Dissertations and Research Projects (Undergraduates) (Teaching)

Edward K. Ford (1908) The Brown Dog and His Memorial | Protest | Professor Joe Cain

Undergraduates in UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) undertake final year projects resulting in dissertations or research reports. Professor Joe Cain supervises some students in this work, as do all academic staff in STS. The formal UCL module codes for include:

Role as project supervisor

Professor Joe Cain’s role as supervisor involves assisting students in their research endeavours, from start to finish. This includes more than 20 years experience and nearly 100 undergraduate projects.

Getting started

This involves project definition and scoping potential. What’s the research idea? How can this idea be translated into doable research (i.e., work that meets the expectations of the module)? How can this idea be stretched or restrained to meet the time constraints available for work? There’s no sense in attempting the impossible.

It also involves knowing how to break into existing literature and knowing who might be contacted to offer more guidance and information.

Connecting dissertations to careers is important. Depending what a student wants to do, projects can be adapted to serve portfolio needs and to develop experience in specific areas. We discuss this from the start. In recent years, some students want to publish their work. A supervisor can advise of outlets that might be suitable given the work.

Making connections

Synthesis is the key to final year projects. It’s not enough to write a mass of descriptive material. And it’s not enough to show analysis and critique. A first-class undergraduate dissertation will build new structures based on solid foundations. Add original content and novel conclusions. Add sculpting skills. Integrate your work with those already published in the same area and reflect this against the subject’s theoretical literature.

This is a lot of work for dissertations. A supervisor’s role involves gently pushing you forward with questions, encouragement, and guidance towards more material.  

Milestones and project management

Deadlines must be met. Dissertations and research projects are undertaken in an unstructured setting. It’s the student’s responsibility to make time for their project, bu this happens within the context of busy academic calendars. Time management is a skill, and supervisors help in this area by setting expectations for what is reasonable at any given point of a project timeline. They keep work in perspective, too. Work in these projects tend to follow a predictable timeline. An experienced supervisor knows this, and knows how to anticipate needs. If bumps occur, supervisors can help students keep their balance, stick with their plan, and adapt to conditions warrant.

Academic rigour and criteria for assessment 

Supervisors mark dissertations and research reports. Yes, supervisors read drafts and offer advice. But that’s the least important part of discussions about academic rigour. The top goal is to put you into an academic conversation with the best researchers in the world in one particular topic. Preliminary goals focus on the basics: clarity, organisation, style, and substance. How is evidence used? Is an argument being assembled? Is the use of literature substantial? How does the work provided match up to the criteria for assessment?


Dissertations and research projects aren’t simply one more module. These are capstone modules. They are meant for students to show what they can produce when working at their very best as an independent and experienced expert. Life as a researcher is different from life as a student. Mentors work to guide students through the transition. At the end of a project, most students look back at the start of their projects and see something hard to recognise. That’s evidence of real growth and learning.

Research is fundamental to the advancement of knowledge

Ideas for historical projects

In fact, Professor Joe Cain supervises projects across the whole range of history and philosophy of science (HPS) and science and technology studies (STS). If you’re looking for a supervisor, ask for a conversation. If he’s not right for it, he’s likely to suggest someone who is.

Projects related to these areas are welcome with special enthusiasm: 

  • history and philosophy of palaeontology, historical or contemporary, including palaeontology as science communication
  • history of science at the seaside, such as history of aquariums, natural history collecting, zoology and oceanography
  • history of evolution, including Darwin, Darwinism, and the synthesis period in evolution (such as researching the contributions of individuals working in 1930s-1950s, such as George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, G. Ledyard Stebbins, E. B. Ford, Julian Huxley, and so on)
  • history of biology
  • science and the publishing industry, historical or contemporary