Resources for students

SPSS Survival Manual 6th editionSurviving a research project

To successfully complete a research project there are a number of skills that you will need.

Organisational ability
Given the short period of time for completion of most projects, you must be very well organised. You will need to set clear goals, write yourself 'to do' lists, and develop a way of organising the enormous number of photocopies of journal articles and book chapters that you will acquire.

Time management strategies
Research projects always take a lot longer than anticipated. Given that it is likely that you will be pressed for time, you will need to develop strategies for managing your time effectively.

Stress management techniques
Most students find completing a research project quite stressful. There are a lot of things to do, and not enough time to do them. You should monitor your stress levels, implement strategies to keep stress under control, and seek help if you feel you're not coping.

Ability to use library resources effectively
To access suitable articles and books on your topic area you must be able to use the library effectively. You should know how to use the catalogues and databases easily and efficiently to search for the material you want. Arrange to do a library orientation session as early as possible in the semester.

Writing skills
Research reports and theses must be written clearly and concisely. No matter how good your research, if you are not able to describe and discuss it clearly, using appropriate language, grammar and punctuation, your thesis will not receive a good grade. If writing is not a strong point for you get help early on. Improving your writing takes time and practice. Don't leave it until the end of the year.

Knowledge of the correct format and conventions
The presentation and formatting of a research report or thesis must conform to certain conventions. In the social sciences this is often the guidelines of the American Psychological Association (referred to as APA style). Make sure you know what is required in your situation, particularly in relation to referencing, abbreviations etc.

Statistical skills
You have full responsibility for the choice and execution of the statistical techniques in your project. You should have a good understanding of these techniques, their purpose, when they are appropriate to use, and their interpretation. Go back and review the major statistical techniques, and get help if you need it.

Good computer resources and skills
You should have access to a good, reliable computer and printer for both data analysis and writing up of your report/thesis. Ensure you can use a word-processing program (e.g., Microsoft Word) effectively, and are able to save, copy, backup and retrieve files. Effective use of your computer will save you a lot of time and heartache. Always save and backup your work - computers have a nasty habit of crashing!

Knowledge of SPSS
SPSS is reasonably easy to learn and use, but you do need to practise to become skilled. Carefully follow the instructions in the SPSS Survival Manual when you are first learning a technique, but also explore and experiment as you build up your confidence. Make use of the SPSS Help menu to explore other options and techniques.

Proofreading and presentation skills
One of the easiest ways to get a poor grade on your report/thesis is to present it in a sloppy, difficult-to-read format, with lots of spelling and grammatical errors. The thesis is a major piece of work and it should be presented in the most professional looking manner possible. Check and double check for typos and get an obliging friend or relative to read through it for you. Finish and print out your thesis in plenty of time. Don't leave it until the last day as inevitably something will go wrong with your computer, printer etc. Allow time for unexpected disasters.

Research tips
I have listed below some general tips for surviving a research project with your sanity, health, sense of humour and personal relationships intact.

  1. Get organised right from the start. The more organised you are the more efficiently you can get through the mountain of work you have to do to complete your research project. You will need to be organised both in terms of your time and also in how you go about storing and using the information you will collect. Remember, all of the work you do will eventually culminate in a report/thesis, so make sure you can find the material when the time comes to pull it altogether.
  2. Get yourself a folder with plastic sleeves for storing your photocopied articles and readings. Keep a list of what you have so that you don't double-up. This saves both paper and money - think of the trees and your bank balance!
  3. Try to summarise or at least highlight the main points in your articles as you get them. Make note of where they might be useful later on, in terms of potential scales to use, which statistics to use and how to present your results.
  4. In a notebook keep a list of the useful journals and books you come across and where they can be found (library and call numbers). This will save you a lot of time later. This notebook might be a useful place to keep instructions on how to use the library catalogue etc. and any useful tips you learn along the way.
  5. Collect together examples from the literature of how to present the results of your research. Use these as role models in preparing your own report/thesis.
  6. Research is much easier and more enjoyable if you do it as part of a team rather than on your own. Try to team up with a number of other students. Agree to pass on to them any useful looking references that may be applicable to their topic; at the same time, they can keep an eye out for material for you.
  7. Belonging to a group can also be helpful while you are learning the many skills you will need to acquire - for example, searching the databases, learning to use SPSS for Windows. If you belong to a self-help group you can all help one another when you hit problems. It also helps to know that there are other people struggling, not just you.
  8. To write up your final report you will need access to, and the skills to use, a word-processing package. Your library should have a number of computers with Word for Windows installed. At times during the year these can be in heavy demand so you should probably get in early if you can and book a machine. If you are just a 'beginner' with computers and word processors, develop your skills as early in the year as possible - do a course, ask a fellow student to teach you, or borrow or invest in a teach-yourself book (the Word for Idiots or Word for Dummies books are quite good in this respect).
  9. Throughout the year, particularly during the busy patches, keep an eye on your stress levels (you will become an expert at spotting the symptoms once you have done some of the readings!). Make sure you keep things in perspective, seek lots of social support from your fellow students and, if you can, keep a healthy sense of humour throughout the whole process.