1 Doing a research project: why and how

1.1 Why is doing a research project valuable?

It will give you the chance to

  • Express your own ideas

  • Demonstrate real understanding that goes beyond test-taking skills

  • Show your ability to integrate material

  • Produce a writing sample

  • Gain useful skills and experience that will benefit your academic life and career

  • Learn whether you like doing (Economics) research and whether you have a knack for it

If you are considering pursuing an MSc or PhD this will typically be centered on doing research; it’s worth knowing whether this is for you before diving in. Doing research is also a key component of much professional work in the private and public (government) sectors, including at ‘think tanks’, some government agencies, and many private consulting and ‘data analytics’ firms.

A dissertation or final-year project allows you to explore your aptitude for, and interest in doing economic research. Depending on your department’s rules, you may be invited to choose a topic from a list provided by your instructor or you may be allowed to propose your own topic, subject to your department’s approval. You will use your intellect, skills, creativity, and economics training. You will develop a strong “writing sample” to show prospective employers, academic programs, and academic referees. You will be able to interact directly with your supervisor, to learn from him or her, and to make an impression that will inspire your supervisor to write you a strong letter of reference.

Finally, consider why you are here. You did not come to the university just to read what others have written and nod in appreciation. You are now being given a chance to express yourself. You are taking a first step towards making an impression on the world. Congratulations! Don’t waste your chance; make good use of this opportunity!

1.2 What you should aim for with an (undergraduate) dissertation; what you should aim for in an essay (coursework)

(See ingredients below.)

Your dissertation or “final project” is the output of your own intellectual labor. You will employ the skills and knowledge you have learned throughout your degree, and you will explain, critique, and integrate the work of other authors. But you should also strive to include some of your own unique ideas, insights, and original analysis.

We do not expect what you produce to be at the level of a professional academic paper. Still, a professional academic paper should serve as your model. As you read these, try to follow their style, format, presentation, etc.

A coursework essay for a standard module is less ambitious. It is largely meant to demonstrate that you understand the principles taught in the module, and that you can apply them to a new but relevant case, topic or situation. Term papers may also be used to show your understanding of a topic that goes slightly beyond what is covered in the module. You should, as much as possible, try to use your own words and express your own insights and views, while still using clear, professional language. A term paper may involve original analysis, but this is not usually necessary. Sometimes, a term paper can be an informed literature survey. (No matter what form your essay takes, remember never to plagiarise).

1.3 Ingredients of a successful paper/dissertation

In this section I briefly discuss the elements of a good research paper. Read this section first to get a sense of what you are aiming at.

In the next section [‘The process of “researching while writing”’] (#process) I will go into more detail about how to actually achieve this.

Six simple rules for writing a good paper (and, incidentally, for getting a good mark)

  1. Frame your topic as an interesting, well-defined Economic question. Demonstrate that you understand your question.

  2. Explain what others have written about your topic and which techniques they used. Critically discuss the strengths and limitations these. Explain how these relate to and inform your own work. Cite correctly and do not plagiarise.

  3. Apply economics (and econometrics) to your question. Demonstrate an understanding of your approach and techniques.

  4. Organise and present your work clearly, including an outline and labels and explanations of any tables, graphs, and equations.

  5. Write clearly, logically, and in a professional academic style.

  6. If you are aiming to produce a great paper, make an original contribution or insight. (This can be a small insight, and it is not always necessary for a top mark.)

Just remember...

Figure 1.1: Just remember…

Just remember the simple acronym “ECAOAcIn”:

Economic question – Critical discussion – Apply economics – Organise/present well – Academic writing – original Insight

1.4 Getting it right

In the rest of this book, I cover these ingredients in more detail.

1.5 ‘Parameters’ of the assignment

Word counts (vs. content)

Word counts may be provided for two reasons:

  1. As a rough guide for how much content is expected and

  2. To limit the length of papers so your instructor can mark all of the assignments in a timely manner.

In general, the content is what is important, not the words. Those evaluating your essay will ask:

  • Have you carefully posed and defined your question?
  • Do you understand the previous work that has been done?
  • Have you used and explained your methods?
  • Have you done careful and correct work?
  • Have you explained your assumptions and findings clearly and logically?

Key takeaways

Don’t pad your writing to achieve the required word count. In fact, if you can convey the same ideas with fewer words and less repetition, this is better! Focus on content and not the number of words.

Try to get under the word count. If you are over the word count, you might not be explicitly penalized, depending on your university and marker. However, your paper is probably too long. 95% of the time, student papers that go over the word count have:

  1. Repetition (think about organizing it better and removing material that repeats in several sections)

  2. Extraneous detail and discussion that is not directly relevant to the paper’s question and approach.

1.6 Examples of successful undergraduate dissertations:

You will find excellent examples of research writing in published journals. It is also useful to get a sense of what other undergraduates have done. Here are some to consider.

At UC Berkeley, https://www.econ.berkeley.edu/undergrad/theses lists all of their honors undergraduate papers.

These are examples from Stanford 2013 (there are also links to 2012 and previous years):

https://web.archive.org/web/20150827234615/http://economics.stanford.edu/content/honors-thesis-2013 (Note this is captured via the ‘wayback machine’)

Here is a good, though rather advanced, micro theory paper (Title: “Incentives and Manipulation in Large Market Matching with Substitutes”, author: “Evan Storms”)

Winners of the “best thesis prize” at Duke University are shown HERE

wayback machine link

Note: as universities and businesses reorganise their web sites frequently, links are not permanent. If the links here do not work, I suggest simply doing a web search such as ‘Duke AND economics AND “best thesis”’

This paper combines theory and empirical work:

Joel Wiles,“Mixed Strategy Equilibrium in Tennis Serves” (2006)

The Essex Economics Students Journal includes some of the best term papers and undergraduate projects from the past decade. However, these papers are not “edited” for presentation in the journal, so even these papers may have weaknesses.

Following up after you have turned in your dissertation (or essay, or proposal/draft)

You have written your paper (or draft) and been given a mark. Now let’s throw it in the bin and forget about it? Absolutely not! You have on paper an expression of your own thoughts and ideas. One or more professional academics have read your work, and given you feedback. Look at the eedback, learn from it, and make notes and changes; you cannot reuse this specifically for another assignment, but it may be an important

writing sample for your future career. It may also be something you can extend and even turn into a publication at some point in the future.

This was my experience with an undergraduate dissertation that eventually became a paper co-authored with the professor who suggested the idea. See (Reinstein and Snyder 2005). I also won a “Hsieh prize” for best undergraduate dissertation at GWU, which earned me $900, if I recall correctly. Maybe your university also has a prize you are not aware of. At the University of Exeter, there has been ‘Philip Norman Memorial Prize (£250)’ award to the student on the MSc Economics programme with an outstanding dissertation.

Works Cited

Reinstein, David, and Christopher J Snyder. 2005. “The Influence of Expert Reviews on Consumer Demand for Experience Goods: A Case Study of Movie Critics.” Journal of Industrial Economics. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-1821.2005.00244.x.