Senior Project and Thesis
Guidelines for Success

Many students, when planning their curriculum, do not understand what it means to do a senior or master's project. Unfortunately, many leave the university without improving their understanding. Some who leave before completing the project never graduate. The following guidelines, if taken seriously, could substantially improve your chances of completing a project successfully.[1]

Consider reading one or both of the following excellent texts before and during your senior project:

Saeed B. Niku,
Creative Design of Products and Systems
(Wiley, 2009)

Ralph Ford and Chris Coulston,
Design for Electrical and Computer Engineers
(McGraw-Hill, 2007)

Getting Started

START TO WRITE NOW! Plan to spend at least 3 quarters doing your project. It is quite difficult to complete a meaningful project in only two quarters. Among comparable programs that involve senior or master's projects, Cal Poly is rare in making it possible to consider completing the effort in 2 quarters. Other institutions require a minimum of two full semesters of work for such projects. Use the quarter in which you take EE 460 to prepare significantly for the project.

Choosing an Advisor

Start talking to potential advisors early the quarter before you expect to start your project. It may take longer to find a good match than you think.

The most important consideration in choosing an advisor is what area interests YOU. Next, find an advisor that is also interested in that area.

Choose an area that interests you. A good project will tax your creative abilities, consume more of your time and energy than you plan or imagine, and may well demand other sacrifices you do not expect. It is much easier to pay those prices for a project that feeds your passion. Braun has some project ideas posted on his senior projects webpage.

Faculty do what we can to accommodate students' interests. But if your advisor does not share your enthusiasm for the project, you may not get as much attention as you'd like. It is a simple matter of economy that we can devote more time and energy to projects closely related to our teaching and/or research interests.

Regular Meeting Times

Undergraduates should meet with their advisor for 30 minutes every week, unless the project proceeds ahead of schedule. Graduate students can plan on one hour a week. Set up this meeting time at the beginning of every quarter. Personal meetings are important, if only to report on the rate of your progress, problems you are encountering, etc. Interacting via email can also help you keep moving along. Often your advisor will pick up on something that seems insignificant to you and offer valuable guidance to help you keep on track, avoid wasting time, revise your objectives, etc. It is important to keep in mind that these meetings are nothing like classroom or laboratory meetings. Essentially, these meetings should be conducted by you, the student, not by your advisor. You should arrive prepared with information to report and questions to ask. "Things are moving along OK" is almost always the wrong report to make. Your advisor may also have questions, but the primary responsibility for preparing for each meeting, to ensure you benefit from it, is yours.

Step One: Choose a Topic and START TO WRITE

Prior to your first quarter of work in 461/463, it is crucial to choose and refine your topic. This is a very important part of the project. Discuss your ideas with colleagues and potential advisors, enter rough ideas and sketches into your notebook, begin a literature/web search, and decide on the scope of the project. Write a brief proposal and obtain your advisor's approval, before you sign up for 461/463.

Step Two: Project Planning

Once you have an approved proposal, you can prepare a project plan. Careful preparation greatly improves the odds of a successful project. The plan should include:

  • Design Requirements
  • Unambiguous and Verifiable Project Specifications
  • Project Goals, Motivation, Context and Justification

  • First draft of the ABET Senior Project Analysis: Explain the economic; environmental; sustainability; manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social; and political considerations in at least one to two paragraphs for each area.
  • Overall Block Diagram
  • Timeline of Tasks and Milestones (preferably a Gantt chart)
  • Estimate of Parts and Costs (include labor)
  • Please turn in this plan by the end of the second week of 461/463.

    The planning phase of the project requires you to review how your project will serve your customer and translate your design requirements into actual specifications. Accordingly, you will have to determine who your customer is and define what your customer's requirements are. The planning process requires you to think about and document "realistic constraints that include most of the following considerations: economic; environmental; sustainability; manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social; and political."[2] Careful attention to these issues during project planning can produce big payoffs as deadlines approach.

    The project planning process should lead to a fairly detailed annotated outline of the report you will eventually write. It will provide a clear guide for you to follow during your research and/or development. The final report you write may end up with an outline looking very different from this annotated outline. Such is the nature of many projects. A project may end at a very different destination than originally expected. But, without a meaty, well-stated goal, it is quite possible you will never progress to the point of writing your final report.

    Since your project will likely evolve as you think it through and make progress, plan time for more than one design-build-test cycle.

    Step Three: Do the Project

    Do the research and/or development work you have proposed to do. In almost every case, this will take AT LEAST 1 full quarter of fairly intense effort. If there is any quarter during which you will carry a lighter load than usual, this is the best time to do it. If your project does not require this level of effort, then it really is not a legitimate project, and you will deny yourself an important learning experience.

    Step Four: Report Your Results

    Write your report and get it approved by your advisor. If you consistently prepare detailed documentation during the course of your work, this step occurs while facts and figures are fresh in your mind and while you understand the entries in your notebook. In addition to the hardware and software you create, the critical product is the report you write about your project. The report should reflect your project completely, from the planning stages, through design, testing, and demonstration iterations. So step four is actually steps first through last.

    It is imperative that you report meaningful information in a clear, understandable way. Please use a professional style with writing that is interesting to read. Create a report that you are proud of. Edit using the Paramedic Method: Avoid the passive voice. Favor the active. Click for more writing tips. Refer to each figure in the text and provide each figure with a caption.

    At the very least, the report should present the following topics:

  • Introduction, Motivation, Context and Overview (include project analysis template .doc file or project analysis template .pdf file here or include the Senior Project Analysis in an appendix). Consider 4E Sustainability questions.
  • Project Goals, Justifications, Requirements and Specifications
  • Project Planning and Gannt Chart
  • Design Methods Incorporated and Designs Considered
  • Design Choice and Implementation
  • All Useful System Diagrams, Drawings, or Schematics
  • Results and Testing
  • Conclusions and Ideas for Future Work
  • Appendices might contain the following

  • Proposed Timeline of Tasks and Milestones
  • Actual Timeline Achieved
  • Parts and Costs
  • User Manual
  • After you think you've finished, consider this checklist:

    Faculty members, or other seniors or graduate students, who have had little or no involvement with your project should be able to read and understand its significance. In some important senses, writing your report is the most important learning experience of the whole exercise. It DOES NOT happen in a week or two, as most students tend to believe. You may be able to write your first draft in a few weeks. But then your advisor must critique a draft in detail. That can usually occur in a day or two. But Cal Poly faculty often have busy schedules, and you may not find yourself at the top of the queue when you hand in draft 2. You should allow a week to receive your advisor's critique and directions.

    Do not feel bad when that draft comes back covered with comments. This is usually your advisor's first best opportunity to give you detailed guidance on what is important to include or to leave out, what is the best format, and how clearly your writing style conveys your message. It may well take you longer to compose draft 3, incorporating your advisor's comments, than it did to do draft 2. Do not be too discouraged by this, and plan enough time to deal with it. From this part of the process, you learn most about what to say and how to say it, when writing technical documents.

    Your advisor will need to do a thorough review of draft 3, also, because it will almost certainly differ substantially from the first draft you turned in. This second review usually goes much better. But, again, you should allow a week.

    In many cases, your fourth draft will is the final one, and will primarily involve typographical or other relatively simple changes to draft 3. However, depending on the nature of the changes between drafts 2 and 3, draft 4 could involve substantive revisions. Do NOT assume that draft 4 is automatically the final one. Allow time for it's review and for one more editing session.

    If you are doing a master's project, at some point you will get the go-ahead to schedule your defense (oral examination). You must permit your committee to have time to review the report before your defense. You MUST allow at least two weeks for this.

    As you see, this step can easily take 5 weeks: half a quarter! Seniors can theoretically complete this step faster than master's candidates, because they do not have the defense and strict format requirements. However, seniors often have less writing experience than graduate students. They usually take longer to complete each draft. So the same rule of thumb applies: if a senior project student does not plan to finish writing at midterm of the last quarter, he or she probably will not finish by the end of the quarter. This is why it is difficult to complete a meaningful project in 2 quarters. If you spend a quarter choosing/refining your topic, and half a quarter writing your report, that leaves only half a quarter to do the work - much too little time for a legitimate project.

    Therefore, prepare the project plan with great care. Plan to submit the second draft of your report by the end of 461/463 and complete the project by the second week of 462/464.

    The careful reader will have noticed that this section deliberately does not refer to a first draft. Few instructors wish to read your first draft, so improve it, eliminate typographical errors, and edit dramatically, before turning in something to your advisor. Both your reputation and your project grade will benefit, if your instructor first sees a high quality document. Version 2 is the earliest version you could consider handing in as a "final" report.

    After the Master's Defense

    There will rarely be substantial revision after your Oral Exam. But the committee often requests minor changes. So you must allow time after the defense to produce the real final draft. Your dissertation must meet certain format guidelines. Now is NOT the time to start worrying about the format of your document. You should make every effort to meet the format guidelines with your very first draft. You should also take a copy of an early draft to the graduate programs office to make sure you are on the right track. This will substantially increase the probability of the graduate programs office accepting your final draft. In order for you to graduate, the graduate school must accept your report.

    Planning Your Study Time

    Give yourself time to pour yourself into the effort. Be sure your living and study environments are conducive to immersing yourself in your work, without frequent interruption. Plan to devote at least a total of 8 hrs a week to nothing but the project. For most people, those 8 hrs should consist of at least 3 different sessions.

    But the preceding remarks are only guidelines. When you plan a study session try not to schedule a commitment immediately following it. If you are involved with your project, it feels good, and you seem to be making progress, it is good to keep going until the burnout starts to set in. Schedule your study sessions early in the week and leave room for an extra "make up" session. Sometimes you may find you reach burnout after only a short time, or you cannot even "get started" during a particular study session. Your concentration and heart just are not in it. Try to find ways to overcome these periods of non-productivity and get back on track. Beyond a certain point, however, don't push it. If you really aren't "into it", you may well create a mess that will cost hours to fix. If the juices just aren't flowing, get away and do something else, and try again at the next best opportunity. Also, there is nothing wrong with managing to schedule additional, productive sessions in in one week. Arriving ahead of schedule really is not a sin. And you just might finish the project in 2 quarters, rather than letting it drag on.

    Above all else . . .

    Enjoy doing the project! It could be the single most important part of your college career, and will probably be the part that best prepares you for your career after Poly.

    Other Project Advice

  • Cal Poly Senior Project Guidelines

  • Other Info from Cal Poly

  • Advice for Graduate Students or Potential Graduate Students

  • The Difference Between a Thesis and a Dissertation

  • "Aiming for Excellence in the Dissertation" From Chapter 3, Aiming for Excellence in the Dissertation, in the book, Developing Quality Dissertations in the Social Sciences: A Graduate Student's Guide to Achieving Excellence by Barbara E. Lovitts and Ellen L. Wert. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC

  • How to Be a Graduate Student and How to Write a Dissertation (and another)

  • Good Links

  • 1. This document was adapted from S. Ron Oliver and modified by Chris Buckalew , Emilia Villarreal , and David Braun.

    2., p. 4, accessed November, 2001.


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