Ten Rules for Student Project Selection

Any academic degree, let it be bachelors or masters, ends with a project work. The project work is one of the most critical parts of any academic degree. It is so important that it always decides what’s going to be next for the student. Let it be higher studies or industrial job, the whole career path (at least the starting point of that path) is based on the project work.

Over about 8 years of my teaching and mentoring experience, I have noticed that there is a great lack of seriousness, planning and overall approach towards this most critical part of academics. Many of the students (not all of them fortunately) do not put required efforts for their academic projects and that’s the opportunity lost by them. Academic project is an opportunity for student to get ready for industrial jobs. It’s an opportunity to tell that yes, I am ready for facing industrial challenges!! Yes, I am the one you are looking for. So it’s simply most important opportunity lost if not done correctly.

So I thought of coming up with some rules which will provide some guidelines to students while deciding and working on the project. This comes from all my personal experience I got guiding and talking to many students over past 8 years. This is compilation of what generally goes wrong and what preventive measures students can take. Note that these are my personal opinions and most importantly these are not rules specified by any university/college.

There is big misunderstanding among students about why there is project work in academics and that too at the end of curriculum. Most of the students take project work as just small part of whole curriculum and feel that it is work required for getting some associated credits. At some point, it’s true, it does have credits (marks) associated with it. But that’s not all. That’s not the main purpose of including project work in curriculum. I think whoever has introduced project work in curriculum must have thought that this is the way student would able to apply their theoretical knowledge on something practical, some real life example. This is the way they can validate their theory understanding and see if what they have understood is correct or wrong. This is the way they learn the process of executing any project and get themselves ready for the industry. I think the whole idea of “applying/trying/validating their theoretical understanding to something practical is lost, the whole idea of understanding the project execution process is lost”. Students are just focused on either getting it done for getting the credits or they land up into defining very complex project. They lose the focus on understanding the project execution process. 

So don’t forget the basic purpose of why you are donging academic project. First satisfy this purpose and then maybe you can “try” something else.

Everything requires planning. You can off course do that without planning, but in most cases it takes more time to achieve same goal or some cases it becomes impossible. I believe every student should have goal about what career they want to do, what job they want to have, what company they want to work with. All this should happen at early stage of your academics. Best situation is that you select your engineering specialisation based on your end goal of job or career. Even if that does not happen, you should at least think of what career you want to have after your engineering. Visualize or talk to people in industry and find what it’s going to be if you work in manufacturing sector, design sector, as CFD engineer, as software developer etc. Visualize what is going to be your daily job and whether you would like to do it for many years. If yes, probably that’s the field you want to work in. Once you have finalized that field, you can think of what project work you need to do so that you will get that opportunity. I have seen many students getting attracted towards catchy titles and flashy words. Most of the time students do unplanned selection of the project, without any thought given on how this would help them in their dream career or job. The project selection is done based on what my senior has done and what job they got, how simple or complex project is, how easy going or difficult the project guide is. I think that should not be selection criteria, you should select project based on what you want to do in future. 

So, gold is awesome, but you are hungry, your goal is to eat something and satisfy the hunger, you cannot eat gold, you need something that you can eat. Take the project which falls into your overall career plan even its not as flashy as gold!!

Students just don’t understand how important the project work is in their academics. Most of the time, your job and higher education area are based on what your project is about. It is the most important aspect of your academic curriculum. I have seen computer science/electrical engineering people working as CFD/CAD software developers; I have seen mechanical engineers working in financial sectors. Although the engineering degree they got, the subjects that they have learned are different than what job they are doing. They got this opportunity only due to the project work they have done. I have seen students with bad grades getting great job opportunities than the one with A+ grading. Your project work is so critical that it has a potential of deciding your whole professional career. So give utmost importance to your project work, be serious about it. It’s not just another subject that you have to work for to get the associated grades. It’s more than that, definitely more than that!!

OK. So you have decided what project you want do. You selected project based on your career goal. It’s all good. But what about the knowledge/tools/techniques you need to know to do that project. You have to be very clear about the required knowledge to work on that project. Let it be fundamental knowledge or any software specific knowledge, you have to have that for doing the project. It’s very important to know what knowledge you already have and what new learning you need. You need to calculate how much time would be required to learn/refine the required tools/techniques and then see if you have that much time. If not, you may need to ask for more time, or reduce the complexity of project. I have seen many students wanting to do projects in CFD, but they do not have any fundamental knowledge, no knowledge about the software and surprisingly they want to do this in a month. It’s just impossible!! Everyone can learn everything, but everything needs time. If you do not have enough time, it’s impossible to learn.

So find what’s required for doing the project, understand what you already know and what new knowledge you have to learn and allocate required time.

Please pardon my language, the word is just fitting into the statement and yes, it’s very true!!

I think everyone knows the simple fact “Start early, go safe”. But I believe that most of the students just read this as statement but do not understand it when it comes to project work. I have seen students coming up with great project ideas, but many of them do not have sufficient time to work on the project. Due to lack of sufficient time, at the end they land up into just wrapping up the project work and great project idea just becomes a normal and regular project. When it comes to CFD projects (and I think this is true for any project), if you want to do it the prefect way, you need to give sufficient time. You need to learn CFD fundamentals, you need to learn software. It just needs time. Don’t start your project at the final semester. Start early. You may not work on the project directly, but during initial stage you can focus on learning required tools/techniques. By the time you finalize your project; you already have all required knowledge. You can then just focus on the project. If you start late, you will just get confused between “should I learn the required tools or should I work on the project”. Many students come to me and ask me that can I do this project in one month? I do not have any answer than saying “you are too late my friend, this is just impossible!!” 

So yes, “Start early, go slow, explore more, enjoy the journey, you deserve it if you start early”

All of us need a guide/mentor in most of the things that we do in life. Off course few of us are genius and they do just fine without guidance. Keeping these species apart, most of us seek guidance from seniors who has gone through similar situation, has done similar work. Your academic project is not an exception for this. You are diving into something new, something challenging, and you definitely need a guide during this journey. I feel that many students just don’t get required guidance. It’s a responsibility of student to find out what area professor has worked on, can the professor provide guidance for the project selected project. Just don’t select the guide based on who is easy going, who can give you good grades. Select a guide based on your project requirement (even if that would make your life bit difficult for some time!!). Find correct mentor for your project.

So, your project is like you are traveling in dark. You do need a good guiding light to walk on the path and finish the journey!! Find out how much darkness you are walking into and select a guiding light accordingly!!

“Everything is possible and everything is impossible too!!”  Most of the time, student falls into complex definition of the project. They do not understand that they have limited time, limited knowledge which makes projects impossible to complete and they land up into doing something which is not at all planned. You need to understand that moon is far away and to reach there you need enough time. Define simple projects to start with, complete the process and then may be try for extension of the project. 

When I was at IIT Bombay, I saw few of my friends working on their PhD. thesis. It was one of the best project/thesis works I have seen so far. But they worked for four years to complete the thesis. I can’t imagine what they would have done if they would have got only six months or one year for the topic they had worked on. Everything needs time and the amount of time required depends on how simple or complex project you have defined. Everything has its learning curve, needs time and we have to give it.

So understand what you are planning to do and what you are promising. See if you have enough time to do that. You can promise and reach to moon, but understand that it’s far away and you need enough time. Plan and promise based on how much time you have to work on it.

In many cases, I see lack of understanding the complexity of project. Many times, I see students saying “this is too simple work for my project!!” Even I see professors assigning complex topics to students. 

It is very essential to understand the complexity of project. When it comes to CFD projects, there are two levels of complexity, one is related to how complex geometry is, and other related to how complex physics is?

Let me give you example of both categories.

If you want to do water flow through pump or turbine, it’s a geometry which is complex. Physics is simple, incompressible flow of water without any heat transfer. 

If you want to combustion analysis within IC engine, geometry is relatively simple, but physics is complex. It has compressible, multiphase flow with combustion involved.

When you go for geometrically complex problems, you typically spend more time on pre-processing (geometry clean up and meshing). If you go for physics complexity, you typically spend more time on solution (equations, discretization etc.). Both types of project have different learning and different objectives.

Do not attempt the problems which involve both physics and geometrical complexity. If you want to work on complex physics, go for simple geometry. If you want to work with complex geometry, go for simple physics. 

So when you start selecting the project understand what the complexity of project is. Sometimes what you are defining as simple might be complex and what you are defining as complex might be impossible to do in given time frame. 

Most of the students say that the last task is the project defence (final project presentation). I think that’s not the case. You should make sure that you go out and present your work to complete engineering community. Go and present the work at conferences, go and publish the paper. That’s the end of your project (at least when you are at academics). Don’t just stop at final project presentation and be happy about the grades you got from your professors. Go and complete the process and extract maximum possible from the work. Project presentation/defence is just a small part of the process. If you do your project correctly, it’s definitely worth sharing that with the whole world not just with your professor. When you present it to outside world, you get chance to talk to experts in the field, you would get lot of inputs and that’s awesome learning experience.

So don’t just plant the seeds and grow them. Go and harvest the crops, you will enjoy that and you will get the best possible returns.

You need right tools for doing the job. Most of the time, we find that someone has done similar work before. But we do not focus on what tools they have used. With specific example of simulation projects, I have seen student referring to a paper where someone has used his own program and code for simulation. He/she may have taken years to do that. You want to do this using software; you don’t have enough time to write your own code. You need to have really a strong literature survey to find what tools and techniques someone has used for similar work. You need to think if you are planning to use same tools or are you planning for something different. You need to select right tools for doing the project. You can’t just expect that every tool can do everything. 

So do good literature surveys, find right tools, know the limitations of tools and then finalize which one you are going to use for your project.

I hope that you have now got some guidelines about project selection. I am planning to have series of webinars based on this topic. That would give us an opportunity to have one-to-one discussion about this topic. The announcement would be done soon, so keep tuned. Meanwhile, if you have any query, feel free to contact me.


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