Carnegie Mellon University

Term Paper Requirement

Students in the MSE Online program are required to demonstrate an aptitude for reflective practice. By completing a term paper, you will demonstrate your depth of knowledge in one of six key practice areas. To complete the paper, you must: (1) declare a paper topic and select an advisor; (2) conduct research appropriate for your topic and interests; (3) author a document; and (4) present and defend your work.

Overview of Term Paper Milestones

Deadline Student Action
Before or after submitting the proposal Enroll in an optional elective research writing course to learn about research methods
Prior to completion of required coursework

Form a term paper committee and submit a paper proposal with the advisor's signature and list of committee members

During the final semester

Enroll in 17-679 Thesis Writing for Software Leaders to work on writing the term paper document 

Four weeks prior to the end of the final semester Schedule a paper defense. Part-time students may choose any semester within one year of completing their coursework.
10 days prior to final semester grading deadline * Submit the final document and term paper committee signature page

* Students who fail to meet the above deadlines risk delaying their graduation by an additional semester. The final term paper document and signature page must be received 10 days prior to the final semester grading deadline.

Research Course

The MSE program offers a research writing course that introduces students to the research process with examples of several research methods. You are encouraged to enroll in this course, if you are interested in learning about a wide variety of methods. However, you may choose any method for your paper research in coordination with your paper advisor, including methods not taught in this course. The chosen method must have an associated evaluation strategy to demonstrate the efficacy of the approach and results. The program covers the following methods:

  • Case Study — a situated description of an industrial or field setting. Students reflect on an industry or field setting. Students reflect on an industry experience motivated by their coursework and by the software engineering literature. This could be a past or ongoing experience.
  • Experiment — the study of an activity in a controlled setting with falsifiable hypotheses and statistics to test these hypotheses. This includes human subject experiments and computer experiments, including computer simulations. 
  • Survey — a planned data collection using survey questions. This includes surveys of human subjects, or surveys of programs or processes. The data is frequently analyzed using statistics and situated and interpreted in the context of the software engineering literature.
  • Technical Solution — a new algorithm, architecture, or process that is designed to address a well-documented, well-motivated problem. 

Term Paper Committee

When you are ready to declare your paper topic, you must select a faculty member to serve as your  advisor, and you must work with your advisor to form a term paper committee. Your advisor will assist you in choosing a topic and narrowing down your selected topic to meet the term paper requirements within the desired timeframe to graduate.

The term paper committee serves to provide the student with guidance in their research design and writing, and to ensure that the term paper reaches a high standard of quality. The term paper committee consists of the term paper advisor and one associate member. The term paper advisor and associate member must be a member of the Carnegie Mellon faculty. An optional third associate member may be added who is typically an external area expert, chosen by the student in consultation with their advisor.

Term Paper Proposal

The proposal serves to document your preparation and readiness to advance to the writing phase. The proposal includes preliminary work that will be used in the final document, including:

  • Problem Statement —  a concise description of the problem and motivation for why the problem is important
  • Background — a detailed technical description of the history and state of the art in software engineering related to the problem and approach. The background section is typically the result of a preliminary literature review.
  • Approach — a draft description of the proposed research approach or study design.

The proposal is intended to document you and your term paper advisor’s agreement on a direction, to demonstrate the viability of pursuing research in the chosen direction, and to receive early feedback on this direction in the lead up to writing the term paper document and presenting the work at the defense.

Term Paper Document

The term paper document is the final deliverable to complete the MSE Online term paper requirement. The document should extend the paper proposal by updating the original problem statement, background and approach, as needed, and by adding the following sections:

  • Evaluation and Results — a description of the observed outcomes, including the evaluation
  • Discussion — the interpretation of the outcomes, situated in the author’s viewpoint
  • Conclusion — a summary of the term paper work, and any future work


You should decide if you want your term paper document to be published. Your paper may be published free-of-charge by the program on the program website; published free-of-charge on KiltHub, a comprehensive institutional repository maintained by CMU Libraries; and/or indexed by a publishing service for a fee (e.g., ProQuest via CMU Libraries).  

There is no requirement to publish the term paper. However, publication enables you to cite the paper in other public documents, and to share public links to the term paper document. In addition, you may consider submitting your paper to a software engineering conference for external peer review and subsequent publication (e.g., by the ACM or IEEE). Students who are considering publication in any format and who are using corporate information in their paper should review their corporate policies and seek necessary approvals prior to dissemination of that information.

Writing Course

The MSE program requires students to enroll in 17-679 Thesis Writing for Software Leaders after they have submitted their term paper proposal and prior to defending their paper. The writing course provides students with a structured, discussion-oriented learning environment across a rigorous, 7-8 week period. The course combines faculty guidance and peer-grading with writing deadlines that advance the student toward completing the term paper document.

Term Paper Defense

Upon completion of writing and with the advisor’s approval, you will schedule a presentation and defense. This event will be open for attendance by faculty and other students.