On Third Year Projects

It’s the time of year again when our soon-to-be third years are picking their final year research projects.  From some of the conversations I’ve had, the message of ‘pick the project not the supervisor’ has been well emphasised, perhaps overly so, but few people are happy when half the class picks one or two academics.  Obviously we have a wide range of projects on offer, reflecting our research interests, but they don’t easily fall along organic/inorganic/physical boundaries.  Most of my projects involve an element of organic and inorganic synthesis and a good bit of analytical work.  I can think of a few projects offered by my colleagues that are along similar lines.  Materials chemistry is sufficiently fuzzy in nature to cover such projects and is usually a clue that something solid will be made.  That’s a clue, not a guarantee though!

Final year research projects are very much what the students make of them, provided the academic is willing to allow sufficient leeway.  Even in a fairly prescriptive project it is very obvious when a student is participating in the decision making, reading around the topic and building up good, independent knowledge of the research field in question.  It is similarly obvious when a student has largely done what was asked of them, with little curiosity about the wider research topic.  A great project involves building knowledge that goes beyond easily accessible things such as lecture notes or textbooks; it involves engaging with literature, placing experiments in a realistic context, and using literature to inform planning and design.

Some of the most common errors with regard to projects, and probably with regard to any kind of investigative/research type activity hinge on insufficient verification of results.  What do I mean by that?  Well if you follow a method to make something, as published, with competent lab work and sufficient attention to detail, you might reasonably expect it to work.  If you bake a cake following a recipe, you still analyse the results.  Visual inspection – ‘does it look right?’, is usually followed by assessing texture and taste and when combined, give an assessment of whether the recipe was properly executed.  Synthetic chemistry is no different.  If a reaction is supposed to produce a white powder and it does, this is not enough.  (OK, so it looks like a cake).  Any chemist should be able to name a selection of techniques that can be used to verify that the reaction has worked, and they should use them, or at least enough of them to say with certainty whether it worked or not.  There is simply no point in proceeding if you cannot say that you are working with the correct stuff. A similar comment might be made with regard to reading the labels on bottles, thus ensuring you’re starting with the correct stuff.  Analytical chemistry is similar, when questions about calibration and standards should be asked. Is the instrument working properly? Can we check that? Are we using appropriate standards or blanks to ensure our results are meaningful?  Of course it is necessary to take some things at face value – when using communal instruments, the technical staff usually take responsibility for ensuring that calibrations are done.

The project, no matter how good the guidance, will only ever be as good as to reflect the effort put in by the student.  Effort seems to be related in some way to level of interest (or motivation to achieve good results), but it isn’t the only factor.  To do really well, a student has to have some idea of what research actually is.  That it isn’t about completing the assigned tasks promptly but without consideration of the quality of the results.  That it isn’t simply about churning out a thesis with superficial data interpretation or literature work.  That it is about curiosity and wanting to know more about, and do more within a particular subfield.  And maybe, just maybe, for a short time to be the expert on a particular topic.