An Introduction to Research Projects

7 minutes

Starting out on a major research project for the first time can be daunting for students because it takes them out of their comfort zone. There are some similarities to other assessments, but there are also differences. This post introduces a new series which will provide step by step guidance for students to help them through the various stages of their project.

My students need to complete a Management Report, but for many others they will be doing a dissertation or thesis. Its my understanding that as well as working on different types of projects depending on the course being studied, the terms may be different in different countries, so its probably better to focus on the skills rather than the name for different tasks. For example, when I did my MSc in HRM I completed a dissertation – but I believe in France that any essay/assessment would be called a dissertation. We only talk about a thesis for a PhD paper.

Also in the UK we tend to focus on word length (my dissertation was 15,000 words) but elsewhere I believe its measured in pages. For the purposes of this series, I’ll refer to the terminology used in the UK/Scotland, but if there is anything that is unclear, please highlight it in the comments so I can clarify.

What is the research project?

Usually you will be asked to complete your research paper as part of your Degree and will be a bigger, more indepth and independent piece of work. Unlike previous work you will not be provided with a question to answer by your lecturer, instead you will be expected to define the topic and create your own questions. 

Owing to the length of time you will spend working on this project, I would recommend that you pick something that will interest you as you don’t want to be forced to work on something you end up hating. When we have free choice over our subject, its easier to select something we enjoy but when you’re in employment or others have an interest in what you’re doing, you may have less choice. Regularly I have students where their choice of topic is decided by their employer and the student isn’t always as engaged in these topics and it can be reflected in the quality of their work and grade for the project. 

My advice would always be to give some thought to the topic you chose as you don’t want to make the work more difficult for you than it needs to be.

How is it different from other assessed work?

This work is different because its longer; and different Institutes will have their own requirements. My students’ work is very short (4,000 words only) but when I did my MSc Dissertation, it was 15,000 words. However my colleague studying at a different Scottish University was working with 25,000 words.

You will be defining the project – picking the topic and writing a title and the aims and objectives for your work. You will be writing your own question(s) to answer.

You will be carrying out different types of research. Primary research which could be questionnaires or interviews for example; and secondary research which is all the literature you will be reading. It will be important that you carry out a range of research methods, and I’ll be going into this in a lot of detail in a subsequent posts about research methods.

It will look different as you will be producing a series of “chapters”.

What are the Chapters?

There will probably be some variation depending on the length of your research project and the nature of the paper you are producing. However, most of the sections will be the same:

  • Executive Summary
  • Contents Page
  • Acknowledgements
  • Terms of Reference
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Methodology
  • Findings and Analysis
  • Conclusions
  • (Recommendations)
  • References and Bibliography
  • Appendices

As I plan to create detailed posts on each of the above sections, I don’t plan to provide explanations for each of them at the moment.

Project Proposal

For most students it is highly likely that you will be required to complete a project proposal to gain approval for the project you are planning to undertake. This is to demonstrate to your teaching team/supervisor that the topic you are proposing is viable. Is the scope of the topic broad enough to carry out the investigation; or is it too broad which will make it difficult for you to complete the work? As you can imagine, the work completed in a 15,000 word project will be much broader than that which can be achieved by my students trying to complete a postgraduate research project with primary and secondary research within 4,000 words, so I need to ensure they’re not trying to take on something unachievable for them.

In your proposal you will be expected to provide:

  • a brief literature review to show that literature does exist in the subject area
  • an indication of the primary research methodologies that you intend to use
  • what resources you will need access to, and how you will get these
  • obstacles and problems you may encounter in undertaking the research and how you will overcome these
  • A timescale indicating your implementation plan

A more detailed breakdown of what is involved in producing a proposal will be provided in a post as part of the series.

Role of and relationship with your supervisor

Whether you have structured classes as part of your research project unit will vary from institution to institution. You may have some classes to cover research methods but you are highly likely to have a Supervisor appointed who will guide you as you work on your project. This is usually a 1-1 relationship, but its important to understand what’s involved in the relationship between you and your supervisor (who will be a member of the academic staff). Its important to be clear about what’s expected, and that the expectations are realistic.

As a supervisor for my students I will guide them; facilitate their thinking to help them make decisions about taking their work forward. I can suggest reading or topic areas, offer suggestions on research methodologies. I’m a guide, its not my role to tell the students what to do and while I’m happy to review sections of their work to guide them if they’re unsure that they’re on the right track, I am unable to read a full draft. I know some institutes might do this, but our awarding body prohibits this.

I would suggest that students discuss the role of the supervisor at the outset so you have a clear idea of what to expect from the relationship. The meetings you have with your supervisor are for your benefit and you should attend meetings with a clear idea of what you want to get from them.  Come prepared – I find the best meetings are the ones where the student has a list of questions or points to discuss. As I’ve said, your supervisor is not going to tell you what to do, so they will expect you to take the lead during your meetings.

The series that this post is introducing will cover most of the above in more detail but my main intention would be to go through the sections which would combine to create your project. If there is a particular area you would like to see included in the series, or think would be beneficial to include, please let me know through the comments.

Now that I’ve outlined what the series will be looking at, you want to make sure you don’t miss any of the posts in the series, so sign up to my blog today.


  1. Brenda, you are helping untold numbers of students, and for that I applaud you and your efforts. I’m just glad that I don’t have to write a dissertation. 😉I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

    • Thank you Kellye. I want/need to put stuff together anyway, so I’m thinking why not … if I can help others too 😁
      Hope you have a good weekend.

  2. I’m loving your work, because you write so well..

    At first, I thought 4k words are sufficient aren’t they

    But then you said you wrote 15k words, then I realized that yes, A project needs to be wordy.

    It should include, chapters, explanation, deep research and works done by others on the topic.

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