study will involve a survey, interview, or think-aloud procedure), you will need to go through UNC’s IRB process and get approval before recruiting subjects or collecting data. This process typically takes 3-4 weeks. Some students are able to apply during the INLS 778 semester (and if possible this is ideal), while others apply at the beginning of their INLS 992 semester. If you are not collecting data from human subjects (for example, if you are conducting a content analysis or doing secondary data analysis), you probably will not need to go through the IRB process unless your data contains personally identifiable information.

Can my paper be focused on a practical project instead of on a research study?

Master’s papers should employ empirical methods to address one or more research questions. Most project-based ideas that students may have for their capstones (for example, developing an app, creating a website, or developing instructional materials) are therefore more appropriate for the practicum option, unless additional work is completed to conduct a research study related to the project. For example, creating a resource collection for school librarians would not satisfy the requirements for a master’s paper on its own. However, if the student were to (for example) interview school librarians who agreed to pilot the resources and qualitatively analyze that data, that could satisfy the requirements. With that said, the amount of work involved in not only completing a project but also shaping a research study around that project is typically not feasible for students given the short timeline for Master’s paper completion. Students who want to “do something practical” with their capstone are strongly encouraged to choose the practicum option instead of the master’s paper.

How much work should a Master’s paper study involve?

During your final semester, you should expect to spend approximately ten hours per week on work related to your Master’s paper. You will enroll in INLS 992 to receive credit for these hours. This estimate is in line with UNC’s definition of a credit hour: one hour of in-class instruction plus at least two hours of out-of-class work per week, which translates to a total of approximately 135 hours over a 15-week semester for a three-credit course like 992.

What is the role of my faculty advisor?

Your advisor should communicate with you during your proposal development semester to help you develop a feasible plan for your study. During the paper semester, your advisor should meet with you regularly to consult on your study. This could include tasks such as helping you complete your IRB application, working with you to refine your literature review, answering any methods-related questions you may have as you implement your study, assisting your data analysis process, and/or suggesting revisions to your writing. Your advisor is also the person who will evaluate your paper once it is complete and assign you a grade for INLS 992.

How is the paper evaluated?

The final paper will be graded using the standard UNC grading system (H, P, L, etc.). The criteria used to evaluate the paper will include: novelty and importance of the research question, completeness and relevance of the literature review, validity of the methods used and quality of their execution, rigor of the data analysis, and clarity and originality of the written presentation.