Master’s Projects

For those who don’t know, a science Master’s degree (MSc) is often split into two parts – taught and project. In any given MSc, the taught course is the same for all the students, but the projects are chosen from a list prepared by various other academics in related areas. Giving each student their own project is part of the MSc experience in giving people an insight into research, be it Industrial or Academic.

Pie MSc

For MSc students, it’s a great opportunity to start thinking about what areas to focus on and gain experience/contacts in.

For me, MSc projects are a great opportunity to get a free pair of hands to try out some of the crazier research ideas we don’t have the time to look at 😀

Other academics don’t always share this positive view and sometimes see MSc projects as a time sink that are so short that they can’t possibly be of any practical use (translation: they won’t get a paper out of it).

That kind of thinking to me is madness. In my time as a Industrial researcher (pre-PhD) we had several students who were with us for a matter of weeks, who still managed to get work done from the category of ‘Interesting, but too off-topic for us’, which then went on to be of great value. Even during my PhD, I had an A-Level student come in for just a week and their work helped immensely with one of my projects (they even got an acknowledgement on our paper).

So this week I will be writing three MSc project proposals for students to choose from and I thought I’d share my thoughts behind preparing one that is (I hope) likely to be the most productive for everyone.

It’s something I can supervise. This sounds like a no brainer really – why take on a student to do a project outside your own area of expertise? But it’s very tempting to get someone to work on something you have an interest in, to do some of the prelim work for you. I’ve always been fascinated by fibre SPR, and having someone trial a few things would be great – but I would be no help to them if they hit difficulties.

The project should be at least 50% known. Again, it’s very tempting to want a student to try out one of your really crazy ideas but it’s going to be very hard for the student if none of it works. Negative results are obviously all part of the research process but if your entire MSc results in zero good data, then that is going to de-motivate even the keenest student. Make sure part of the project is well grounded.

The project should have a unique/new aspect. Okay, technically MSc projects don’t have to have new work in them, they can just involve confirming other data, but no one wants to check someone else’s work. This is a fine balance though as you want to make sure that some of the project will work but you also want the possibility of new work and data.

MSc student ≠ my own personal lab monkey. The project is the MSc student’s project, not mine. If I feel particularly protective over some area of research and the way it should be done, then I should go do it myself. Students (both MSc and PhD) are there to learn and part of that is finding their own research methods and style, if you dictate every step to them then they will learn nothing.

Everyone knows that monkeys prefer art to science
Everyone knows that monkeys prefer art to science

Not over promising. One the one hand, I obviously want to attract a good student to my project, but promising that the project will solve world hunger, cure cancer and involve the invention of a method of safely petting a cat’s belly is not going to do me any favours. Even if students don’t see though it once they start on the project, it’s going to be obvious before the end that developing a new coating method for Haemoglobin isn’t going to do any of those things.

Not under promising. Something I learnt a long time ago doing this blog is that no-one is going to sell your work better than you – this holds true for an MSc project. While I obviously need to be realistic, I need to explain clearly why the work I want the student to do is interesting and what it might lead to. Sitting back and thinking “well if they can’t understand why ‘rubbing sugar on bees’ will save the world, then they’re not right for the project” is going to leave me with no students.

When I’ve finished drafting the MSc Project adverts I’ll put them up on the blog for both the students to see and for everyone else to see what I ended up producing, based on the above ideas.

This blog article was inspired by a very nice MSc student I met while on holiday in Iceland over the weekend, who not only told me lots of things about her cool Humpback Whale project, but also kept my mind off my horrible sea sickness.

Thank you, kind person whose name I’ve forgotten…

Photo by Megan Whittaker
The Pod of Orca Whales we saw in Iceland, Photo by Megan Whittaker

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