Student project guide

Whatever course you are using this book on, it is very likely that you will be required to write a research based project at some stage. At my own university, for example, first level students in Politics have to complete a research-based project which is weighted as a credit based module. These notes of guidance are intended to help you begin, prepare and complete such a project. Some of the advice is 'generic' - in other words, it applies to any project, even to projects beyond Politics. I finish with a 'worked example' of how a project might be chosen and completed on British politics.

What is a project

Projects come in many shapes and forms, and the first important thing to do is to look closely at the examination regulations or the course guide to get an exact idea of what you in particular are required to do. But most projects have these features:
  • They are longer than essays: typically, anything up to 10,000 words or more may be required.
  • They are independently formulated. When you write an essay you are usually given a title to work to - usually a 'question' to answer. But most projects demand, as part of the exercise itself, that you work out your own topic or question. You will of course usually get help from a teacher or tutor. But getting the subject right is often the key to success: see below for advice.
  • They are usually research based. An essay normally only requires that you read the 'secondary' literature, as it is conventionally called: that it, books or journal articles that report research. Indeed you will normally be given a list of recommended reading. But most good projects, and virtually any imaginable good project in the area of British politics, will demand some 'primary' research: that is, observations or investigations that examine directly evidence about some aspect of the process of government. We use the label 'primary' precisely because the evidence gathered is not filtered through the work of some other investigator. And that material has to be hunted down, and you have to decide what to use - and what to ignore.
These features of projects impose special requirements for successful completion. You cannot simply transfer the techniques used for successful essay writing, where you are working on a smaller scale, with a 'given' question, and using pre-digested secondary sources.

Choosing a subject

Because you usually have to do this yourself, albeit with advice, it is in many ways the most important part of the process: land yourself with an unrealistic choice and you create enormous problems. But don't be alarmed: the rules for success are simple, and amount to little more than commonsense.

The five golden rules for choosing a subject are:
  • Start early. Even if your course does not require you to work on a project for some months, begin thinking of possibilities as soon as you receive the 'ground rules' for the project. The reasons for this are obvious: it gives you time to do a bit of early homework, to assess the feasibility of your idea; it gives you time to retreat if it turns out that you have gone up a blind alley; and it gives you time to 'fine tune' the idea.
  • Consult. Never settle on a subject without consulting someone - preferably your teacher or tutor. They are a fund of experience: they can advise you on feasibility; and can often save huge amounts of time by pointing you to short cuts and sources.
  • Make it research based, unless the rules specifically ask for something else, like a review of the literature. Students very often want to give their own personal 'spin' on some aspect of British politics: are we democratic, for example? Fine: but subjects like these have been endlessly argued over, and the chances of making an original contribution are slight. But if you report research that nobody has done before, you almost by definition are making an original contribution. So if you want to explore whether Britain is democratic, put it in the form of a case that allows you to contribute to that debate: for example, have changes in Conservative Party organisation, or in the recent regulation of party funding, made for more or less democracy?
  • Be realistic. This is why starting early and consulting are so important. Most of us - myself included - start with ideas for research that are just too big. Whatever the particular ground rules you work under, you are not required to write an 80,000 word book! The subject most be 'doable' within the word limit set, and must be 'doable' within the available time. At my university, for instance, guidelines are set for the hours of work normally required for modules: a 20 credit module normally requires 200 hours work in all (class contact, class preparation, course reading, etc.) Look up the requirements in your case, or if there are no formal guidelines, ask your teacher for advice. Faced with a proposal from one of my own students for a 20 credit project I always ask the question: can this be done in 200 hours? That is the conventional equivalent of five full time (40 hour) weeks of work.
  • Plan your time. As the above shows, one feature of a project is that it makes much greater demands on time than do essays. We have all, when pressed, dashed off an essay at very short notice and got away with it in the sense of achieving a pass mark. It is not ideal, but it can be done. It is vital to realise that projects cannot be dashed off. Not only do they demand planned chunks of time. The balance of work needs to be planned: for instance, students often leave writing up too late, thus failing to do justice to the hard work of research. Time planning is part of project selection because different subjects demand a different balance of time between research and writing. For instance, if you decide to analyse a quantitative data set (for instance opinion poll data to do with the attitudes of electors) you will find that getting, understanding and analysing the data set take up a disproportionate amount of time; writing up the results can take a comparatively briefer amount. By contrast, if you decide to conduct a project on 'The Political Philosophy of Tony Blair' you will find most of the material - like his major speeches - easy to hand, but will have to spend a lot of time drafting, and redrafting, the main argument of your project. Planning your time needs to take two forms:
  • You need a rough idea of the number of hours you will give to the project, and need a rough breakdown of the proportional allocation to the main tasks: primary research, writing a first draft, redrafting, preparing your final submitted project.
  • You need to allocate these hours across your academic year up to submission deadline. Some work can be done in short bursts: true, for instance, of quite a bit of library based research. By contrast, most people find that to write they need to block out fairly substantial chunks of uninterrupted time. Try to fit the project round the rhythm of your other work: essay deadlines, for example, will give you busy and less crowded parts of the year, the latter suitable for project work. Some projects may demand that you block out longer periods of time - for instance, if you have to go to a specialist library to consult material only available there.

Researching and writing the project

Notice what I have done here: declined to separate out clearly the activity of researching and writing. The biggest single mistake students make is to imagine that, first, they will do the research, and then, second, will write it up. In successful projects the two activities are mixed together, even though the balance between them changes over the life of the project. The timing of a good project is like a multi layered sandwich: two thick slabs of writing at the top and bottom, and alternating layers of research and writing in the middle.

A typical process would look like this.

  • You have your general idea, maybe not much more than a single question or hunch. Now write two A4 sides about it quickly: a quarter on the main idea and how you propose to research it, and why it is worth researching; a quarter on the main sources you will use - i.e. how you will do the actual research; a quarter on a first outline of the structure of the project (that will be no more than three or four headings of possible 'sections' or 'chapters'); and a quarter on your timetable, ending with submission date, and indicating your own personal deadlines for drafting sections of the project. Don't worry if all this seems unrealistic. It will certainly change greatly over the life of the project, but it gives you a framework, and something to show to a tutor.
  • Redraft the original 'proposal', again over a couple of A4 sides, in the light of discussions with your tutor. This time you will have a more realistic idea of structure and timing, and of length: put rough word budgets by each section. If the rules specify a maximum of 10,000 words you won't get extra marks for writing 20,000; more likely you will be penalised.
  • Draft your first section or 'chapter'. This 'frames' the project. It expands the initial brief outline: explains what it is about, why you have chosen a particular subject or focus, explains the main lines of your argument. All this can be drafted quickly and roughly, in the knowledge that you will return and modify it at second draft stage. Notice that we have reached stage 3 without yet doing 'research'.
  • Now comes the main research stage. Ideally, you would research each planned section or chapter in turn, and then write a rough draft of each. But real life is often more messy. Sometimes - for example if most of the material you want to gather is in a specialised research library or historical archive - you just have to do most of it in one spell. Sometimes, for instance if you are relying on a quantitative data set about something like elections, you have get right on top of the data before you start to write. But if your 'research' is largely concentrated in one spell, be very disciplined: allocate the amount of time you will devote to this in advance, and stick to your plan. There is always more research that you could do, and with that frame of mind, you will never get round to writing.
  • Always make a note of material that you have gathered. Go easy on the photocopier or the printer for downloaded material. Even if you have copies of the material, make a summary note of it: that makes sure that you have read it carefully. Don't think that just because you copied it, or downloaded it onto a memory stick, you somehow know it.
  • Draft the remaining sections/chapters, including your conclusion, trying to stick to the word counts you set yourself. Don't worry if it all seems rough, or if there are sections that you have to leave blank. That is in the nature of drafts, and a good sign that you are mixing writing and research.
  • Re-draft. I always tell my students: it isn't the writing that's important, it's the rewriting. This is another big difference from essay writing. Most essays can be written at one 'go', the result then being just fine-tuned with a bit of cutting and pasting. But rewriting is much more important with a project. Your ideas change over time; new research changes what you drafted some time ago. Above all, you will have had the opportunity to show all or some of the drafts to your tutor, and will want to redraft in the light of comments and advice. And don't be shy of showing drafts to others: parents, siblings, friends, lovers, spouses.

Submitting the finished project

You may be submitting to your teacher who then despatches the project to external examiners, or it may be that the examination is internal. But in either case some elementary rules should be followed. Each year students lose marks for well-researched work because they ignore this stage.
  • Allow time for final preparation. Even when you think you have finished, there is often still a lot to do: checking that your list of sources is complete; checking your spelling and grammar.
  • Follow the rules. Check the exact rules for submission - one copy or two, double or single spaced, and so on. The rules governing how you cite sources are particularly important. Most examining bodies and departments lay down their own conventions. Some specify Harvard rules: you put Moran 2015, p.21 if you are citing this book as a source, and then put the full publication details in a consolidated list of sources at the back. (The further reading in this book, and the extended list of further reading on the web site, are both examples of Harvard citation conventions.) Alternatively, you may be asked for endnotes: gather all your citations in sequential notes at the end. The choice between different conventions is rather arbitrary, though Harvard is becoming dominant. The only rule is: obey the instructions laid down by examiners. If no instructions are laid down, pick one method (e.g. Harvard) and stick to it. Above all, make sure you cite sources: they are the evidence that you have actually done the work.
  • Budget time for disasters. Virtually every year I have a student who misses the submission deadline because of some unforeseen problem. This can be simple but traumatic, such as the printer breaking down when you are printing off the final version an hour before final submission deadline; or as serious as a domestic or family emergency disrupting work. In laying out your original timetable set your own completion deadline at least a week or so before the official submission deadline to allow for delays.

A Politics Project: a worked example

Now that we have the general idea of how to go about doing a project, let's work through an example. I base it on an imaginary college, though the imaginary college is not far from my own. In this college, students specialising in Politics at first level (first year) are required to write a project, maximum 8,000 words, which accounts for 20 credits (out of a year total of 120.) On the University's guidelines, this should take about 200 hours of work, or the equivalent of five weeks full time on a conventional working week of 40 hours. The project can be chosen from a range of subject areas (for instance British Politics, American or European, or Political Theory.) But here I am a student interested in Britain.
  • I start college at the end of September, and discover that I am required to complete the project by 5 pm on Friday May 13th next calendar year.
  • By end October, when a project meeting for all students is held, I have a general idea of what I would like to work on: I would like to show that big business controls British politics.
  • First week November: I meet one of the tutors assigned to supervise projects on British politics. She points out to me that a) my subject is enormous; b) I have already decided my answer in advance; and c) there is already a large academic literature on this general subject and that if I just tackle the general question I am unlikely to make any original contribution of my own. But in discussion we realise that a general election is imminent, and that one big issue is how far the political parties rely on business for their finances. She directs me to a great book - Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, British Political Finance 1830-1980 (Pinto-Duschinsky 1981 in the list of references on this site). After reading it, I decide to investigate whether the Conservative Party's reliance on business finance has grown or diminished since Pinto-Duschinsky finished his research.
  • Mid November: I do my preliminary 'two A4' sides and e mail them to my supervisor. My title now is: ‘Business and Financial Support for the Conservative Party since 2005.’ This won't answer the question, does big business control British politics, but it will provide an important piece of evidence affecting that broad question. My supervisor has guided me to the Electoral Commission. On its web site (www.electoralcommission.gov.uk). I discover that the parties have to submit annual accounts, and also all details of the identity of significant donors. This will be my main source of evidence. Using Google Scholar (see guide to using the Web on this site) I have also traced a number of articles in journals about party financing in Britain in recent years.
  • Mid November: I meet my supervisor to discuss my outline, who now has an additional suggestion: why don't I compare the sources of donations to the two big parties, Labour and Conservative, to see if they really differ? This will allow me to test the idea that the two main parties are now both equally reliant on business for financial support, and this finding, if true, would strengthen my 'business dominates British politics' argument.
  • Last week November: I revise my two 'A4' sides. I will now compare the sources of Labour and Conservative donations in the latest year for which the electoral commission provides data. I sketch a hypothesis: that Labour is now as close to business as the Conservative Party, and this will show up in the pattern of recent donations. Notice how far my project subject has changed from my original idea. My outline structure and timetable are now closely linked: first chapter of 2,000 words by mid December; basic research on party finance, to be completed by end January; draft chapter on Labour Party, by mid February (2,000 words); draft chapter on the Conservative Party, by mid March (2,000 words); draft conclusion by end March, (1,000 words.) This leaves me with 1,000 words 'slack' to accommodate any expansion as I write: my supervisor explains that I am more likely to find difficulty keeping to the limit than to find myself short of words. (She turns out to be right.) A second draft will be written in the last two weeks of the Easter vacation, which coincides with the last two weeks of April. This gives me ample time to do final checking before submission date of 13 May.
  • Over the next few months I manage to keep mostly to my planned timetable. I e-mail my rough drafts to my supervisor, and we meet to discuss her comments on each successive chapter. But I get a bad bout of flu near the end of March and only manage to draft the conclusion by mid April. This means that I have to launch straight away into the second draft, which takes me a little longer than estimated: I finish by 6 May. My main conclusion is that that the Labour and Conservative parties, though more similar than they used to be, still rely heavily on different sources for their funding. I now have only a week to check my references, and to 'fine tune' the argument and the style, and because I have other work to do I am pressed for time. I nevertheless submit the project in good time, on May 12: I am superstitious about submitting on Friday 13th.
  • At the end of June I discover that I received 68%, just short of a distinction, for the Project. I am disappointed and ask my supervisor for advice. She explains that my research was first rate, and my argument convincing, but that I lost marks for sloppiness in presentation: I had used the spell check on my word processing software to check my spelling, but this failed to pick up a number of glaring spelling errors and typographical mistakes in the final manuscript. I had, for instance, intended to write in one sentence: 'Many leading donors to the Conservative Party are bankers' but a typo turned this into 'Many leading donors to the Conservative Party are bonkers' - a mistake that my spell check failed to spot.

A Note on Plagiarism:

'Plagiarism' means the unacknowledged use of the work of others: copying without acknowledgement sentences or more, or figures, tables, illustrations found in other published sources (whether on the web or in hard copy.) It is an extreme form of dishonesty: in effect, it steals from the work of others. It is also a serious offence, and if discovered always leads examiners to impose punitive sanctions. You should never even contemplate plagiarism. Examiners usually know the main authorities well and will recognise plagiarised material. Increasingly sophisticated word recognition programmes mean that material plagiarised from the web can be readily detected.

Fortunately, plagiarism is easy to avoid. A simple rule is: if in doubt, always acknowledge the source of a remark, a figure or an argument, with a citation.