Contributor Simi Juriasingani
Getting a 94 on my Honors research project was one of the highlights of my undergraduate career. The grade was applied to one and a half credits, which improved my GPA, and it was an amazing reward for eight months of hard work.
Looking back, however, the sleepless nights that were spent on my report weren’t fun. I discovered many time-saving and quality-enhancing tips too late and if I had known them sooner, I probably would have had more time to sleep and study for finals...
Over the past two years, I have helped three undergraduate students in my lab with their research projects and I’ve shared my tips with them. Seeing as the deadline for thesis project reports is approaching soon, I’ve decided to share my tips with all of you, so that you can complete your reports efficiently, get exceptional grades and get some extra sleep!
Tip #1: Start writing as soon as possible.
Regardless of whether you have finished collecting data, it’s important to start writing early. Start by looking at what you’ve already written about your project. For example, in the Microbiology and Immunology department, Honors students are required to submit an Introduction in December and an outline at the end of February.
You’ll likely have to expand and modify what you’ve written but can use it to start on your report. Sections like the Introduction and the Methods don’t depend on your results, so try to finish them as early as possible. You can always make changes later for cohesive purposes.
Tip #2: Download GraphPad Prism a month (for free) before your report deadline and use it to create figures.
Figures are the most important part of your report. While you can use Excel to make figures, GraphPad Prism is a better alternative for publication-worthy figures. GraphPad offers free one-month trials of its PRISM software (https://www.graphpad.com/demos/), so I’ve always advised the undergraduate students in my lab to download it a month before their report deadline. PRISM is an easy-to-use software with intuitive statistical analyses and extensive online support.
I’ve included an example, using my own data, of the same graph created using Excel vs. PRISM below so that you can appreciate the difference. One benefit of PRISM is that it automatically generates axes labels and SD bars along with suggest statistical tests. If you use Excel, you’ll have to do all of this manually.
Tip #3: Read scientific papers published by your lab.
There are five main advantages to following this tip. Firstly, you will gain an understanding of what each section is supposed to include. Secondly, you will get a sense of what figures and figure legends are supposed to look like (organization, details to ensure they stand alone, statistical information, etc).Thirdly, you will probably cite papers directly related to your project in your Introduction and Discussion sections because they will provide the background and the context for your results. Fourthly, by going through the references of the papers related to your project, you can discover other relevant papers to cite in your report. Finally, reading the published papers from your lab provides insight into your supervisor’s expectations about scientific writing since they edited and approved these papers.
Tip #4: Use a reference management software to insert in-text citations and automatically generate bibliographies in the right format.
Formatting your in-text citations and bibliography by hand is an incredible waste of time, especially in the age of reference management softwares that can do it minutes. I remember spending A WHOLE DAY formatting each of the 50 references in my thesis report by hand! Honestly, that whole day would have been better spent napping or studying for finals...
Ask others in your lab to see what they use and whether your lab has a subscription for a reference database with papers. If there is no standard setup, I would recommend using Mendeley. By creating a free account (https://www.mendeley.com/?interaction_required=true), you can download the software and the plug-ins for your internet browser and Microsoft Word. After you do that, you can just click a button in your browser every time you read a paper you want to cite, have it saved in your Mendeley library and select it for an in-text citation in your report.
The best part about Mendeley is that the bibliography is automatically generated based on your in-text citations and you can change the format of the bibliography and citations to match that of any scientific journal with a few clicks, which saves a lot of time.
Tip #5: Prior to sending your report to your supervisor for edits, get feedback from a senior student in your lab.
Most students send their reports to their supervisor for edits prior to final submission. However, before you do that, it can be helpful to get feedback from a senior student because they have a better idea of what your supervisor expects. Their feedback will help you avoid obvious errors and may even give you ideas to improve your report.
If you make the suggested changes, it will likely be easier for your supervisor to edit your report and they will likely be more impressed with your work. If it’s not possible to get feedback from a senior student, reach out to research technicians and post-doctoral fellows in your lab or even older friends with research experience. Anyone with more research experience relative to you would likely be able to point out glaring mistakes and even provide additional constructive feedback.
Tip #6: Proofread and follow guidelines.
This is an easy and obvious tip but we’ve all missed the mark when we’re pressed for time. It’s important to proofread your report so you don’t lose unnecessary points via typos and poor grammar. It’s also important to read and follow the guidelines as you write your report so you don’t get penalized for breaking formatting rules, omitting certain information or exceeding page limits.
Writing your Honors report is stressful, so I hope the that the tips I’ve shared will help you get through the final stretch of the course with more ease. Please keep an eye out for my next blog post where I’ll be sharing my tips for acing research presentations.
Good luck with writing!