Three Tips for a Successful Start to your Academic Project

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So, you have contacted me to undertake a project (Dissertation/FYP/Thesis) together.  That is Great!  I am enjoying it already.

I always find myself repeating the same pointers to each student at the start (or throughout the project really).  Thought I would write them down for posterity.  So here comes my recipe for success, for the first few weeks at least.

My projects are typically on the life sciences/computer science interface (but we’ve had many different ones – including intelligent automated sports betting).  But these three ingredients apply to any kind of project really.

0 – READ

The first, absolute must-do if we are going to do this is that you must read – and learn how to read.  This means papers, books, articles on the subjects you are weak and don’t know.  You cannot shallow read (abstract/introduction/conclusion) – this has to be taken seriously, and you have to jot down notes about what you read (and hopefully learn).  In fact, the first task I will give you is to find five to ten scientific papers (depending on how familiar you are with the subject at hand) in the specific area we are going to tackle and ask for a presentation with a summary of each paper where I get to ask questions.  This is not a small and trivial task to do well, and usually takes two/three weeks.  Also, this is not the end of your reading, but the beginning.  So put your reading glasses on.  If you don’t have reading glasses, you are probably going to need some by the end of this project…

1 – WRITE (Keep a Research Journal)

The second thing I ask students is to keep a research journal.  This may take various forms – an online blog, a physical pen and notebook (I love ruled and coloured Moleskine and Leuchtturm), Github (create an account, because you are going to need it anyway), or Word/LaTeX documents.  Each meeting, typically held fortnightly, will start by going through the “agenda”.  The agenda consists of Date/Time/Location of meeting, folks present, and three main sections:

  • Where were we – a small recap of where we left off of last week
  • These last n weeks – what you have been up to since the last meeting (results, or attempts at getting some).  This is a sectioned list of bullet points with each strand of research properly and separately addressed.
  • What is next – what you are going to tackle next

It is up to you to decide whether to have one document (with many entries) or many separate documents (per entry).  In case of the latter, the filename should start with the date (YYYYMMDD) so they can be naturally sorted.  Don’t forget to send me electronic copies of the journal by email before the meeting.  I need to prepare too.

This research journal (or whatever you want to call it) is the basis of our discussion and needs to be updated regularly.  Trust me I’ve done this during my D.Phil, and it has served me gold.  You level up if you do this.  Here are a few examples of meeting reports picked randomly from my days in Oxford.  Note that sometimes an entry is just a few bullet points long, and sometimes it is considerably more detailed (hopefully when we get results of sorts).  Again, I strongly advocate the use of bullet points; these make it easier to read through it.  This is the research log of one of my students, Joseph D’Emanuele (originally in the form of a shared google document).

Goku
Goku levelling up (Dragon Ball Z) – same as you if you follow these three simple rules

I always tell my students that the only way to learn how to write scientifically, is to read (refer to heading 0 above).

2 – REWRITE (the Proposal in Your Own Words)

The third thing I will ask from you is to rewrite the proposal in your own words.  This, of course, only applies if I wrote the original proposal.  This serves a couple of purposes, but the most important of all is that you understand the scientific question we are trying to answer, and why it is important.  Note that proposals and objectives change, and it is common – especially for a post-graduate student – to change the research question during the course of your project.  If you don’t have a proposal yet, this third step will make sure you write one.


Concluding, this is already quite a lot to do, and you haven’t even started yet!  So roll up your sleeves and get going.  The most important thing is to remember that this is your project, and you have to take ownership of it.  For my part, I promise we will have fun and swear in equal measures!

Soon you will start thinking about your Progress Report (read: What is in a progress report?).  We will get there, one step at a time.

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