This post is a follow-up to a previous post entitled “Undergraduate projects”. Here, I want to explore the question of what renders a computing project academic. Many degrees at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels require a research component as part or all of the degrees. Examples include Honours, Master’s, MPhil, and PhD. My primary focus here is on the PhD. As a vehicle for understanding academic projects at the research degree level, we need to wrap our heads around the twin concepts of “academic” and “project” in the context of research degrees. To this end, I will discuss these two concepts in turn. The concept of “academic” will be covered in this post, while “project” will be dealt with in a future post. Along the way, I want to tease out how these concepts relate to requirements common across all PhD degrees.
First, let’s explore what is meant by the word “academic”. The word is commonly used to designate academic staff members, meaning the lecturers and professors of a university or research institute. However, in the context of a research degree, “academic” is used as an adjective to describe the quality of a piece of work rather than as a noun designating a hired staff member. Among the hallmarks of an academic project at the postgraduate level are an opportunity to showcase our ability to formulate a problem, our deep or intimate understanding of the problem, our skills in researching a solution to the problem, and our final presentation of the problem and any solution we propose. Overall, an academic project isn’t an academic project unless it taxes our critical thinking and research skills.
At the postgraduate level, academic projects are more commonly known as research projects. In university systems within the Commonwealth and Europe, research projects represent all of a postgraduate degree such as an MPhil or a PhD. Some authors call this the “classical model of PhD” [2, p.5]. There is yet another model of PhD requiring a research component: the “taught PhD model” [2, p.5] as practiced in the USA, where a PhD candidate must first undergo coursework assessable by a general examination and the second stage is where the candidate carry out their research projects. (We also have Professional Doctorates and Honorary Doctorates and doctors of the medical variety, but I won’t discuss them here.)
Any PhD model with a substantial research component usually has a number of elements in common. Through the medium of a research project, we as PhD candidates have an opportunity to draw together skills and knowledge gained during our undergraduate studies to bear on a (hopefully challenging) long-term and sustained project, normally lasting about three years. We are not expected to know everything prior to commencing our research project; that’s practically impossible, not to mention absurd. On the contrary, throughout the research project we are afforded opportunities to develop new technical, personal, and communication skills. Being PhD candidates also means that our research projects are primarily our own responsibilities. In the end, we are the ones who work on our projects and contribute original ideas. But most importantly, the outcome of a PhD research project is an original contribution to scholarship, often in the form of publications in research literature.
During our candidature, we are expected to demonstrate a number of qualities including (this list is taken from [1, p.10] with minor amendments):
- an ability to work independently with minimum supervision;
- an ability to draw on existing knowledge and identify additional knowledge needed for our study;
- an ability to critically evaluate advanced literature (journal papers);
- “an ability to conceive original ideas”;
- an ability to plan our work effectively;
- an ability to select and use appropriate hardware, software, tools, methods, and techniques;
- an ability to present our work effectively in written and oral forms;
- an ability to critically evaluate our own work and justify all aspects of it;
- an ability to identify areas of further research in our chosen area.
Research degrees, especially PhD, particularly emphasize our ability to generate original ideas. A PhD candidate is expected to make a substantial contribution to scholarship, not merely rehashing what others have done.
 C. W. Dawson. Projects in Computing and Information Systems: A Student’s Guide. Pearson Education Limited, 2nd edition, 2009.
 P. Dunleavy. Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.