Carter Yagemann

Carter Yagemann

Assistant Professor

The Ohio State University

Systems security professor with interests in automated vulnerability discovery, root cause analysis, and exploit prevention.

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Demystifying the Master’s Thesis — Is it right for you?

Thu 21 April 2016

Originally written for the Syracuse University College of Engineering blog.

A few weeks ago I successfully defended my master’s thesis. At 55 pages long, it summarizes my research findings from two years spent in Professor Kevin Du’s lab studying the security of the Android operating system. With its acceptance, I receive the last six credits needed to complete my degree. It was a long and intense process, and honestly, there are easier ways to earn credits.

Depending on your program, a thesis isn’t always a requirement. Many students opt for their program’s non-thesis track. So, how do you know if completing a thesis is right for you?

Let’s start by defining it. A master’s thesis is a cumulative work summarizing a student’s independent research on a specific topic related to their major. In my case, that topic was the security and privacy of Android intent inter-process communication. Translation—how do applications in an Android device share messages between one another and what features can we add to protect their “conversation?”

Thesis work is overseen by a research advisor, a professor who provides feedback and direction. Ultimately, it is the student’s responsibility to find a topic and perform the study on their own. Depending on the field of research, it will generally take a student one or two years to finish writing their master’s thesis. This makes prior planning essential to ensure that the thesis will be completed in time for graduation.

Once the thesis is complete and the advisor is satisfied with the work, the student has to defend it in front of a committee of four faculty members. The defense consists of a 20-minute presentation followed by questions. It takes about an hour. Once complete, the members convene privately to decide the outcome of the defense. A thesis can either be accepted, accepted with minor revision, accepted with major revision, or rejected. Thankfully, rejections are rare when the student follows their advisor’s guidance.

Once the thesis is accepted and any revisions are made, it’s sent off for publication and will usually be printed and placed in the university’s library. Most departments give their thesis students three to six elective credits depending on how much time went into creating the thesis.

So that’s all the gritty detail of how a master’s thesis works, but why do one in the first place? If your objective is to get your degree and go directly into industry as efficiently as possible, a thesis probably isn’t for you. It’s much safer to take classes to get those elective credits and most employers value time spent in internships more. The student who should consider a thesis is one who is interested in gaining exposure to research. I could write for great lengths about the difference between being an engineer and being a researcher, but suffice to say, the open-endedness makes researching a very different ballgame. A master’s thesis is a great opportunity to test the waters and see if that’s the kind of career you want to pursue. If you go for it, it opens the door to pursue a doctorate. If not, the door to industry will certainly be open to someone with your qualifications and research.

As with anything, it’s important to make the choice that is right for you. For me, the extra effort was well worth it. This fall I’ll be a doctorate student at Georgia Tech—a goal I am very proud to achieve. My experience completing my thesis at Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science and in Professor Du’s lab has given me the confidence to take another leap into computer science research.

About The Author

Carter Yagemann ’15 is a master’s student studying computer science in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. A research assistant in Professor Kevin Du‘s Android security lab, his interests include mobile security and security education. He explores problems such as how to ensure security and privacy in Android inter-component communication. Yagemann is a student member of ACM and IEEE and competes in cybersecurity competitions with the Information Security Club in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (iSchool).