One of the most important pieces of work on the natural sciences course in both third and fourth year is the report detailing your research project done throughout the year. Moving from five-week long module deliverables to such a large piece of work felt pretty daunting to me, and considering nearly every waking moment in fourth year is spent thinking about, doing, or writing about the research project, I thought I’d share some things that have helped me.
Define the aim of your project
Most projects are given with a title and a brief description, and the first thing you need to do is find where this sits in the literature of the particular field. There are various ways you can do this, such as using databases like Web of Science of Scifinder, or just Google Scholar. In my experience, the most effective way of getting a sense of the research area is to follow citations. There might be a key paper that your project is building on – look into who else cited it and gradually the key research groups start to become clear. It’s worth bearing in mind that your supervisor likely has several students, as well as PhD students, PostDocs and so on, so you might come across something they didn’t consider. My third year project was based around a certain technique, for example, but I found another group that did things differently, and this alternative proved to be one of the most significant parts of my results.
Keep long-term planning flexible
One of my friends in fourth year has been delightfully surprised so far this year, in that everything in his project seems to be working nearly first time, because this never seems to happen! This week, for example, I had a well-defined plan of things to achieve by Friday, but now things are looking quite different. From laser dyes not arriving on time, lasers mysteriously going out of alignment, the teaching labs being out of ice so your sample evapourates, and the supercomputer going offline, to just getting bad results without yet knowing the reason why, getting good data is hard. Because of this, having your neatly laid out plans shattered on a regular basis can be incredibly draining, and everything can feel quite hopeless. You always need a backup plan of what you can be doing in the meantime, or an alternative way to tackle the same problem.
Help is everywhere
Sometimes, some of the most valuable people can be those working in the same lab as you, as they’ll know where everything is, the techniques you’re trying to perfect, and most importantly, likely know why things are going wrong. Getting advice from someone not involved in your project can also be a big help (one of the benefits of the regular project seminars). When I was doing computational work last year, there was something wrong with my submission script for the supercomputer, and the guy that helped me fix it ended up also helping me a great deal with some calculations. Along with your supervisor, there are many people around who’ve likely been through the same issues you’re currently stuck on.
Write your introduction as soon as possible
It seems nearly universal that writing the introduction to the project report is the most difficult. Knowing what theory to cover, and how much detail to go into will vary depending on the supervisor, so it’s vital to get this done early and get some feedback to know where you should be heading.
Justify and criticise everything
This is fairly standard practice in writing any lab report, but it can often be overlooked. When I was doing computer simulations, there was a good thirty or more ways of calculating the energy of the systems I was using. Everyone working on similar molecules seemed to go for a certain method – why? Trying to see the desired results in the noise is also tempting, but thoroughly outlining the assumptions in all your methods is critical. There have been several times where I was sure I was seeing a signal of the molecule I was trying to find, only to realise I hadn’t loosened the valve properly so none of it was actually going through the vacuum chamber..
Leave time for formatting
On the final weekend before the report deadline I had added a good few thousand words when I realised something: Ms Word had stopped saving. It took a good hour to finally identify there was a sentence written about 5 hours earlier that had somehow become corrupted. Word seems to behave very differently when you get to around a hundred pages, and all my carefully placed formatting seemed to fall apart at the seams. Converting the document to a PDF suddenly changed all the superscript numbers to white boxes, for example…I vastly underestimated how much time it would take just to get the document together correctly, and as a result the report wasn’t as polished as it could have been.