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Research Station: Project Tips

When planning your project, ask yourself these important questions:

  1. Manageable size. Is your project narrow enough in scope that you can complete it in time?
  2. Good design. Have you thought about all the parts of the project and written them down? Has someone with project experience looked over your plans?
  3. Field-feasible. Can you actually DO the project, given your expertise (and the expertise of others), resources (time, money, person-power), and campus setting or facilities (accessibility of your object of study)?
  4. Campus cooperation. Are there campus staff, faculty or students who are willing to provide help when you need it? Might there be resistance to your project?
  5. Audience or client. What will you do with your project's findings? Will they end up in receptive hands, or be filed away and ignored?


  • Look for an opportunity to conduct a project that is needed.
  • Find allies and cultivate good working relationships.
  • Plan for what will happen after finals week.
  • Ensure closure.
  • Set up a meeting schedule (if needed) and stick to it firmly.
  • Do weekly "status reports" where members of the team tell what was accomplished, what was not, and what will be done in the coming weeks.
  • Seek a client and possibly consider two or more possible client-requested projects before choosing one.
  • Be sure to send out written thank-you notes (on paper, not by email)

Some Typical Problems—And How to Avoid Them

  1. Too Little, Too Late
    "Our project got started too late in the semester, and we didn't have time to do what we wanted." Many projects don't get underway until halfway through the term when everyone's schedules are more hectic. This may be due to student procrastination, but is sometimes the fault of schedules imposed by the teacher. Time shortages plague most projects, so start as early as possible.
  2. Died on the Vine
    "We got off to a great start, but then things kind of fell apart." Many projects have a high-energy, promising beginning but wither away by the end of the semester. It's easy to let exams, papers, and a lively social life eat up your time. Plus, projects take steady, diligent work. It is one thing to write up a great project plan but quite another to carry it out. Set a brisk but manageable pace early, and keep checking your progress against the list of tasks that lie ahead.
  3. The Stealth Project (or Midnight Raid)
    "Last night we just went ahead and implemented our project." Some project actions are taken after hours and without permission. One example at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was the planting of "wildflower" seeds on a pedestrian-eroded hillside on campus, which was done without final agreement by the grounds department. This "fix" of a campus eyesore was doomed to failure and created new problems that the grounds staff had to repair later in the summer.
  4. "But I Left a Message ... "
    "I left two emails and a voicemail message and am waiting to hear from them." A common situation is when a student needs to make a critical contact and the person is not in. So they leave a message on the person's answering machine, or send an email, and then wait—sometimes for weeks. In voice mail, sometimes hitting "0" will ring through to a secretary or someone else. Call the person's department, see if they are around, ask for the best times to call, be creative in getting to phones on campus.
  5. If At First You Don't Succeed
    "I called this guy and he said our idea can't be done." Sometimes students are told their project will never work, or it will take too much time, or "I'm too busy to help." And in one instance, a student was told he had to get permission for his idea from the chancellor, when all it really took was approval from a mid-level employee. As in any workplace, some people strongly resist change. Work with your staff or faculty client, or other friendly contacts, who can open doors for you. Check with different people at different levels to see if there is a way something can be done.
  6. Who Done It?
    "Our project really worked ... I think." Depending on the nature of your project, you may try to draw a conclusion based on data or a comparison. But proving causation is often a challenge. A reduction of electricity consumption in a building may be due to your newly-installed efficient light fixtures, but it may be due equally to the fact that occupants are turning their lights off more often due to an awareness of energy conservation. Be very sure what your "findings" are caused by, and be honest when you are uncertain.
  7. Setting Sail, but Without the Crew
    "Well, we got the garden planted. Wish we could be here to see if it grows." Some projects—especially those without a client who agrees to take responsibility after the semester is over—are left hanging, either unfinished or untended. Installing a campus native plants garden can be accomplished in a relatively short time, but without a commitment from permanent volunteers or the grounds crew, it will be taken over by weeds. Long-term thinking is required for action-oriented projects to ensure their survival.

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