If I knew then what I know now

Planning Assignments: What Works For Me? Part 1/2.

15 Feb 2021
Planning Assignments: What Works For Me? Part 1/2.

Hi, my name is Conor, and I am a second year PhD student in UCC’s economics department. If I knew then, what I know now is a platform which allows us postgraduate students to pass down the knowledge we have acquired during our time in UCC, with hopes of making your transition into, and experience of, third level education as smooth and enjoyable as possible.  

This is Part 1 of a 2-part post giving my insights on what has worked for me when planning and starting assignments. This piece specifically focuses on the planning stages prior to reading or writing. 

Nailing the Question/Topic 

Depending on the type of project you are undertaking, this can be an easy or daunting task. For mid-term assignments, where you are often given a list of titles/topics to choose from, I think picking the most accessible topic, which you enjoy, is a good strategy. For me, enjoyment and easiness are generally correlated. I tend to produce sub-par material if I have no interest in what I am doing, and I generally don’t try very hard at understanding an area I have no interest in, so this strategy works well for me 

I imagine this is not a unique mindset, so my advice is to think strategically about your research question, weighing the factors of enjoyment and feasibility as you see fit. 

If you’re starting a Final Year Project (FYP), Master’s Thesis, or even PhD, or any research project where you must think of the topic/research question independently, I would generally advise starting exclusively with topics that you’re interested in. Having an interest in what you do will go a long way in guiding you to a successful project, and your mental health will probably thank you later for researching something you like. 

If your project is empirical in nature, I strongly advise ascertaining whether accessible data is available for you to conduct your desired research prior to finalising a research topic. After all, you cannot conduct data analysis without data, rendering you stuck no matter how much you enjoy the topic.  

Conceptual and theoretical works usually do not encounter these issues because of the vast abyss of reading material available online, and in libraries, encompassing every conceivable research topic, but of course there are exceptions, making it important to be sure that there is material available on your desired research topic, whatever the project may entail. 

Basic Structure 

Once you have your research question/topic nailed, the focus turns to beginning the assignment. I think addressing the basic layout of the paper is a good place to start in this regard. That way, you have a vision of where your future notes could likely go and approximately how much material you will need to complete each section.  

Because word counts are relevant considerations for most assignments/research projects, you can also gauge approximately how big each section should be relative to the rest. I usually make a blank word document with very vague titles, to help start this process. For example, my economics-based documents usually contain most of these headings:  

  • Introduction; Literature Review; Data and Methods; Results and Discussion; Conclusion; List of References. 

When studying history in my undergraduate, my plans looked more like this: 

  • Introduction; Argument 1; Argument 2; Argument 3; Conclusion; Bibliography. 

From this, you get a very crude picture of what your paper will look like, and approximately how big each section should be in terms of word count. Using the history layout as an example, it is intuitive that your Introduction and/or Conclusion should not be bigger sections than any of your individual arguments. Also, because Conclusions generally serve to tie your piece together and seldom introduce new information, they arguably should be smaller than your Introduction, which contextualises and acquaints the reader with your piece, while also signposting what’s to come. Similarly, at this stage, there is no reason to suggest Argument 2 will produce a bigger section than Arguments 1 or 3, or vice versa. Therefore, the three arguments should produce sections of approximately the same size (for now).  

Assuming a 1,500-word essay where bibliographies are excluded from the word count (as was often the case for me), this might result in you adding the following to your plan, incrementally enhancing the vision of what your assignment will look like. 

  • Introduction [150-200 words]; Argument 1 [~400 words]; Argument 2 [~400 words]; Argument 3 [~400 words]; Conclusion [100-150 words] 

As implied earlier, this post describes what has worked for me and does not claim supremacy in planning for assignments. I urge you to keep in mind that every discipline and lecturer may have their own unique way of doing things, and it is important to abide by those rules first and foremost.  

Also, it is important to find a system that suits you. Use what I have described as suggestions in how you could find your own system of executing your assignment planning. 

Skills Centre

Q -1 (Q minus 1), Boole Library,