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Aim and Scope

With reference to the motivation, state in a single sentence the purpose of the study. Identify the anticipated limitations of the project in terms of factors such as location, framework, application, completeness, or participants.

The aim, or purpose, of a project has three characteristics: it responds directly to the motivation, it is singular—that is, it concerns a single goal and activity—and it suggests the project’s title.

First, a well-stated aim should provide clear purpose and direction, and it can only do so if it responds directly to the motivation. Second, having a singular aim ensures that the thesis will be coherent. For me, it shows that the student is not over-promising and has a clear grasp of the project at hand. If your aim has multiple parts, then you run the risk of creating a monster stitched together from unrelated components. For example, Mickey wanted to develop statistical methods for categorizing pieces of fiction and then design search technology to use these statistical methods. Both of these are significant problems and it would not be possible to address them in a single minor thesis. To avoid the perception that you are over-promising, you can designate one as the primary aim, and present the other as a secondary aim if you believe that it will follow naturally and easily from the first. It would be better, though, to discard the secondary aim unless the primary aim is meaningless without it.

Third, if a thesis aim is such that it can be directly reflected in the title of the thesis, then a clear link is established between what is expected and what is delivered. The title is usually the first thing I read in a thesis and it sets the tone and raises expectations about the entire work. Having a mismatch between the title of the work and the purpose of a work is a waste of time for everyone involved. Establishing the scope of the thesis helps to manage examiner expectations, and to clarify what can be accomplished with limited resources and within the deadline.

I urge my students to identify three to five limits to their work. Your work, for example, can be constrained by the amount of time that is available, the complexity of the lab work or software development to be undertaken, the kinds of areas or applications to which the outcomes will be relevant, the amount and type of data that is available, or the location of the study. It can also be constrained by the theoretical framework, or by the target of the inquiry. Your supervisor can work with you to establish a scope to help ensure that you do not overestimate your abilities, and to confirm that the work can plausibly be completed on time with the available resources.

For a minor thesis student, setting a scope is much more than an idle exercise because it teaches the basic relationship between research effort and reward; the scope can be seen as a contract between you and your supervisor as you learn to establish boundaries. At times, when I am discussing with my students what was expected and what was delivered, I draw their attention to the scope we set at the beginning of the project before we discuss milestones and delays. In this way, the scope helps us to maintain an effective working relationship.

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