Masters Student Panel on Master’s Project Proposal Development

By Jo Kwon, Managing Editor

Last week PLAN 590: Master’s Project Proposal Development had a panel of past and present students to talk about their experiences of developing their Master’s Project (MP). The seminar-based course prepares first year master’s students to work on their MP. The panel included Lance Gloss (second year student at DCRP), Graham Zicekefoose (second year student at Eastern Washington University), Lauren Prunkl (DCRP’s 2022, Transportation Analyst at Kittelson & Associates in Charlotte), and Emily Gvino (DCRP Class of 2021, Planner at Clarion Associates in Chapel Hill).

Lance’s project on Urban Forestry Planning in the Drought-Prone West

Lance’s project has evolved from his initial ideas when he took PLAN 590. His project compares fourteen urban forestry plans, including Austin, Phoenix, and Colorado Springs. He used qualitative methods, such as coding and interviews, and underwent the Institutional Review Boards (IRB) process. As his project evolved, his main research question did not change: how do cities keep their green infrastructure functional during a drought? After spending much time in the literature, the details of answering his research question changed and became clear over time.

Graham’s thesis on Geospatial Determinants of Vehicular Residency

Graham’s thesis idea developed during his volunteer work in Spokane, Washington. He realized that the data for an accurate count of people who are homeless were not easy to find. Without the data, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) cannot support homeless assistance programs well. The count for vehicular residency is especially challenging, given their constant movement. For his project, he identifies and interviews individuals who are facing vehicular homelessness. While working on his thesis, he found the lack of literature on vehicular residency challenging.

Lauren’s project on Exploring Eviction Data Collection Methods

Lauren had an idea for her project before starting her proposal with her previous work at Greenville. She found that court data on evictions were inconsistent, and the quality was not good. Although the issue is important to research, she had to narrow down her question to fit into the MP timeline. Through literature reviews and discussions with peers and advisors, she focused her project on only looking at eviction court data instead of including transportation data. She conducted interviews by searching online groups, researching organizations, and numerous cold call emails.

Emily’s project on Addressing the Health Impacts of Extreme Heat in the Southeastern United States

Emily was a dual degree student in MCRP and the Gillings School of Global Public Health (Health Behavior). Her project on extreme heat began with collecting data via a survey of public health practitioners for her summer practicum for the public health degree requirements, working with the Carolinas Integrated Sciences Assessment. While she retained the same research question, the outcomes of her project evolved from the proposal stage. She took time to narrow down her project in the methods and analysis to devote more time to a simplified but more developed final result.

Recommendations for Students Working on Master’s Project/Thesis

  • Get familiar with the IRB process! Most of the panelists emphasized their struggles with the lengthy process. Many students’ first interaction with the IRB process is after they have chosen research methods that require human subjects. After finalizing a set of methods, trying to start the IRB process as early as possible can be useful.
  • Reach out to people! All four panelists sent cold-call emails to planners, experts, organizations, and others. Even if they did not receive emails back, they found other connections by attending related events to build relationships with experts in the field. Moreover, starting by communicating with your advisor frequently can be helpful.
  • “What do you want to achieve in the future?” (from Emily) Master’s projects can lead to students’ future jobs. In developing your project, you can foster networking and relationships, build your skill sets, and carve out your professional niche. 
  • “The idea does not have to be earth-shattering to be meaningful or beneficial to the field.” (from Emily) The project idea can be simple, and doing it well is a good strategy.
  • “Create your support group!” (from Lauren) Even after PLAN 590, meet with people familiar with your work one-on-one and in groups. 
  • “Take a deep breath and eat an elephant one bite at a time!” (from Graham) A MP can seem like a major project that will take forever. Creating small goals and achieving them day by day is crucial. 
  • “Don’t worry too much! Take time and write one sentence. Write a question with a question.” (from Lance) Projects can change over time, but continuing to narrow or reframe your research question is helpful. 

Resources for a Master’s Projects

Jo (Joungwon) Kwon is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She is interested in using visualizations in plans, specifically in environmental planning. She has been a part of CPJ since 2019. With a background in Statistics and English Literature, she received her M.A. in Computational Media at Duke University. In her free time, she enjoys watching indie films, going to live performances, and drinking good coffee.

Edited by Candela Cerpa

Featured image: Master’s Student Panel on Zoom