How to plan your research project?

Quite some years ago I wrote the below instructions on how to plan a research project, largely because there was no practical guide that I could advise. Suggestions from colleagues have been added here and there. These instructions should prevent students from getting significantly delayed just because of having the wrong ideas on project management in mind.

Despite being written already quite some time ago, the instructions are still quite up to date. Therefore, I publish them here again.

P.S. I received some comments from a student under my supervision and changes have been made accordingly.

Planning research project

After completing most of the courses, the research project is started. This is the prime opportunity for a student to demonstrate his capability of performing independent research. These guidelines are provided to help students – and supervisors – to plan the research project and to ensure a satisfactory result.

Choice of research project

Take ample time to discuss possible projects with as many research group leaders as possible. It is important to realize that many research groups work on other topics than what the associated staff is teaching. Also, groups may work on more than one topic.

Important questions that the student should try to answer are

  1. Do I find the project sufficiently challenging?
  2. Does the project comply with my personal interests and career plans?
  3. Do I see possibilities to formulate a research question that I can work on myself and find an answer to?
  4. Do I like the people in the research group, in particular the research group leader and the prospected daily supervisor? Or, in other words, can I imagine myself working in this group for some six months?
  5. How are the experiences of other students (previously) working in the same group.

Mapping out the answers to these questions after visiting some research groups will allow for a properly motivated choice. Supervisors would do well to ask for such a motivation once a student has decided to work on their project.

Start of research project

This is the moment when the student starts working with the research group and is introduced to both scientific and supporting staff members. Some safety issues, administrative issues and laboratory issues  need to be resolved and the management assistant of the group will provide help where needed. Some paperwork for the department/section, for the university study administration and some safety tests need to be done.

Desktop computers are usually a rare item in a research group, most workers nowadays have laptops and the remaining ones are there to control instruments. It is by now a good custom to bring your own laptop. Most specialized software will be available on-line.

The whole project is subdivided into three stages: literature study, actual research, and reporting. These will be further discussed below.

Stage 1: Literature study

A few weeks’ time is taken to study and summarize the most important literature in the field. Often, reports of predecessors can be studied as introductory texts but the current state-of-the-art should be found in the open literature and the student needs to summarize this. At any rate, the supervisor should provide some key articles on the topic.

Do not look too narrow, often looking at literature from related fields can provide some good ideas to approach the project. Certainly, your thesis advisor will be impressed by some suggestions and at any rate will seriously consider them.

It is a very good strategy to do some pilot experiments in this stage of the project. The supervisor should be able to help with these so that essential information regarding the project is passed on. This knowledge is important to make a realistic research schedule later on.

Frequent discussions with the supervisor as well as with other scientific staff members are required here to obtain as much inside knowledge as possible.

Presentation of research plan

This presentation serves two purposes:

  1. Introduction of the project, current state-of-the-art and formulation of the research question.
  2. Given the research question, what are the routes – there need to be at least two “parallel” ones but preferably more – that are followed; in other words: what is the research plan?

The discussion following this presentation should lead to a final research question and to a research plan. The required detail of such a plan follows from the discussion with the supervisor(s).

It is important to do a “what-if”-analysis. Instruments can break down, materials or parts to be ordered may not arrive in time, etc. A good research plan is such that it is as insensitive as possible to such problems. Defining more than one research route – possibly partially overlapping but to a large extent “parallel” – is a good method to define a suitable strategy. If planned properly, the research project can always be completed within the time given.

Submission of schedule

This schedule contains all the important dates starting from the moment of the presentation of the research plan. In particular the dates for the presentation of the results and conclusions, the submission of the report, the colloquium and appraisal are included.

At this moment, also the appraisal committee can be formed. Note that it is good practice that at least one member of the appraisal committee should be external, i.e. not from the same research section.

Stage 2: Actual research

This stage is best subdivided into three periods of roughly 6 weeks where experimental work is done. At the conclusion of each of these periods a discussion session is scheduled with the supervisor and other interested group members, discussing the results already obtained.

In the same period, the literature in the field is followed. Also, relevant information, for instance supporting experimental evidence from yourself or from others, is searched and studied.

It is very well possible that in this period the research plan is adapted to the new information that has been found, either experimentally or in the literature. These adaptations should always be such that the schedule remains fixed and that the final dates are not affected.

Presentation of results & conclusions

At this time most experimental results are available together with relevant information from the literature. This is the moment to try and summarize the results in such a form that an answer to the research question – that may have been adapted in the process – can be formulated. In a short presentation, usually at a regular group meeting, the student exposes his ideas with respect to the results and formulates a conclusion.

The conclusion consists of one sentence, two at most. It is one single, key point you are trying to make. Write this conclusion first, then make the rest of the presentation to just make this point. In particular, the presentation of the results – figures and tables – should be such that the key point comes out clearly.

It is not yet very common to do this presentation at the completion of the actual research stage. Nevertheless, this moment of reflection is absolutely necessary to be able to write a decent research report. In any guide on writing papers and reports it is stated that the conclusion(s) are to be known in advance in order to formulate coherently. It is our experience that giving this presentation is the way to achieve this.

The discussion following the presentation should lead to a possibly sharper formulation of the conclusion. The student is to provide a first idea on what the conclusion should be. For him it is the art  to stimulate the discussion so that new ideas indeed can be considered.  Also, the presentation of the experimental and literature results will be further optimized.

Sometimes it happens that as a result of the presentation and subsequent discussion, a single key experiment is scheduled to resolve a very important point.

Stage 3: Report writing

After the intellectual activity necessary to formulate the conclusion and to present the results, the writing of the report should not take more than one – two at most – weeks. Of course, it is always a good idea to write down text for procedures, analyses, etc. beforehand. Many of these are added as appendices and are only summarized in the main text.

It is advised to consult a decent manual. A very concise but very good one is the Weitzlab Guide to Good Paper Writing but there are others. When required, a specialized course can be followed to the same purpose.

An important issue is that in principle the text and art work is produced by you yourself. In exceptional cases, you can quote and use from other sources such as the internet. In those cases it is mandatory to make proper reference to the source. Failing to obey this rule, i.e. committing plagiarism, is taken very seriously nowadays and may lead to exclusion from education.

Submission of report

The committee should have the report at least two weeks before the appraisal takes place. This is not because it takes a long time to read the report, but because most committee members have many other things to do. They will usually find some time in those two weeks to read it and to reflect on the results and conclusion.

Provide the concept of the report in paper as well as electronically: take good care that page numbering – and when appropriate equation numbering – is correct. This will help the committee members to ask you – sometimes before the appraisal – for clarification of a particular item.

Preparing the final presentation

While the report is with the committee, the student can finalize the report – this should largely be small textual/visual changes – and prepare the presentation. In case of serious changes, the committee members should be informed: where, what and how are changes brought about; do not just send a revised report! but clearly indicate where changes have occurred and why.

It is good practice to ask the individual committee members whether they would like to have a meeting with you before the appraisal.

When making the presentation, the following points should be kept in mind:

  1. The presentation is aimed at your peers, not your parents nor expert staff members. Your peers have the same background as you do, but they do not have the expert information on your project; you will need to introduce it properly. Nevertheless, here and there a small digression to raise an important point for them is not a bad idea: keep them alert! You might want to exercise you presentation before some critical friends.
  2. There should be a well formulated conclusion or take-home-message to your presentation: think of what the audience should remember after attending your presentation.
  3. The graphs and tables should not contain more information than necessary to make your point. Too much detail will divert the attention of the audience. Think this over carefully.
  4. Animations and movies often fail at the crucial moment, think of Murphy’s law. Therefore, think twice before endeavoring any. And if you decide to use them, practice beforehand with the instrumentation you will use during the final presentation.

Colloquium & appraisal

The colloquium typically lasts 30 minutes with an additional 15 minutes for discussion: this is the final presentation. The procedure is as follows: your supervisor – or his substitute – acts as discussion leader: he will introduce you and give you the floor. After you finish – by thanking the audience for listening – you give the floor back to the discussion leader. He will then reformulate your conclusion and ask – in particular your peers – for questions. Note: it is not you who asks for questions or remarks! This is not only out of courtesy towards the discussion leader, but in this particular case the discussion leader needs to stimulate your peers to ask questions. Be sure some critical peers are present!

A good preparation is to attend as many colloquia as you can, in particular when you are doing your research project. This will help you to find out how the procedure works in practice. In many cases, a form will be distributed among the attendees for an appraisal of your colloquium. Acquaint yourself with the points that will be appraised! Ask your supervisors for argumentation of the final appraisal if it differs from your own ideas.

You may invite parents and family members for this colloquium, but be aware to inform them that this is not the final examination even though this effectively may be the case. The final exam is a separate ceremony that takes place at regular intervals in the academic year. Also keep in mind that the presentation is not addressed to these people unless they are familiar with the topic. Nevertheless, the introduction of your presentation as well as the “take-home-message” could be formulated such that they will also appreciate it.

In most cases the committee subsequently has a meeting with you in which a discussion follows on your work; about one hour is allocated for this. Be prepared for questions that go beyond your own findings and conclusions. You are to expose both detailed knowledge of your findings – experimental as well as from literature – and a helicopter view meaning that you can place your results in a wider perspective.

After the discussion, the student is requested to leave the committee and to wait outside for their decision. The points discussed in this meeting are those that are indicated on the research project appraisal form that should also be available to you. When you are called in again, the appraisal report on your work is provided with some argumentation.

Submission of final report

After the appraisal, the final report can be submitted. Some small improvements or comments made by the committee may be corrected. Submission is typically done electronically in PDF; the supervisor may have to sign for agreement with the submission.

Before leaving the research group

Be sure to clean up your desk, your lab space and fume hood. Ask the laboratory responsible for details. Your lab journal remains with the group, usually in digital form. Most students express their gratitude for the experience by bringing cookies or cake. It is however much more appreciated if you leave everthing in order …


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