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Physics projects for Y3 and Y4 students

Projects manual

Projects - what's the point?

The projects allow you to apply your knowledge of physics and your problem-solving skills to a specific problem. The problem and the approach to solve it are unique to you - each project is different, and you are responsible for preparing, planning, carrying it out, and reporting on it. Your project supervisor will introduce you to the topic and be available to advise and support you, but you are in charge of the project and decide in detail where to take it. At the end, you will write a thesis, i.e. a detailed project report, which you can take pride in and show off to potential employers as well as friends and family.

Our projects

The physics project modules.

All physics students conduct a research project on a topic chosen from a wide range of options provided by the Department. Each project comprises literature review, planning, practical and dissemination phases. There are different project modules for students of different degree schemes and experience, but they all have a common structure: find and study relevant literature, plan your work, do your own scientific investigation, and finally report on it.

Y3 projects

ph37540 Project (40cr) - This is the project module for all full-time physics students (including PSP and Astrophysics). It spreads throughout the year and is worth a third of your credits for the year. Since most students will be new to project work at this scale, it is structured into blocks with several small assignments throughout the year to make sure you remain on track throughout. Y3 projects are generally run in pairs, although the major assessed components are marked on an individual basis - see Teamwork below for details. There is no difference between Y3 projects for BSc and MPhys students, and mixed pairs are quite common.

ph37040 Project with project management (40cr) - Engineering physics students take this project module. It follows the same general year-long pattern as the general Y3 project module, but there are some additional lectures on project management practices in industry, and some of the minor project assignments are replaced by assignments relating to this project management component. As is the case with Y3 projects generally, you will typically be working in pairs. Information about the project management lectures and assignments can be found on Blackboard.

ph35620 Project (20cr) - This project is for students on joint or major/minor degrees. It has the same structure as the 40cr version but fewer assignments, i.e. you're learning the same techniques of scientific research but -necessarily- not quite at the same depth. Again, you will typically work in pairs, although this doesn't always work out because of the smaller number of joint students. Even though your project is entirely in sem.2, you will need to pick your project at the beginning of sem.1.

Y4 projects

phm5860 Major project - This is the project module for MPhys finalists, except those spending sem.2 in Svalbard. It is worth half of your final-year credits. Like all scientific projects, it comprises literature work, planning, scientific investigation and reporting. Since you will have had the experience of a year-long project already, you should be able to take charge of organising your work - for this reason, there are no intermediate assignments to separate the individual phases of the project with the exception of the literature review. Nevertheless, you should work according to the same structure, and your supervisor will give you advice when needed. In Y4, you'll be working on your own. The project runs throughout the year. You've got more lectures in sem.1, so the notional credit split is 20:40 between the two semesters. You should aim to have your literature work and project planning out of the way before the Christmas break.

phm5920 Minor project - This is the alternative project for Svalbarders. You have to finish before Christmas and your departure to the dark and icy North, so this project is much shorter than the major project but should cover all aspects of project work as usual. If you were planning to go to Svalbard but can't go for any reason, make sure to talk to your supervisor and the project co-ordinator as soon as possible so we can expand the project into a major one.

Project timetable

The different phases of each project.

The project is structured into a literature research phase, a project planning phase, an investigative phase, and a dis­semi­na­tion phase. These phases don't necessarily have to run con­se­cu­tive­ly, e.g. you may want to do a few preliminary experiments to decide between alternative approaches in your project plan. Your supervisor can advise you on how best to progress if you're in doubt. The figure shows an indicative schedule for each project module.

Induction session and project selection

The project begins with an induction session during Freshers' Week followed by a few days in which you can make up your mind as to which topic from the list of project descriptions you would like to do. The supervisors have indicated where they think a project is particularly suited to students with a certain specialisation or for joint or ordinary degree students. However, this is only to guide you, and you are free to choose any topic you like. Do go and talk to potential supervisors to find out more about the projects you fancy. If you have a niggling interest in a particular topic not on the list, talk to a member of staff to see if a project can be tailored around your interest. You should provide a rank-ordered list of your four favourite projects by the deadline indicated in the table below. We'll try to accommodate as many first choices as possible. To make your choice, go to the project selection page for Y3 or for Y4.

There will also be a mandatory project seminar by the safety officer about risk assessment at the beginning of term. Following this, you need to read the departmental safety regulations and sign that you have done so.

Literature research phase

The project description will contain a few pointers to review articles and other sources to get you started. However, this list is, intentionally, nowhere near exhaustive. After reading these introductory texts, you should do substantial further literature studies, focussing mainly on refereed literature which you can search using the Web of Knowledge database. Of course, text books and specialist web sites, used sparingly, can complement this. Wikipedia (or, for that matter, any other encyclopaedia) can be a good starting point to get acquainted with a scientific topic, but it isn't a suitable source in itself. If you're stuck with your search for sources, consult your supervisor, but expect to be asked in detail how you've approached your search.

Students on ph375 should hand in a one-page document describing their literature research strategy after week 3 (see dates in the table below). This is a joint submission worth 5% of ph375 (students on the other modules don't do this for credit but may find the procedure helpful to their literature research anyway). It serves mainly as an aid to focus your literature effort. Use it to discuss your strategy with your supervisor - they may be able to think of a few keywords you may have overlooked at first.

Now it is time to actually read some of the papers whose abstracts you've found in your literature search. You may need to go back and find some more papers referenced in the ones you already have, but be careful not to get sidetracked too much, because...
...after week 10 (week 3 of sem. 2 for joint students), you should submit a full literature review. This is a narrative detailing the background to your research project, referring to previous experimental and theoretical work in the field and presenting different interpretations found in the literature. In Y3, the literature review is a joint submission of the project group. For students on ph375 and ph356, it counts 15%. On ph370 and phm58, the literature review and project plan are submitted as a single document, together counting for 15%. Svalbarders on phm59 don't submit a literature review as a separate document but must include a literature review in the final report.

It is a good idea to start planning your experiment while you're working on the literature. There are only so many papers you can digest in a day, and doing some more practical work alongside will ensure you don't get lost in the literature.

Assessment weightings

356 370 375 m58 m59
literature search - - 5% - -
literature review 15% 15%15% 15% *
project plan 15% 5% -
preliminary results - - 5% - -
final report 45% 45% 45% 60% 85%
oral presentation 15% 15% 15% 15% -
progress mark 10% 5% 10% 10% 15%
proj. mgmt. assignments - 20% - - -
(* The phm59 lit. rev. is part of the final report.)

Planning phase

Planning is important because you will need to make best use of the available time and resources in semester 2. What is the objective of your study? Which experiments (or computations, theoretical derivations, ...) will you need to do to achieve that objective, and in which order? Are there points where you have to make provision for two alternative plans depending on the outcome of an experiment (if so, consider doing that experiment before finalising the plan if possible)? What external resources (staff time, laboratory access, wheather conditions, workshop time, components to be purchased and delivered) do you need? Discuss all this with your supervisor before finalising your plan to make sure the timescale is realistic and the resources are available. Keep the Easter break clear - you'll be glad to have some unscheduled time towards the end...

If you need anything built by the workshops, make a clear and legible sketch to scale, showing the object from at least two sides. Then discuss it with your supervisor, who can introduce you to the workshop staff to discuss your design further. Make any amendments to your sketch as they recommend and submit a clear final version of it along with your project plan. Equipment or supplies required for the project must be ordered, after consultation with the supervisor, through the senior experimental officer.

If you are working in pairs, make sure your plan states clearly who will be responsible to deliver which components of the investigation and by when. You are jointly responsible for the success of the project as a whole, so make sure each of you know what they need to do and what they can expect of the other.

In ph375 and ph356, the project plan (one per group) contributes 5% or 15% to your mark, respectively. These project plans should be submitted at the relevant table). Students on ph370 submit their plan as an appendix to their literature review document. Y4 students on phm58 or phm59 don't need to submit a project plan but must demonstrate the viability of their planned work in discussions with their supervisor. Please note that a properly resourced project plan is a condition to proceed with your experimental work.

In addition, all students embarking on experimental projects need to prepare a formal risk assessment using the relevant AU form in conjunction with their project plan, and students carrying out research involving humans (including surveys) or animals must assess the ethical implications of their work using this AU online form.

Important dates this session

induction session
see induction week schedule
project selection [Y3] [Y4]
Wed 30 Sep 2pm
literature search
Mon 19 Oct 2pm*
literature review
Mon 15 Feb 2pm* Mon 7 Dec 2pm* Mon 14 Dec 2pm* (included in final report)
project plan
Mon 15 Feb 2pm* (included in lit. review) Mon 14 Dec 2pm*
risk & ethics assessments
Mon 15 Feb 2pm* Mon 14 Dec 2pm* Mon 19 Oct 2pm
preliminary results
Mon 15 Feb 2pm*
final report
Tue 4 May 2pm Mon 17 May 2pm Mon 14 Dec 2pm
oral presentation
10pm the night before your talk (revision week)
*) These documents are submitted jointly by each project group in Y3.

The deadlines are hard. There is a 100% penalty for any late submissions. If there is a good reason why you need an extension, talk to the year tutor well before the deadline, who will consult with your supervisor. These are exceptional cases - poor planning is not a good reason!

Click the links in the table for more guidance about the individual assessed components.

Investigative phase

You can work in the lab whenever it is open (usually 9.30am to 5pm) and not needed for other classes, but do not rely on the lab being available at other times, particularly during the Easter break! If your project involves work in the research labs, you need to see the Safety Officer for a safety induction. Arrange times during which you can use equipment there by agreement with the other users.

If you are on ph375, you should submit after week 3 of semester 2 a short document describing your preliminary results. This should demonstrate that your equipment works as planned and that you get the kind of results that might have been expected. There is no need to interpret any data at this stage. This preliminary report is worth 5% of ph375; students on the other modules do not present their preliminary results.

Following discussion of your first results with your supervisor, you can decide any changes that may be necessary to your original plan. Following that, data collection begins in earnest. Keep an eye on the results as they come in - you may want to deviate from your plan if you get unexpected results. However, if you work in a team, you must discuss and agree such changes within the group - you can't just abandon a strand of research your partner relies on. Talk to your supervisor if you're excited about some of the data or if you aren't sure what to make of them. It often helps discussing your ideas with someone else, just to focus your mind, so do have a chat with other final year students to see how they're getting on with their project. Perhaps they've developed a data analysis technique which could be helpful with your data, too! As always, collaboration is good, plagiarism isn't.

Dissemination phase

At the end of your project, it is time to tell the world about what you've found out - this is called disseminating your results. In science, this usually happens in the form of written reports and oral presentations, so we'll do both in these modules.

You should submit your project report electronically on the project server by the relevant deadline as usual. Each student (including those working in groups) must submit an individually authored report. The final report is double marked by the supervisor and another member of staff. Marks are moderated to ensure all reports are marked to the same standard. The relative assessment weighting of the report differs between modules, but in all cases is the report the major component - it is therefore worth taking particular care with it.

The report should include the literature review for completeness, although this will not be marked again. It must also include a statement expaining what each author's particular contribution to the project was.

There will be an all-day seminar at the end of the session, where each student talks individually about the results of their project in a 15-20 minute oral presentation. After each talk, there will be an opportunity for staff and students to ask questions, and we would encourage students to contribute to this discussion. The presentation contributes 15% to the overall mark for ph370, ph375, ph356 or phm58 (there is no talk on phm59). The marks are awarded by members of staff present, including at least two who will attend the whole seminar session.

Supervision arrangements

Who's who

module co-ordinatorRudi Winterr. 2.11
senior experimental officerDave Langstaffr. 2.09
safety officerDave Langstaffr. 2.09
Y3 tutorXing Lir. 3.20
Y4 tutorYoura Taroyanr. 3.11
proj. mgmt. lectures (ph370)Rachel Crossr. 2.13
Head of DepartmentAndrew Evansr. 2.49

You should meet your supervisor for the first time as soon as projects have been allocated at the end of week 1. This includes joint students, although their actual project doesn't begin until the second semester. In that initial meeting, you can ask the supervisor any questions you have about the project description, and the supervisor will give you additional information and perhaps show you specialist equipment you are going to use. After this initial meeting you should be able to summarise what your project will be about in general terms, say if someone asks you about it in the pub. You should also know where to start your search for literature, i.e. have picked up some important keywords to look out for.

During the initial meeting, you should agree a mutually convenient regular time slot for further fortnightly meetings with your supervisor, which both sides should adhere to and inform the other if the meeting has to be rescheduled for some reason. The fortnightly meetings are meant to ensure you can talk about your progress, run new ideas past someone else, get access to resources you may need and generally ensure that your project remains on track. The meetings are mandatory (and attendance is monitored) but you set the agenda - it is important that you are pro-active about them. Supervisors are there to help and advise you, not to instruct you how to proceed.

Progress marking scheme

35% :=evidence of work by student throughout project (e.g. lab diary) but no usable results
40% :=progress on some objectives - little independent input but some results obtained
50% :=some objectives achieved, progress on more than half of them - identifiable independent input
60% :=most objectives achieved - clearly independent input
70% :=all objectives achieved - substantial independent input
80% :=achievement beyond expectations or work of very high standard meeting all objectives - mostly independent work
>90% :=original work of very high standard representing advancement in the field, publishable - practically independent work

Before you begin any experimental work, you need to conduct an assessment of the risks and the ethical implications of your project. If your work involves lab or other practical work, you must carry out a formal risk assessment using this form. Discuss this with your supervisor, consulting the safety officer if in doubt. This needs to be amended whenever you decide to change the experimental procedure in a way that affects safety. Similarly, if your research involves humans or animals in any form, you must use AU's ethical assessment form. Again, discuss any ethical considerations with your supervisor before submitting your form.

The supervisor will give you a progress mark at the end of the project, counting for 5% of ph370, 10% of ph375, ph356 or phm58, or 15% of phm59. The progress mark reflects how well you have performed against the objectives and milestones detailed in the project description and how independently you have worked. Independence in this context means that you have driven the project with your own ideas, not that you've worked without consulting your supervisor. The progress mark is awarded to each group member separately.

Should problems arise between you and your supervisor, the module co-ordinator should be consulted in the first instance, with final appeal to the Head of Department.

Team work

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Scientists rarely work alone. When you look at any scientific paper, there will almost always be at least two authors (a postgrad and their supervisor) and sometimes hundreds (e.g. in the huge particle physics experiments at CERN). Each author is responsible for the paper as a whole, even though they will only have done part of the work. This means a balance between trust and friendly critique is needed to ensure everybody is getting their bit right and is pulling their weight.

We think it is important that you practise this aspect of scientific work. For this reason, Y3 projects are generally run in pairs. It'll help you plan, manage and report your work as a team and appreciate the crucial role each team member plays for the project as a whole. For this reason, some of the assessed components of the project are joint submissions. It is up to you how to distribute the work, making use of the strengths of the team members, but in the end you're jointly responsible and will receive a joint mark for these items. There are two exceptions: the oral presentation is an individual effort and the final report is an individual report on the joint project.

If you are having difficulty coordinating and distributing work within your group or think your partner doesn't pull their weight, talk to them first. Perhaps you just need to work together around a stumbling block. If this doesn't work, arrange a group meeting with your supervisor and discuss ways forward with them. If all else fails, talk to the module co-ordinator.


While team work is encouraged (and even required in the case of Y3 projects), it is your responsibility to acknowledge the help, data, ideas, diagrams etc. you receive from others. Progress in science would be impossible if every research project had to start from first principles, but there is no excuse for not mentioning the giants on whose shoulders we sit - and the little helpers, too.

Make sure to credit the sources you use, whether they are people who help you directly or whose written materials you use. If there is no reference next to a diagram, figure or result, the implication is that you drew or measured it yourself. If it turns out that that is not the case, you've committed plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a severe offence amongst scientists, and the University's regulations set out severe penalties in cases of unattributed copying or fabrication of material. Since the penalties increase with the stage within a student's career and the number of credits of the module, plagiarism cases in the project can easily escalate and lead to an effective exclusion from your degree, even for a first offence. Please don't risk your degree!

Resit policy

Failures on the project modules are very rare as people can choose their own topic and tend to get absorbed in their project. However, note that you cannot graduate unless you've passed your project, no matter how well you've done elsewhere.

Resit policy - Should a resit be necessary, the departmental Exam Board will decide the precise arrangements depending on the progress you've made over the course of your project. You will typically have to re-submit any assessments you've failed. Unless the Exam Board awards a full resit on medical or compassionate grounds, the maximum mark to be awarded in a resit is 40% in Y3 or 50% in Y4.

Missed deadline - Students who, without good reason, fail to submit formal reports by the due date or fail to give their oral presentation will not normally be allowed a resit in line with University regulations on uncondonable absences from examinations.

Plagiarism - Students guilty of plagiarism forfeit their right to a resit in line with University regulations.

On a lighter note...

I hope you will find your project stimulating and interesting. Some of it will be hard work, but as you get absorbed in it, it will become fulfilling. You decide where to take your project, so you can control how interesting it will be! Remember you've got a supervisor to talk to - make use of them. And talk to each other, whether you're in a project group or just talking to students doing a different project. Sharing experience always helps.

Enjoy your project!

Content updated: ruw/200922