The chronic procrastinator's guide to independent projects
I’ve been at UBC a long time. By the time I finish my degree, I will have spent 22% of my life here. That’s a whole lot of learning.
The thing with being an upper-year university student (whether you’re a classic senior or a victory lapper like me) is that you lose the urgency you felt as a first year.
If you’re doing it right, you’ve figured out the study techniques that work for you, what kind of questions your prof is likely to ask, and what parts of the textbook are actually worth reading.
However, many degrees at UBC culminate in an independent project. Honours students write theses, those in certain faculties like Applied Science and Forestry have capstone courses, and many others choose to apply their learning with a directed studies course in their final year. Even grad school applications can turn into a kind of independent assignment.
Being accustomed to the academic cycle might make it hard to stay motivated on projects like these, where there aren’t exams or assignments to remind you that you’re doing something for marks. I’ve certainly found it difficult to keep my thesis on my priority list without the regular nudge of a weekly class meeting, but I’m actively avoiding ending up like this guy:
Writing your entire thesis or research report in one sitting sounds like a nightmare, so here are some goals for those of us who need to find that motivation again as our degrees come to a close:
Know what you like
I’ve heard one too many horror stories about people who picked a project topic because it “sounded smart” or would get them the advisor they wanted. Unfortunately, working on a long-term project when you don’t really care about the material really sucks.
Think about what you’re interested in and why you’re in your field and find a way to integrate it into your research. You’ll enjoy the work more and it’ll turn out better, too.
Be the instigator
This is your project, so it’s your responsibility to get it going. Your faculty advisors are busy people, so try to take the initiative whenever you can. You know your ideas better than anybody, so be confident in how you choose to move forward.
The flip side here is that you should ask questions when they come up - better to feel a little silly or bothersome now than to realize there’s a huge, gaping hole in your project way down the line!
Expect the unexpected
Here’s the thing with big, important undertakings: things will go wrong. It’s just a fact of life.
Whether it’s a serious case of writer’s block, a technological malfunction, an advisor with whom you’re not connecting, or simply real life getting in the way, there are bound to be hold ups.
As a person for whom things tend to go wrong a lot, I’ve found that it’s helpful to “intend” to finish everything 2 days before the actual deadline. After all of the delays and disasters, it almost invariably ends up being completed right on time!
Chances are, some of your friends or classmates are in the same boat as you. Track them down and try to organize a meetup where you can all get some work done, trade tips, and complain about how stressed out you are (venting can be productive sometimes). You’ll feel better after the reminder that you’re not alone.
Make your own resources
The faculty and staff of UBC are great, but sometimes they don’t know exactly what it’s like to be in our shoes. As a student, you know what you need to complete your project successfully.
When we were getting started on our English theses, my friend Hannah Scott noticed that there wasn’t an opportunity for honours students to directly ask questions and get information about how the project should go down.
She took initiative, contacting professors and the English Students Association to organize a thesis info session and Q&A. The result was incredibly helpful and made a lot of the graduating students in our program feel way better about the assignment.
Hannah’s pretty modest about what she accomplished. “All the classmates I spoke to were feeling similarly overwhelmed and had a lot of the same questions I did,” she said. “I saw a gap in my program, and while it was intimidating to step into an organizational role, it was a great experience to see how willing faculty and staff were to bring a student's idea to fruition.”
Big projects are intimidating, but our education here has prepared us to get them done and create something of which we can be proud.
Just because these assignments are independent doesn’t mean they have to be completed in isolation - reach out to others when you need to.
You’ll find you have many friends on the path to success.