As the last academic task that students must complete in order to earn the degree, the master’s project represents an opportunity to integrate knowledge and skills acquired over the course of the program. Typically, the project grows out of previous coursework, and is not undertaken until all other courses are completed. The student, working independently under the supervision of a graduate faculty member, must conceive, initiate and realize an interdisciplinary project that demonstrates graduate-level critical inquiry and analysis in an academically appropriate, clear and coherent manner.
Since this is an interdisciplinary program, the project -- so long as it involves significant written analysis -- can involve (and even combine) a variety of forms and methods. (See Requirements below.) For a sense of what an actual project is like, take a look at some of these Past Master's Projects. From 2014-2022, GLS used a designation of "Exemplary" to denote projects that represented outstanding models for students to follow in conceiving and planning their own master's projects. (This designation was discontinued in 2022-23 in favor of inviting all students to present their work in a year-end master's project Showcase. Projects highlighted in that event are designated "Showcase" projects.)
Note that the project cannot begin until a series of preliminary tasks (see Prerequisites below) is completed. Once the project proposal is approved, students enroll in LS850, The Master’s Project Seminar, a three-credit pass/fail course that has two components:
- An independent study supervised by a graduate faculty member with some expertise in the issues or methods involved; and
- A classroom component, the Master's Project Seminar, which provides advice and support for work in progress.
Because the master's project requires considerable time and effort, we recommend that students arrange their studies so as to take no other courses during the project semester. While the project is considered a one-semester endeavor, students sometimes require more than one semester to finish it. When the project is complete, it is evaluated on a pass/fail basis by a master's examination committee. The completed project is retained in the Duke GLS archive; projects that meet program standards are published on DukeSpace.
At least two semesters before you plan to propose your project, read through the Prerequisites, Requirements and Key Roles sections below. Be sure to also read through the Master's Project Timeline, which includes additional details, very carefully. Note that, by clicking on a stage of the Timeline, you can expand it to show all the appropriate tasks for that stage, which begins several semesters before you propose. You can find all the forms you need for the project at Documents and Links.
The Master's Project Planning Session
Each student is responsible for attending this session (offered each January, June and September) during course five or six. At this session, students will learn details about the process leading to the project, and can ask questions about the proposal and other prerequisites.
Research Librarian Bibliographic Consultation
Before the proposal is submitted, the student must consult with a Duke research librarian in any field pertinent to the proposed project to discuss the current state of scholarly research and discussion, as well as strategies for further research.
Human Subjects Approval (if appropriate)
Before any research involving humans as subjects can be conducted, or the proposal is submitted, the student must receive a waiver or approval from the Human Subjects Committee of the Institutional Review Board. Documentation of either waiver or approval should be submitted with the proposal.
The Proposal Meeting
At least two weeks before the final proposal deadline, the student, the supervisor and a representative of the GLS program (either the director or assistant director) will meet to share ideas and work out the final details of the proposal. The student should submit a draft of the proposal to email@example.com at least 48 hours before this meeting. Proposal Meeting Deadlines:
- Spring project: November 15
- Fall project: July 15
- Summer project: April 15
Proposal Submission & Approval
Approval of a master's project proposal is required prior to the master's project semester. Students should submit a proposal (see Documents and Links for format) by the deadline at least one semester before the master's project semester. Students should strive to craft a proposal that is centered on a focused, analytical central question. An optional Proposal Workshop is available for support in crafting the proposal. Proposal Submission Deadlines:
- Spring project: November 30
- Fall project: July 31
- Summer project: April 30
1) The project should represent an effort equivalent to a 50-60 page research paper.
Most projects consist of an analytical essay much like a standard master's thesis, in which case we expect 50-60 double-spaced pages of written analysis. (This figure does not include illustrations, appendices or bibliography.) However, we consider all the work that a student completes (e.g., primary research, applied research, creative work) -- to be part of the project, so for some projects the written analytical component may be smaller (see below).
2) The project should be interdisciplinary.
A Liberal Studies master’s project should avoid narrow disciplinary concerns more appropriate to a specific academic specialty unless it analyzes those concerns from some broader perspective. For example, while it is fine for the student to explore issues pertinent to his or her career experience, the project must analyze them with appropriate critical distance from broader disciplinary perspectives.
The project can integrate forms, materials, methods, and perspectives from a number of disciplines, and may be innovative in approach. Many projects are based in one of the following approaches:
- Traditional thesis (e.g., extended scholarly research paper)
- Primary research (e.g., social science interviews or historical archival research)
- Applied research (e.g., curriculum, video, website, program, policy or some other practical endeavor of academic significance)*
- Creative work (e.g., fiction, memoir, personal essay, visual art or other arts)*
* Approval for a proposal involving creative work or applied research requires previous demonstration of ability in the medium or field and an understanding of its methods and issues. Creative written work (whether fiction or nonfiction) should engage a wide readership meaningfully and meet sophisticated literary expectations.
3) The project should demonstrate the student's ability to produce cogent analysis grounded in the scholarly literature.
The project should demonstrate the student’s ability to conduct cogent, sustained critical analysis on a particular question or issue. (Even a creative project should be thought of as an attempt to engage through creative methods with some particular question, issue or problem of academic significance.) Projects centered on applied research or creative work must include an essay that analyzes the issues and/or processes involved in that work.
While the project is not required to include a formal literature review, its analysis must be informed by an awareness of the state of the scholarly conversation and current research. For example:
- A project that involves curriculum design should include a discussion of appropriate scholarly research and an analysis of how scholarly theories (whether pedagogical or content-oriented) influence that curriculum.
- A project that features creative writing should include an essay on the relationship of the fiction or memoir to some larger context (e.g., cultural, philosophical, historical, psychological) or to the creative process that produced it.
- A project that brings to light new archival data should interpret that data within the context of the ongoing scholarly discussion among historians and others.
4) The project should meet high academic standards.
While the master’s project is not required to make a publishable original contribution to the academic discussion, it should:
a) Engage in an open, honest and objective process of critical inquiry about an issue that is, in academic terms, worth addressing. The master’s project is at heart a work of critical analysis that seeks to answer the open-ended central research question posed in the project proposal; that question should not be designed to lead to a particular answer, but should address differing perspectives in a meaningful way. A good project will be aware of other perspectives even as it makes a strong case for its own particular interpretation.
b) Conform to appropriate standards of responsible academic conduct, including:
- Human Subjects. All research involving human subjects (e.g. interviews, surveys) must be conducted according to appropriate ethical and scientific standards; it must be reviewed and approved by the Human Subjects Committee of Duke’s Institutional Review Board before any research is conducted.
- Academic Integrity. All sources must be properly documented, and all use of sources must be conducted according to strict standards of academic integrity. All aspects of the project must conform to the Duke University guidelines for research and appropriate use of intellectual property.
c) Represent a quality of written work appropriate for a published Duke University master’s thesis. No matter what methods the project employs, the written matter of the project should be clear, concise, coherent and easily readable. It should meet the grammatical standards of formal, written American English.
Key Roles and Components
The Master's Project Seminar
All the students who are working on master's projects meet as a class, the GLS Master's Project Seminar. At these meetings, students come together as a community of graduate scholars to share their ideas as well as their concerns, and to offer each other resources and support.
The Faculty Supervisor
Prior to the project semester, the student is responsible for finding a faculty supervisor to work with, and confirming that the supervisor is available during the project semester. This supervisor must:
- be a member of the Duke Graduate Faculty;
- have appropriate expertise for guiding and evaluating the proposed project; and
- be approved in advance by the GLS director.
The responsibilities of the faculty supervisor include:
- Before the project semester: Advising the student in developing a workable concept and proposal, and attending the Proposal Meeting (see Timeline -- Proposal Semester).
- During the project semester: Setting a schedule of goals and deadlines, meeting with the student regularly (ideally every other week), and guiding the student through the work required to complete the proposed project.
- At the end of the project semester: Determining when the student has successfully completed the project, and serving on the master’s examination committee.
Because a student’s relationship with the supervisor is crucial to a successful project, students are encouraged to select a project supervisor from among faculty with whom they have studied. While working on their interdisciplinary projects, students are of course free to consult with faculty other than their supervisors, but only one faculty member can be appointed supervisor.
The Master's Committee
Each student working on a master's project is appointed a master's committee comprising 1) the project supervisor, 2) either the GLS director or assistant director, and 3) a third member of the graduate faculty. This last member is appointed by GLS (and often is filled by a GLS Advisory Committee member); however, students are welcome to request that GLS appoint some particular graduate faculty member -- typically, to honor someone who has also been working with the student on the project, or who helped prepare the student to take on such a project. The master's committee must be approved by the Graduate School thirty days ahead of the master's exam.
The master's committee reads and evaluates (on a pass/fail basis) the version of the project submitted by the student ten days before the examination. If any committee member feels unprepared to pass the project (i.e., the project is not fully finished or does not meet program standards), the examination is postponed to allow the student to make improvements. At the master's examination, the committee and student meet together to discuss what has been learned. At this meeting, the committee members sign the Graduate School card that certifies the project is (except for minor technical edits) complete and worthy of the master's degree.