In the first of our blogposts from our Student Project Assistants, Daisy (Physics), Roxanne (Sociology), and Oriana (Politics and Sociology) share the challenges of choosing a topic and narrowing it down to develop their research questions. They share tips and advice on what has worked for them. Although the students come from different disciplines, some of the challenges they’ve faced and the strategies they have used have been surprisingly similar!

Daisy:

In Physics, we have a list of possible projects that we can choose, including a mixture of research (collecting and/or analysing data) and dissertation (analysing literature) topics for final year. The set of projects is released towards the end of summer between second and third year. It is a good idea to start considering the area of interest that you want to complete your project on and the type of project you would like to undertake over this summer. This will make it easier to narrow down your options and give a clearer sense of what you want out of the final year project. 

There is also the option to create your own dissertation title with the approval from the physics department. When the list of projects was released to us, I didn’t know which topics to pick and found the large number of possible projects overwhelming. Also, in my first read through of the list, I did not see any topics or areas that stood out to me. Due to this, I found it helpful to take a few weeks to consider my options before making any decisions on what projects I wanted to apply for.  

In these weeks, I considered all the projects and areas that I could apply for, allowing time to get a better understanding of what I want from my final year. In this period, I spoke to others on my course to discuss the projects on offer and talked over my options with my family to understand what parts of physics I am interested in. It’s important to remember that you have time between receiving the list of projects and when you must submit your top five choices. There is no rush to decide. I would recommend that you give yourself time to consider as your final year project takes up 40 credits (for physics) and so is a large portion of the year.  

Here are my top tips… 

Pick projects that are interesting not easy 

When deciding on which project choices to do, I think it is important to pick projects that you find interesting rather than those that seem easy. As your project is an important part of your third year, it is better to want to do the work for it than to force yourself to. I have found this as a common theme in my studies that when I have a module I don’t like, I struggle to succeed in it. It becomes harder to revise and learn when I cannot engage with the material.  

Pick a project that plays to your strengths 

Personally, I wanted to have a research topic as I struggle with writing essays. This is not a skill that is developed in most STEM degrees, and I don’t feel confident in my abilities to write an analysis of scientific literature. However, I have recently come to understand that even in a (physics) research project you are required to produce a 4,000 word essay. It seems that writing is generally unavoidable in final year projects. 

Reflect on the modules you enjoyed 

Additionally, I found that it was helpful to consider the modules that you enjoyed to continue in these fields for your project. I enjoyed all the computational modules in my degree and was fortunate enough to have a summer internship this year in computational astrophysics. Drawing from this interest, I wanted to use the project as an opportunity to develop my coding skills which would provide further experience to support getting a computer science career. Therefore, when narrowing down my top five projects to apply for, I chose mostly computational physics projects.  

Think carefully about your choices 

When deciding on your top five projects, it’s important to make sure that you would be happy to get any of the ones you list. A lot of people (including me) do not get their first choice and instead get given another in their top five list. To avoid this being problematic, make sure that you would be happy to receive any of your projects as it is unfortunate to become stuck with a project that you do not like because you did not think through all the potential projects. 

Roxanne:

Roxanne has recorded her experiences in an online presentation. Press play, and the sound starts 10 seconds in.

Oriana:

I’m approximately three weeks into my final year now, and the most bothersome thing for me has been narrowing down my dissertation topic. This initial part has felt, and still feels, very overwhelming for me.  

Tip 1: Brainstorm

So, my first piece of advice would be to brainstorm, but in a way that suits you. Maybe this is irritatingly obvious, but if you’re a bit like me and you keep postponing the whole ‘sitting at the desk and stressfully scribbling bits down on a piece of paper’ thing, then switch it up. This could relate to how you learn best, and so could be visual, auditory, or another way that suits you. The ‘brainstorming’ part of the process not only helped me choose my topic, but also helped me figure out what I definitely didn’t want to base my dissertation on. Ways of ‘brainstorming’ that I’ve found useful include:  

  • Going on a walk and thinking through some ideas during it. I found this helped me take the stress out of this part of the process. 
  • Making mind maps (for me, I don’t care if these are neat, I just use them to process everything, because I usually learn best by writing everything down). I started with my interests related to my faculty or school, and then started narrowing it down. 
  • Making voice notes and talking myself through my ideas. 
  • Scheduling in a specific time for a brainstorming session, which somehow made me feel more accountable to myself, and forced me to get started.  
  • Chatting with friends, supervisors or tutors for advice. Sometimes things will come up that you’ve never thought about before, but that could help you choose your topic. 
  • If you’re really stuck, go online and access a general academic journal relating to your degree subject. Have a browse through, and note down things you find interesting, and go from there. 

Tip 2: Choose a topic that you are interested in

Make sure that you’re choosing a topic that you’re genuinely interested in. Again, this might sound really obvious, but don’t just default to something you’re good at (as I almost did, at first). During my years of study, if I got a good mark in a module I’d instantly start thinking about whether I could take it further for my dissertation, even if I wasn’t majorly interested in it. Whilst being good at something and your interest in it can often correlate, think about whether you feel like you can write and research extensively on your proposed topic, and whether you really want to find out the answer to what you’re looking to investigate. Does your potential dissertation topic make you feel excited to investigate it? 

Tip 3: Take off the pressure

I felt super stressed whilst choosing my topic, it felt like my four years of university were relying on this one piece of work. I decided to force myself to stop allowing thoughts on whatever potential grade I may get on it dictate my approach to it, and in fact my entire university experience, and to instead: 

  • Start early. I know this is easier said than done, but if you can, start thinking about what your key academic interests are, ideally before you start the final academic year. 
  • Take ownership. This is your project, your last ‘drop the mic’ moment to finish your degree off.  We were also advised that we have to be the ones to “direct” our own supervisors, which has really motivated me to be as organised as possible.  
  • Remember that it doesn’t necessarily have to link with what you want to do in the future – your interests may change by the time you finish your degree. Alternatively, for some of you, it might be useful to think about what you want to do in the future. For example, if you want to do a specific Masters or work for a certain organisation, then maybe it could link to that, and it might even give you a strong foundation to start the course or job position with.  
  • Make a loose schedule early on for the entire dissertation process. Thinking about the whole process does feel intense at first, but I personally sometimes get stressed if I don’t have a plan, and this helped me to focus too. I printed out the key deadlines that we were notified of and put them on my wall, so a deadline isn’t creeping up on me. As a final year student you will also most likely have a lot of other commitments, so scheduling in specific sections to work on might help manage your time.  

Tip 4: Pinpoint your research questions early on

This is something I’ve only just learnt this week, and it’s also something I’m getting majorly frustrated with. Whilst I’ve managed to narrow down my topic, I feel like I can’t write my literature review until I’ve created my research questions. I’ve listed some things below that I’ve found useful to help with this: 

  • Print out the key pieces of literature if you can. This has ended up being quite expensive, but I find I remember more if I annotate and make notes on actual paper instead of on my laptop. (Side note: my printer is a bit broken at the moment – although for £10 from a charity shop it’s doing well –  but the company INKredible sells excellently priced ink).  
  • If you’re doing a humanities/social sciences based dissertation, start reading the relevant key texts early on to get a little refresher.  
  • Create an online bibliography of the sources you collect, with brief summary bullet points. I find that the more I read, the more a potential research question pops into my brain. Naively, before this week, I genuinely expected my research questions to come almost out of thin air, or at least that I’d have my research questions somehow by now. Unfortunately, I’ve had to read a lot more than I expected.  
  • Note down all the random questions that pop into your head whilst reading the existing literature – these could turn into research questions. 

Lastly, although I’m aware that you’re reading this primarily for academic tips and not for a motivational speech, try and forget about what everyone else is doing, and remember everyone is doing things at their own pace.  In one of our dissertation preparation introductory lectures, the lecturer pointed out that the process of the dissertation is a “marathon not a sprint”. I’m quite impatient sometimes, so this is something that I’m trying to remind myself too. Some people will seem to be thriving already, and that can be difficult to see if you’re not exactly sure on what you want to do. In reality though, you have no idea what they’re really doing and experiencing with their dissertation, and also what potential difficulties they may face in the future with it. You can’t do everything at once (a paraphrase of a saying on a little card that I randomly got from Feel Better Leeds in first year, and which has remained pinned to my varying walls throughout the years), take it step by step. Whilst the following may sound vaguely cliché, I’m still going to say it: just do your best – that’s all you can do, and that’s more than enough.  

To learn more about choosing your topic, developing research questions and writing aims and objectives, visit the ‘starting your project’ section of the Skills@Library resource, The Final Chapter.