Writing your NPS Master's Thesis

From Simson Garfinkel
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Advice to the military student from the civilian faculty member.

Writing your master’s thesis at NPS requires a different kind of writing than you have previously performed in your military career. This short memo describes some of the common problems that I’ve seen and provides you with some recommended solutions.

1. Remember your audience

You are writing your master’s thesis for other people who care about the work you are doing and those who come after you. NPS masters’ theses are indexed and made freely available on the Internet. Your thesis will be read by many people, including:

  • NPS faculty members who care about the research topic.
  • Future students who extend the work that you are doing.
  • Future commanding officers.
  • US Government agencies doing similar research.
  • Foreign corporations and governments, who are monitoring what is being done at NPS.

Don’t let these readers down!

2. Be careful of the language that you use. Like it or not, your writing represents the US government.

  • Be careful about making statements that could be construed as being critical of US policy, history, or political leadership.

3. Take note of your references. What you cite and the way you cite it matters. Why do we cite? Here are some reasons:

  • Because it is inappropriate (and potentially career-ending) to pass someone else’s ideas off as our own.
  • To tell others where they can get more information on a particular topic.
  • To provide a reference for direct quotes.
  • To show our command of the literature.

For reasons that are probably steeped in military culture, many military students tend to include long quotes of policy or background from famous people when introducing a new topic. There’s no need to do that in academic writing.

  • Cite the idea, not the person. It’s the invention that matters, not the inventor. Science is not about scientists. (Unless you are writing a biography, that is.)

What does this mean in practice? It means that introductions to subjects like Public Key Cryptography should be written like this:

Publicly disclosed in 1976, the fundamental idea of Public Key Cryptography is that a message can be encrypted by one key and decrypted by a second key (Diffie Hellman ’76).

Don’t write like this:

In 1976, Drs. Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman had a revolutionary idea—that a message could be encrypted with one key and decrypted by a second. “We stand today on the brink of a revolution in cryptography,” they wrote, in the introduction of their paper that changed the world forever (Diffie Hellman ’76).

4. One idea per paragraph It’s okay to use multiple paragraphs if you have multiple things to say. It’s okay to have fewer than five sentences in a paragraph. Be careful about paragraphs that have more than 10 sentences.

5. That’s “President Kennedy” to you We always refer to politicians and military officers by their last title. So please call him “President Kennedy,” not “former President Kennedy.”

6. The Introduction In your Introduction, provide a background on the research that is relevant to your thesis. You don’t need to summarize all of science that could possibly be relevant. However, you need to provide background for the intelligent non-specialist. Think of your Introduction as providing a Common Operational Picture of the research that you have done. Not too much detail, not to little. Don’t forget anything that’s relevant. Provide a bit of background, but not too much.

7. Tables are good Often you can summarize information in a single table that would take many pages of text to make clear.

8. Learn LaTeX if you can Having written articles, theses, and books in Microsoft Word, FrameMaker, nroff, XyWrite, and LaTeX, I find that it’s easiest to write academic computer science in LaTeX, and easiest to write essays in Microsoft Word. It will take a while to come up to speed in LaTeX, but it will dramatically ease your formatting issues the last week before your thesis is due. Here are some recommended LaTeX References:

9. Read a lot of other master’s theses The master’s thesis has a tone all its own. You’ll do well to read five or six theses written by others—both inside NPS and in the civilian world—before starting on your own. Other References I’ve looked on the Internet and have found these references that you may find useful:

  • “How to Organize your Thesis,” Prof. John W. Chinneck, Carleton Univ