I have completed my share of long-term projects before, but I still felt nervous when deciding to apply for my course and seeing the research project at the end. Now, a month in, I am still a little apprehensive about the final result but also feel fairly capable of producing a decent work. For those curious about what the research process entails, I offer a few tips below:
Actively build new skills
Four months is a long time to be working on one thing and boredom can start to set in, so choose a topic that lets you learn something new. Even when the tasks I have set for myself on a particular day are not the most exciting, I am still content because I am improving my skills in R, which is the program that my research is based in. I started the summer having no knowledge of R, but working with its packages and writing my own functions is something that I’ll be able to take with me.
Write things down
I have a notebook, aka my thesis diary, where I jot down what I get up to every day. I try to start each day’s notes by listing two goals for the day. They’re not anything too complex, generally along the lines of “keep running those data normalizations” or “start this section of the literature review”, and I might not even get to them that day. However, looking at my notes so far is a reminder that this project is a process. Some days are a flurry of activity, me thinking out loud as I plan out data collection or excitedly test out new functions in R. Other days are more of a struggle, when my code breaks or I can’t find the information I need. Still, it’s reassuring to have a physical symbol of my progress; even though the days blur together, I can see that I have come a long way in a month.
Speaking of writing, start early
On many occasions I have let last-minute deadline pressure spur my writing, and I know that I am far from alone here. But even though the actual written part of the thesis isn’t terribly long—10,000 words maximum—waiting until August to start is a decidedly terrible idea. When you are staring at the same work for four months it’s easy to forget what is accessible to readers and nobody wants interesting results to be torpedoed by unclear writing. Supervisors are busy so it’s best to leave a lot of time for feedback and editing. So while I may still be working on obtaining my actual results, I have been able to create the structure for the methodology section via documentation of the process (thesis diary!), as well as start writing the introduction and literature review. If nothing else, it helps fill time while waiting for my code to finish running.
The thesis project may seem daunting, but my experience has taught me that it’s not worth fretting too much over it in advance as things change a great deal during the process. While you have a proposal and help from your supervisor, you really don’t know what you’re doing until you’re actually doing it (and that’s fine). Good luck to all my fellow MSc students—11 weeks to go!