The undergraduate thesis project

To the novice venturing into the world of research, the first skill they become adept at is cleaning glassware. Then comes tenacity. It is naive to think you will ‘get’ it at the outset. The planning, the adjusting, the derailing of said plans down to its failure- they’re all part and parcel of any research work. I’ve learned a few lessons, which I would like to tell my sophomore self, but you really only pick up on these things as you go along.

  1. It is imperative to establish a healthy relationship with disappointment earlier on: We get on average a year to work on our undergrad thesis. In our case, we spent close to six months just designing the electrodes and the fuel cells. Not out of will, it’s simply the nature of things.
  2. Prepare to be absolutely elated at one moment to completely morose the next:

    The LED light flickered with hope, giving life to our deflated spirits. But one glance at the data logger told us the voltage was on a precipitous drop, and this happiness wasn’t going to last.

  3. Expect that even if something sounds interesting, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth it: Yes quantum energy storage device is the hot topic, and yes, you’ve devoured the literature on it. But before you convince your supervisor (more like corner them in the hallways until they give in to your exasperating enthusiasm), find out if your lab supports the experiments, whether you can acquire all the necessary materials, and most importantly, if you’re willing to improvise your strategy when you run into roadblocks and whether you have contingency plans.
  4. Know thy research: This is an oath you need to take. Your research is completely your own. You need to know all the basics, the kinks, the ins and outs, because, without a doubt, your examiners expect that from you. Also burying the head-scratching points under a wall of filler text is not a clever strategy; you are bound to get at least one question pertaining to that very topic you were hoping to avoid. Figuring out how to handle these curve-ball questions is an art well worth practicing. Also whatever seems obvious to you isn’t necessarily obvious to your examiners. So do not let the basics slip from your grasp.
  5. Enjoy the process: In the end, your project might turn out exactly as planned or it might devolve into something completely unexpected or it might just be a dud. It was simply a learning experience, meant to give you self-awareness, teach you commitment, time-management and critical thinking, and readjust your perspective, so that you can honestly answer, ‘Is this something I want to do in the future?’ There’s nothing wrong with either of those answers no matter how stellar your grades are. And when you hold that 100+ page booklet with the matte-finish hardcover and look at your name inscribed on it with gold letters, remember to smile and pat yourself on the back (or glare at the horrifying realization that in your mad rush to print it by deadline and reach the viva room on time, you have misspelled your own name).