As part of the final year of the Master of Engineering course, we have to undertake a final year project, known by the University of Southampton as the “Group Design Project” or GDP.
The GDP is basically a project on the topic of your choosing (they give you a list of topics to choose from, or you may propose your own project), and you are assigned to a team to drive the project. My project has been on-going since the last September, and soon on the 21st of April, it shall all end – at least when it comes to the submission of the final report.
These past 8 to 9 months have been challenging. But it has been rewarding. I have learnt so much about the field of my project’s study (logistics and transportation), and I also have learnt so much about other people and myself.
Here were some personal challenges
The stakes are high for GDP – it is worth about ⅓ of the final year.
But this is unlike any other modules or classes. Normal classes and subjects have their own regimented structure that is well established in our own psyche. They involve going to classes, attending lectures, submitting assignments, sit for a final exam, and BAM, you’re done.
The outcomes and process of the GDP, on the other hand, is very much dependent on how self-driven you and your groupmates are. You set out your own goals and objectives. And most importantly, you find your own way to get to where you want to end up. Your supervisor may give you a nudge here and there, but in the end the onus lies squarely on your own shoulders. It’s your baby now.
Because of the commitment needed, it is very much a full-time job. Seeking an alignment with everyone and ensuring that everyone stays committed for those 8-9 months is challenging. The challenge is compounded by the fact that the incentives are high (i.e. good marks), but still not that high (i.e. you don’t get paid for it); the price for non-performance is low (i.e. you may get low marks), but they are not that painful (i.e. you don’t get fired).
Good discipline is very much expected and needed for every member. There were many a weekend that I was stuck in my room trying to finish up work, and all you here from outside is the beckoning of a party that’s happening just 3 feet from your door.
Another challenge is the need to be able to multitask, to be able to refocus on different tasks as quickly as possible, to be able to get into the groove despite having so many moving pieces around you. This challenge becomes more pronounced when you have normal classes interspersed with GDP work. Some say that it creates a variety in the schedule, but to me, it was hard to jump from one task to another. I rather have a whole period of time dedicated and focused on a single task.
Most of the time, you will face challenges in getting the information you need to make decisions or conclusions. So how do you get the information that you need? You have to go out and get them, i.e. get your own sensors, trackers, survey data etc.
What if no one has done the analysis before? How can you make decisions then?Well, make you own analysis. Don’t be afraid to make assumptions, as long as they are reasonable and explicitly stated.
Tips for potential GDP candidates
Not that I did all of them, but below are some things that I think may be very useful. Some may say that these are common sense, but I maintain that common sense is actually rare, and we tend to forget to take our own prescription very often. So, let this serve as a reminder to those who think that this should be “common sense”.
- Set clear boundaries and document everything
Make sure that you define clear roles and responsibilities from the very start. It is very important to make sure that everyone has something to do, so that everyone has the opportunity to contribute, and to make sure that there is no overlap or duplication of work. Again, this is very important, more so if you are working with friends. Think of this as a pre-nup to a very long-term and highly-consequential relationship.
As part of the effort to make everyone accountable to their responsibilities, make sure that every work done is documented, with photographic evidence if possible. This may seem like a hassle, but on the long run, it just makes it a lot easier for your markers to award you the marks you deserve. And if there are disputes, the evidence of the work done, or the lack thereof, would come in very handy.
- “Front-load” and have performance reviews
Many people, including yours truly, may have a bad habit of doing things at the very last minute. The problem is, almost 100% of the time, deadlines will be missed by doing so, especially for something as labour intensive as the GDP.
So I suggest “front-loading” your GDP – do everything as early as possible. Like, as soon as you start your project. Do not delay. You’ll thank me for the advice and thank yourself for the effort.
Getting the bulk of your work done by say, January or February, would save you a lot of headaches. When you submit your draft to your supervisor by then, your supervisor would have sufficient time to give a solid appraisal, and give you valuable feedback. And now, you actually have enough time to act on the feedback given. At least even if your report is a complete failure, you have time to take corrective measures. The more you fail, the more you learn. And there is no cost of failure in university. So fail early.
- Choose a GDP that you are interested in, not something that you are in for the sake of completing a GDP.
It’s nearly a year-long commitment. You will dread every single waking moment if you made the wrong choice. It is like being committed to a very unhealthy relationship. Just don’t. Bad choices will bite your and your members’ behinds. Don’t drag other people down with your own poor choices.
And conversely, don’t go choosing a topic just because it sounds cool. Say for example, you choose a project that aims to send something out to space. If this is totally your cup of tea, by all means. But if you pick this just because it sounds cool, you better make sure you stay committed to the game, and that you put in a 110% to get up to speed with your other members. Otherwise, the harsh reality is that you are just dead weight. Don’t drag other people down with your own poor choices.
- Support where necessary.
May seen as a contradiction of point 1. But once you have cleared your objectives in 1, please do support. If your group mate is genuinely in trouble and needs support, give that person a hand. Even if you do not know anything about the person’s assigned topic/role, a small kind gesture goes a long way.