These notes cover some important topics related to the types of project that you might need to do at university. While projects in other contexts are focussed solely on the technical outcomes, university projects all have an academic aspect. That is, they need to take relevant theoretical concepts into account. Different types of project have different academic requirements. The table below shows some examples.
|Coursework project||Low||In a typical technical module, you need to demonstrate that you understand the technology you are using.|
|Group project||Low||Usually, group projects are more about teamwork than academic theory. You still need to demonstrate your competence and understanding.|
|Internship||Low/Medium||An internship is essentially a workplace project; however, if you are working in an academic context it will require a good understanding of the relevant academic material.|
|Individual technical project||Medium||When you have chosen your own project topic, you need to demonstrate effective decision-making as well as technical competence.|
|Honours project||High||The Honours project is a step up from earlier studies: it shows that you can handle theoretical concepts as well as technical ones.|
|Masters project||High||The Masters project has similar requirements to the Honours project and is a little more specialised. A good MSc project might lead to a publication.|
|PhD project||Very high||In a PhD, you are expected to generate new knowledge in your chosen field. This is a considerable step up from earlier levels. A PhD student is expected to publish their work.|
Some things are important whatever level you are working at. For example, to do a successful project, time management is crucial. However, this is just the most obvious manifestation of a more fundamental point: the person responsible for the project is YOU. In many other types of university work, you are following someone else's plan. They have already thought about the scope of the work, the schedule, the risks, the expected level of quality, the resources required, etc. In a project, you have to do all of those things.
Do not rely on luck for the successful completion of your project. You must actively manage it which means
- taking time to fully explore the problem
- considering what the best approach might be
- taking responsibility for any additional learning that might be necessary
- thinking about what might go wrong and what you might do about it
Adopt a systematic approach. Because it is a university project, you need to show that you know the right methods to apply to a problem, and that you can actually apply them in practice. You are never starting from scratch: whatever area you are working in, there will be existing methods to use. It is your responsibility to identify appropriate methods and to learn how to use them. Making it up as you go along is the worst thing you can do.
Objectivity is crucial. Someone working on a commercial software application naturally wants to persuade people that their application is better than the competition. This might involve persuasive language and a certain amount of exaggeration of the product's features. Taking an academic approach in contrast is all about extracting knowledge from a situation. To do that, it is important to accurately evaluate strengths, weaknesses, limitations, etc. Every academic project should include a final evaluation, for example, where the quality of the final outcome is discussed - ideally using a defined systematic procedure. The top priority is to learn something from doing the project and not to deliver a perfect solution to the problem (which is not possible in any case...).
The other sections of these notes are structured around the different types of activity that go into academic projects. Because projects share certain features, these activities are relevant at all levels to some extent. For example, all academic project require some references to appropriate literature. The extent of the literature review and the level of detail required both increase with each step up the scale of projects. Even in a technical coursework project, however, you are expected to know something about the context you are working in, even if that just means making use of an appropriate textbook.
The idea is that these notes can serve as reference material that you can drop into as required rather than following a strict sequential path through them.