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Managing a student research project

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Projects, dissertations and theses

Whether you are a full- or part-time student in business education, you are likely to be required to complete projects of one kind or another. In some is the project forms a relatively minor part of a course; in others, the project is virtually the whole basis on which an award is made. With a research project, at whatever level, the agenda is set by the student to a greater extent than in a taught course. Similarly, the student bears responsibility for the quality of learning that takes place in the project and for the eventual written outcome. In other words, how well you do is largely up to you!

A good working definition of research is:

"seeking through methodical processes to add to your own knowledge and, hopefully, to that of others, by the discovery of nontrivial facts and insights"

It's worth looking at this definition in a bit more depth. Research is about methodical processes – not random ones. There is an assumption of a plan to find things out and capture and report on what has been found out. This planning and organization, being methodical, is generally called the research methodology.

Research in a university setting is about adding to your own knowledge, and demonstrating to others – assessors, examiners and markers – that this has been done. For doctoral research, and some master's students, it's expected that genuine new knowledge will be created by the student in the area studied. With truly original research, it would be self-evident that a student's own knowledge would have been added to. But in all projects undertaken for educational purposes, where no genuine new insights have been uncovered, it is necessary for students to demonstrate that they have learned something themselves. This may differ from a piece of business research, where an organization may be interested in an insight to be applied in its business, without the presumption that the researcher him/herself has learned anything.

Research deals in non-trivial facts and insights. It is the framing of the project and the separation of the trivial from the non-trivial; the relevant from the irrelevant; which marks well-crafted research projects at any level. Research deals with both facts, which presume that something has been observed and noted or described, and insights, which presumes that some useful and relevant explanation has been drawn from the study.

Different purposes

A research project has many different purposes. Four common ones are:

  1. to review existing knowledge;
  2. to describe some situation or problem;
  3. the construction of something useful;
  4. explanation.

The review of existing knowledge is a very common type of student research project, particularly in diploma, undergraduate and taught master's courses. It can provide excellent research training with the added advantage that it requires little by way of resources save access to the relevant literature.

Although descriptive research may appear to be less demanding than other types this is often not so. However, due to the lack of knowledge of a subject or research methods, or both, it is quite possible that the purpose of a student's first study will be to describe something, particularly if there has been little previous research in the field.

The construction of something which is useful is an outcome of research which increasingly is being favoured by organizational sponsors and research funding bodies in business and management. In the physical sciences and engineering, students may be recruited to pursue a particular line of research such as the construction of a new type of robotic operation or artificial intelligence system.

Explanation is the ideal of all professional research workers. It is only when causal rather than statistical relationships are identified that generalizations may be made or laws formulated.

Different expectations

All institutions who offer degrees publish regulations for the guidance of candidates. Before beginning a research project, it is clearly important to read carefully and annotate the guidelines, and we would strongly recommend that the guidelines are again read carefully before beginning to actually write the project. Not all guidelines express clearly and precisely what is expected, and in any case, students should always make the institution's expectations of standards an early (and documented) topic of discussion with a supervisor or department head.

For example, the criterion for the degree of Master of Philosophy by research at one university was that an MPhil thesis should display:

"a good general knowledge of the field of study; a comprehensively particular knowledge of some part or aspect of the field of study; some original contribution to knowledge or understanding".

and a PhD thesis should display:

"an original contribution to knowledge or understanding".

Questions and clarifications which might arise from these stated requirements might be, for example:

  • How comprehensive is a "comprehensively particular knowledge" expected to be?
  • Is the PhD also expected to demonstrate a "good general knowledge in the field of study"?
  • How should the difference between "some original contribution" and "an original contribution" be judged? Is this the only significant difference of depth between the two?

Guidelines will always embody both "compulsory" elements which require students to conform to some standard, and "free" elements where students can display their own approach. Thus, under compulsory elements the need to observe certain typographical standards – for example, that text be typed double-spaced with at least a 40 mm margin on the left and a 25 mm margin on the right – should be noted. Similarly, the work of others must be properly referenced, with some institutions prescribing the form that citation of particular types of work such as journal articles should take. Non-negotiable guidelines on matters such as binding, appendices, margins, figures, and pictures are almost always given. Students should simply note and conform to them. Not to do so will usually automatically lose marks.

A useful way of coming to grips with requirements is for a student to scrutinize theses or dissertations in their library. However, the research reports produced by students who were successful in the past can for a variety of reasons be an imperfect guide to present standards. Modestly written reports may have been redeemed by a brilliant defence at an oral examination. The standards of the field may have changed as more research has been completed.

First degree and diploma projects

This category includes studies which form part of courses at the first level of higher education, many of which are referred to as "degree equivalent". Analytical rigour, particularly in terms of extensive quantitative testing, is not usually demanded. However, independent enquiry – gathering data from outside classes, and making sense of that, through exercise of judgement – is normally expected. Most courses will ask for a reasonable standard of presentation of the results. In some cases, students will be expected to display competence in specific areas – for example, the ability to collect data.

It is customary for the projects to comprise part of the student's assessment. Rarely will projects represent less than 10 per cent of a particular year's assessment. In some instances (for example, the sandwich course with a whole year in industry) the project may be the only academic assessment made during a part of the course.

With the requirement for independent enquiry comes the need for planning how the enquiry should be pursued. What is often not appreciated by tutor or student is that there is much more to research methodology than may initially be supposed. Time devoted to studying the research process is therefore a worthwhile investment.

Although research is a vital element of further education it should not be assumed that all tutors have had significant research experience. Academic staff may have been overseeing first degree or diploma projects for many years, but this does not guarantee competence in research methods.

If a student can demonstrate that he or she can display competence in, and has learned about, the process of research, and not just about the subject areas studied, this is likely to lead to a more successful outcome in terms of grading.

Taught master's degree dissertations

A feature of recent decades has been the growth in master's degrees obtained by "study and dissertation", such as the Master of Business Administration (MBA). Thus, typically, a one-year full-time course may comprise nine months of taught courses, with three months being available for a project to be written up as a dissertation. A period of the order of three months is insufficient to enable much more than a descriptive account about a line of enquiry. The absence of validation (very rigorous analysis), generalization (wider application of findings outside the specific case studied) and originality (genuine new knowledge), distinguishes dissertations of this type from the thesis of the pure research degrees.

Where the elapsed time made available for a postgraduate dissertation is rigidly controlled, students need to plan their project very carefully and in particular should avoid being over-ambitious. There are, however, some courses which permit a student to take much longer over their dissertation (possibly to include an additional two or more years of part-time study). Although the dissertation may then be more substantial due to a greater opportunity to collect data, the probability of completion can be reduced by the competing demands of employment and remoteness from an academic environment.

Master's degrees by research theses

The requirements for the successful completion of projects in a master's degree by research will vary institution to institution. Always be sure to check and make sure you understand the regulations of your institution. In particular, the degree of originality needed and the extent to which generalization of the results is possible may be unclear. Typically, the contribution to knowledge of a master's thesis should be of some significance, particularly in view of the fact that it is likely to serve as a reference work.

Externally, assessors will give attention to the thoroughness of the research as indicated by the bibliography, in addition to the analysis, conclusions, and the standard of presentation.

Doctoral degree theses

This is the highest level of student research activity and, although students may proceed to careers in research itself, the doctoral project will probably be the last occasion when they are formally assessed on the grounds of both research competence and originality. The major aim is to present a thesis for external assessment which will prove to be satisfactory in both respects. A subsequent aim may be, through publication, to become recognized as an expert in the field of study chosen. The requirements are, inevitably, more demanding than those of the master's degree by research. For example, the University of Manchester's Ordinances state that:

"the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is awarded by the University in recognition of the successful completion of a course of supervised research, the results of which show evidence of originality and independent critical judgement and constitutes an addition to knowledge".

The achievement of a doctorate in any subject will represent a major investment in terms of time and effort. Usually, the process requires at least three years and there is no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Projects and the part-time student

Part-time students devote part of their time to academic study and the remainder usually to employment. Predominantly, they are managers or professionals who wish to add to their career potential by supplementing a qualification at degree or equivalent level with a higher degree.

Although there is a significant trend towards the inclusion of formally assessed projects within first degree programmes, which has exposed students to aspects of the research process, an equally important trend has been the growth of master's projects undertaken by part-time students in employment – again, notably, the MBA and its derivatives. The dual status of student and employee provides opportunities not previously available, as the researcher might well be in a position to move beyond recommendations to assuming responsibility for change within the organization. If this is the case, action research, rather than applied research is in prospect.

Whilst positive advantages can be created by part-time study, difficulties can arise, often created by the absence of a high measure of contact with faculty and fellow students. The motivation needed to sustain research effort over, possibly, a five-year period, has to be of a high order. Access to facilities and supervisors is much more restricted than is the case with full-time students and the value of self-management of the research project is therefore greater.

Timing and quality

At any level, the two key factors which must be borne in mind are timing and quality. In some cases, the time constraint is inflexible. Failure to hit the deadline means you don't get the qualification. This means, to avoid completing something on-time but sub-standard, that you are going to have to create a carefully drawn-up plan – and stick to it.

Please note – always read and make sure you understand your university's regulations regarding late submission.

Timeliness and quality may sometimes be seen to be competing elements for students. Be warned – that's not how your examiners will see it! Both are expected.

This article is adapted by the authors from: J.A. Sharp, J. Peters and K. Howard, Gower Press, 2002.

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