From day one until completion, your master project goes through the following phases:
- the preparation of the master project.
- the implementation of the master project.
- the reporting (orally and in writing).
- the presentation and defense.
Orientation on the topic and searching a place for the master project. A master project starts with a period of orientation on the topic. It is advisable to start your orientation activities at least several months before you want to actually start with the master project. The topic must fit within the research field of your master specialization. In this phase, try to more clearly understand and specify in which area your personal interests lie, possibly with the help of conversations with your master coordinator or mentor, other staff members or study colleagues. To get an impression of the various research possibilities, it is recommended to read master project proposals and theses, search for scientific literature on the topic, and talk to your study advisors and colleague students. Also the Internship Office ('Stagebureau' in Dutch, room R4.51) can be of assistance. Note that finding a graduation topic requires communication. You can have a certain degree of influence on the topic yourself, but do not overestimate your capability to shape the research entirely by yourself. It is a give-and-take game: people and companies that offer graduation projects have their own research areas, you yourself have interests and skills, and an intensive negotiation can lead to a concrete research set-up. If one gives total freedom to you, this is usually even a bad sign: there probably is no direct interest in and impact of your contributions. It is much better to participate in an environment where there is a good balance of interests. Also, don't get used by a company as just a programmer, or by a scientific institute as a low-level test person to do all the boring and dirty work (but: some dirty work comes naturally, and this is part of any real job, even at universities. If you shy away from that, you are lazy). At the other extreme, it is not the intention that you carry out work or business processes that are on the mission-critical path (if so, it only indicates that such an organization has not organized itself well, so why go there in the first place). You are after all a trainee. Your key interest is to write a good and relevant MSc thesis.
Specify the problem statement of your research. Once you have a clear idea in your mind, and a research group, organization or company that is ready and willing to host your work, it is time to search for a master supervisor. Contact the staff member you think is most appropriate to your MSc graduation subject. If you're wrong, or if he cannot set aside the time required for the supervision task, you will be referred to another suitable staff member. Together with the master supervisor, and in case of an internship the company, you must come to a problem statement and research approach that is acceptable for all parties. It must be described in writing. The graduation supervisor always has the last word, in case of disagreements. If he agrees, and all other conditions are met, you can start. The problem statement must be concise and focused: that means a maximum of 2 or 3 pages A4.
In the case of an internship it is advisable to formalize several issues in a contract. Many companies have standard procedures for trainees, with little or no flexibility to deviate from the procedure. You are entirely free in negotiating for a financial compensation, travel expenses etc. Note that you won't be a usual employee. In your contract it must be clearly stated that you are only working for that company for the duration of the task (generally 4-6 months); it must also be clear that you are, in principle, working in the context of getting your MSc degree and not 'just' for the company. Usually there is no problem in this regard, but you are the key person to resolve any possible tensions between academic duties and real-life practice. Thus, it is in your own interest to guarantee your scientific independence and integrity in your graduation project. According to the VU's examination regulations you may start with your graduation project only once you have finished all other classes/subjects successfully. To deviate from this rule, you must appeal to the Examination Board. Practice is slightly more liberal, but do always consult your master coordinator or mentor in these matters.
Within four weeks after commencement, a definite plan of action with planning (deadlines) must be established. This plan will be 1-2 A4 pages long. If it is longer, you are likely to loose focus. If it is shorter, probably it is not useful enough. Furthermore, at least once every three weeks you need to have contact with your master supervisor if you do your MSc work externally (at least once a week if you do it internally). You yourself must take the initiative here. In assessing your work, the supervisor considers the process as well. A lack of communication will therefore have adverse consequences on the final assessment and grading.
There are several rules concerning writing your thesis. It is the rule that also the thesis is supposed to be written within the six months available for the Master project. Sometimes it means that you work for four months and afterwards write for two months; sometimes you write each day what you do, and this writing gradually grows into becoming a thesis; frequently it's somewhere inbetween. It strongly depends on the type of activities that you perform. Discuss this issue in advance with the involved parties, and reach an agreement on it. We at the VU recommend to start early: certain chapters of your thesis can always be written at an early stage. This clarifies your thoughts while still conducting your research, and at the same time reduces the hurry and stress of finishing your work in time at the end. Your master project must be concluded with a presentation of what you have achieved. The presentation counts as a part of your final assessment (grade). It may be given at the external company (and in practice often is, because that's where your results are going to be used), but it's recommended that the university supervisor(s) is/are present at your presentation.
Once your research has been conducted and the results have been processed, the focus is on writing the final version of the Master's thesis. This is not just the finalization of your Master research study, but it is also the culmination of your entire Master study. This thesis must be written individually and is assessed in terms of your individual achievements. The length of a thesis may vary, but lies on average around 50-75 pages. However, it is not the length, but achieved results, impact, and quality that really counts.