Forms & Requirements

M.S. Essay Requirements

Guidelines for a Masters Degree Expository Essay

The writing requirement for the M.S. degree without thesis (Plan B) is satisfied by an expository essay. This essay must be approved by an individual member of the Graduate Program faculty, usually (but not always) the student's academic adviser. The essay is not "defended" as part of the final oral exam, and only the essay advisor's signature is required.

One intent of this requirement is to give the student a supervised opportunity to develop "armchair expertise" in an area of interest. Additionally, the student gains the experience of undertaking a longer term project and completing an extensive and intensive written scientific report.

There is considerable variation among faculty as to what they expect and will accept in an essay. The "requirements" described here are meant as guidelines only - other approaches, with prior approval, may be accepted.

In most cases, a scholarly, critical review of the literature on a topic is expected. (In some cases, original research performed as part of an Advanced Special Problems course or other laboratory, field, or data analysis experience may be substituted.) You may select virtually any area of environmental interest, although in some cases choosing a different faculty member as the essay advisor may be appropriate. Discuss the essay with this advisor as early as you like, but get preliminary approval before going too far. Then after a brief look at the available literature, submit an outline. This will not be binding, but will provide an initial structure for the review. You then are expected to read virtually all of the available literature on the subject, within reason (less important old or foreign language papers may be omitted).

For the essay itself, do not simply summarize each paper. The major contribution of the reviewer is to organize, or structure, the subject, citing the relevant literature where appropriate. If you come across a conflict between two references, try to resolve it if possible, or at least note the contradiction.

Submission of a draft in most cases is not necessary. The finished paper should be turned in at least two weeks prior to the oral exam.

Some additional points are given below.


  • title page;
  • table of contents;
  • literature cited section with complete citations;
  • page numbers;
  • headings and subheadings - with consistent hierarchy (this shows the organization of your topic - a major contribution of a scholarly review).

To allow for editing

  • double space;
  • margins - 1.25" on left; 1" on top, bottom, and right;
  • use a word processor.


  • sufficient to cover topic in depth, without padding;
  • if possible, choose topic so that this can be accomplished in 30-40 pages.


  • Formal - Do not use contractions (like "don't").
  • Use third person (not "I", "we", or "you").


  • Cite by author's last name and year; for two authors give both; for three or more use et al. in the text, but give all (as well as the full title of the paper) in the Literature Cited section (see the journal Water Research for an example of a good style; other appropriate styles may be substituted with advisor approval).

"Significant" - In scientific writing, this term is reserved for statistical analysis, and must be accompanied by the probability value (e.g., "p < 0.05").

Foreign words, such as et al., in situ, and species names, must be italicized (or underlined).


  • Use a spell-checker.
  • Check all calculated values (including those cited from others).
  • Make sure that every citation is included in the Literature Cited section, and that no uncited works are included there.

Read the whole thing through at least once yourself!


  • Reference all statements that are not your own. WARNING: failure to properly cite sources is PLAGIARISM!
  • Avoid quoting if possible - quote properly when necessary.
  • All statements you make (unless qualified) become yours to defend.

Tables and Figures

  • Put each on a separate page.
  • Number tables and figures separately.
  • Each must be referred to in text.
  • Indicate source on table or figure.
  • Placement - all tables followed by all figures at end of text.