In this activity the candidate acquires the background information and skills necessary to reach the goals of the final project. This activity also aims at getting a clear view of the task to be performed in the final project. Therefore, another deliverable of this activity is a more precise definition of the approach to be taken, and a refined project plan.
In the beginning of the final project, the candidate has to select and study material on the technical and scientific issues concerning the project. In order to achieve the goals of this activity, namely the acquisition of information and skills, you should continuously ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this material relevant for my final project?
- Is the material written at a level that corresponds to the requirements of my final project? Does it have the right technical or scientific quality?
- Do I study the material in an order that corresponds to the relevance of the subjects?
- Do I study the material at an appropriate level of detail?
In general the supervisor will provide you with the most basic material you are supposed to study, but most of the material you must collect and select yourself. This should be done in a systematic way, in order to avoid that you end up with a pile of material that you will never have the time nor the energy to read. If you have difficulties selecting background material, you can contact the library and information specialist of the Faculty.
Once you have selected the material, check with your supervisor in order to be sure that you are not going to spend your time reading things that are irrelevant or inappropriate. Your supervisor can also help you determining the priorities and attention you have to give to different papers and books while studying. Concerning the attention you give to the material, you should avoid two well-known pitfalls:
- Spend too many hours studying the material in deep detail, while what is required is just that you get a general idea of some approach, method, technique, etc.;
- Study the material superficially, getting just an idea, without really understanding the issues at stake. Sometimes you are required to understand some technique, reasoning, method, etc. at a level that you can apply it yourself. In this case a superficial knowledge is not enough.
Experience shows that candidates can have difficulties in determining the level of detail at which the material should be studied. In case you have doubts (‘This is complicated: do I have to study in detail?’) you should talk about it with your supervisor.
Based on the acquired knowledge and skills, you should also be capable of refining the initial project plan (see Section on formalization) at the end of this activity. This should be done in agreement with your graduation committee. Some typical issues that you have to settle in the refined project plan are:
- clearer project motivation (problem statement);
- more precise definition of the project objectives, in terms of advances and tangible deliverables;
- better delimitation of the project scope;
- more realistic time schedule, defining the specific tasks that will be performed during the development and reporting activities, and their time spending and deadlines;
- resources, such as the equipment, software, documentation, etc. that will be necessary to perform the development activity.
An important thing about planning is quite ironic: plans are made to be changed! Don’t consider your refined project plan as a law that you have to comply with otherwise you will be punished. Normally you are punished if you don’t have a flexible attitude towards the plan. This means that you have to continuously monitor the progress of the work in the development activity, adjusting the time schedule as something takes longer or shorter than originally planned. Your supervisor may also help you with that.
In order to precisely define the project objectives, it is necessary to understand the project motivation and make sensible choices on the problems to be addressed. This process can be complex and intricate, and it may cost you a lot of time and effort, since you may see many open alternatives and you may not be capable of making choices due to lack of experience. This ‘wrestling’ with the formulation of objectives is part of any research, although this is normally not directly shown in the reports, theses and papers. You should not lose confidence in yourself if you are not able to define clear project objectives at once.
In some cases it is hard to reach a satisfying definition of objectives in a single shot, so that you may need to sharpen the objectives in steps. You can put down on paper some set of objectives that are not 100% satisfying, but that allow you to start working; later, when you are better acquainted with the problem area, techniques, etc., you improve the definition of the objectives. You may need to repeat these improvement steps a couple of times until you reach a satisfying definition of objectives.
When formulating the time schedule, do not forget to take into account the vacation periods of the members of the graduation committee and you own vacation. A balance should be found when defining the time plan: you should try to allocate the proper time to the tasks you have identified (not too long nor too short). This allocation of time is still an estimate, but in the course of the project you should learn to make better estimates of the time necessary for performing certain tasks.