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Methods

Academic projects are different from other types of project because their main purpose is to deliver new knowledge rather than a practical product. There are some grey areas - for example, an undergraduate software engineering project might revolve exclusively around the design and development of a software application. Even in that case, though, the project should conclude with an objective evaluation of the application. The 'new knowledge' that is delivered is therefore an understanding of the quality of the design and implementation.

In delivering the knowledge outcome from an academic project, you are required to exercise the domain-specific skills you have learned during your programme of study. A secondary purpose of an academic project is to show that you have in fact learnt those skills and can apply them when called upon to do so.

In an academic project, therefore, there are often multiple objectives that have to be pursued in parallel. The first is the delivery of the knowledge output (defined in the project aim), the second is the successful demonstration of domain-specific expertise, and a third is maximising the mark you receive for the work.

The Reader

The project report culminates with the summary of the findings in the conclusions chapter. When the Reader reaches that point, they need to be persuaded that the conclusions are valid and credible, and the best ways to do that are a) to explain how they were arrived at, and b) to provide clear evidence that the selected methods were applied well. The first of these requires a discussion of the methods you have used, and the second requires material evidence that is typically placed into appendices in the report. Giving a clear explanation of the processes, techniques and tools that you have applied gives the Reader a reason to trust what you tell them at the end of the project. If you fail to explain important aspects of the process, then the Reader cannot have faith in your results. Remember that the Reader is your critic and not your friend.

The same logic can be applied to the other objectives of your project. If you want to demonstrate that you have a good command of techniques of forensic analysis, for example, it is not enough to produce some results out of a hat. In order to believe that the results, the Reader needs to know how they were produced, what techniques you selected and how you applied them. Describing your process therefore demonstrates your domain competence as well as justifying your conclusions. It should be clear from the above discussion how a clear exposition of your methods will also help to maximise your mark for the project.

In order to communicate the detail of your methods effectively to the Reader, the usual convention is to cover them in a separate chapter entitled Methodology. Etymologically, the word means 'the study of method' which give some indication of what it should contain. The rest of this section of the notes provides some guidance on the structure of a methodology chapter and on the use of a range of approaches and methods that can be applied in an academic project.