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MA Thesis Development Seminar

G4850 MA Thesis Development Seminar

Joshua Drew, Ph.D., Instructor

(212) 854-7807


Wednesday afternoon 11:40-12:55

Course Goal:

This course is a requirement for MA students to ensure that they develop a capstone project idea within the first semester of their time at Columbia. With typically only four semesters in the program, and only two before summer field work, this course will provide a vehicle for students to think critically about the state of the field of science with which they will be making a substantive contribution through capstone project work. Additionally, this course will ensure students develop the skills to critically assess literature as well as to both give and receive criticism on their own writing. Lastly, through this course students will gain practical experience in writing grants and preparing peer-reviewed manuscripts for publication.

This course will specifically focus on the following four skills:

1) Synthesize scientific literature and understand the ‘big picture’ of science

2) Develop research and capstone projects

3) Critique scientific ideas

4) Discuss research with peers and give both formal and informal scientific talks.

Advisors will play an important role in reviewing and providing feedback on students, however the point of this course is to work with the instructor and the other students to develop ideas in a safe space before presenting more polished iterations of work to advisors.

Course Requirements:

Classes each week will consist of lectures on selected topics followed by discussion. The course will incorporate both student presentations and discussions. Because of the interactive nature of the class, student participation is a critical component of the grade. This class falls on the day before Thanksgiving and I expect active attendance in classes, and there will be no makeups. You will be responsible for all content covered in class.

Student participation:

Everyone in this class should feel comfortable to express an idea, even if the idea is not a popular one. I encourage intellectual controversy and believe it is how we learn best. We expect all students to abide by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ code of academic integrity ( Breaches of the student code such as cheating and plagiarism (that is, taking credit for the work of others) will not be tolerated, and any breaches of the student code will be referred to the Dean’s Office.

Course Evaluation:

This course will consist of lectures, discussions and writing assignments. You will have two major writing assignments, 1) the NSF GFRP fellowship and 2) a literature review in the style of Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution

1) The National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship Research Program ( is the most prestigious fellowship available to early, US citizen, graduate students. The fellowship provides a three-year stipend of $32,000 along with $12,000 a year education allowance paid to Columbia. Moreover because the fellowship is so competitive receiving the award, or even just the honorable mention, is a major predictor of future success and will be favorably viewed by Ph.D. admission committees.

The fellowship consists of two sections, a personal statement and a research statement. Each of these is space limited and will require numerous drafts. For this class you will prepare several drafts of each of these statements. For those who are not US citizens we will still work to draft this language but will identify alternative funding sources for you to submit to. NB whether you actually submit the GFRP or not is up to you and your advisor.

2) The journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution ( is an open access alternative to the venerable Trends in Ecology and Evolution. FEE publishes Mini reviews of no more than 3000 words and two figures or tables that focus on developments in the field. For your final assignment you will write a review of the sub field wherein your research lies. This review will serve to familiarize you with the intricacies of your field as well as help you frame the research you will be doing in the summer. While there is not an expectation that all of these will be published there is no reason a priori to expect that they couldn’t be submitted to FEE.

For each class you will have to read three to four drafts, you will also have to prepare one every other week. We will go over four drafts per class, spending approximately 30 minutes on each one. This means you will have to prepare about 5 min of substantive comments. Comments should be critical but not mean spirited, we are going to attempt to emulate the peer review process where the ultimate goal is to improve the quality of the manuscripts. Last year we had two honorable mentions for the GFRP, I’m hoping we can continue this track record of succes.


GFRP Personal statement 1st draft                          10%

GFRP Personal statement 2nd draft                         15%

GFRP Research statement 1st draft                         10%

GFRP Research statement 2nd draft                        15%

FEE 1st draft                                                              10%

FEE 2nd draft                                                             15%

FEE final                                                                    15%

Oral Presentation                                                      10%

Course outline:

Date:                                       Assignment Due:

September 9th                         Library Instruction

September 16th                       GFRP Personal statement 1st draft

September 23rd                       GFRP Personal statement 2nd draft

September 30th                       GFRP Research statement 1st draft

October 7th                                      GFRP Research statement 1st draft

October 14th                                   GFRP Research statement 2nd draft

October 21st (GFRP due)         GFRP Research statement 2nd draft

October 28th                                    FEE 1st draft

November 4th                                  FEE 1st draft

November 11th                         Critical Reading of Papers

November 18th                               How to Give a Bad Talk                              

November 25th                         FEE 2md draft

December 2nd                          FEE 2md draft

December 9th                           Presentations


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