Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Tips for writing technical reports (BEng/MEng/MSc/EngD/D.Phil/PhD)

It is crucial to present your work in a concise, effective and impressive way. Failing to do so also means that you are not doing justice to the work you actually did over a span of several months. This article gives an outline of the report structure and an idea about the possible contents within several subsections of a BEng, MEng, MSc or PhD reports.

A good report generally follows the following order:

Title page
It should include tile of the report, name of the department and University with logo, few words explaining its submission (i.e. this dissertation is submitted for (or the part of) the degree of B.Eng., MEng or PhD, etc.), followed by your name and supervisors name (in some case people do not write it here, so its better to check in earlier reports).

Dedication (optional)
It’s an optional page, but you want to dedicate your report to someone by writing his/her name (i.e. dedicate to….)

Declaration
It is an important page, and should include a couple of lines stating that the work presented in the report is your own work and contents taken form other places are duly acknowledged. Also, a line including the information on number of words, tables and figures can be included.

Acknowledgements
Acknowledging someone does not affect you, but leave a good impression on the person who helped you. Firstly, one should clearly acknowledge his/her supervisor and co–supervisor (if any) with their names. Then, it is worth acknowledging others (including funding body, colleagues, family and friends) if you feel that they have contributed directly or indirectly to your work.

Publications
Include a page on list of publications (if you published any) that came out as a part of work included in your report. It is a direct measure of the quality of your work, giving a clear idea to the examiner about the originality of your work , providing you a strong chance to defend your work. For PhDs, it is quite important to list journal and conference publications. It will look impressive and extraordinary if one can tick this box while doing other degrees.

Abstract
Abstract is the ‘face’ of your report. It should be as concise and short as possible. A standard is generally of 350 words or one page length. If one is not being able to fit this within this criteria, it reflects his confusion and inability to summarise the key results in a consolidated manner.

An abstract should address the following questions in a orderly manner. Couple of lines can be dedicated to each of the following:
  • Motivation: why have you done this study or what are research gaps,
  • Objective: what are aims of your work,
  • Methodology adopted to address the define objectives,
  • Key results and findings,
  • Application of your findings to real–world problems or how this will fill the research gap.
Although, it is up to an individual that how much word he dedicate to each of the above questions.

Note that the pages before this (including abstract) are NOT numbered.

Table of Contents
This should include a detailed list of all the contents starting from this section to Appendices. Numbering should start from this page in roman letters (i.e. i, ii. iii, … etc.) and should end at List of nomenclature. From Chapter 1 (Introduction) real numbering of the report should start (i.e. 1, 2, 3….).

List of Figures

List of Tables

List of Nomenclature

Chapter 1: Introduction
It should contain the following: (i) motivation, (ii) research objective, (iii) research approach, and (iv) report outline. It is always good to keep this chapter short (i.e. 3-5 pages), but length can vary depending on the type of report.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

It should contain the literature review of studies/materials which you are going to use in your upcoming chapters. For a BEng, MSc or MEng report, it can be between 10 and 20 pages but these numbers can be higher for PhD reports.

Chapter 3: Materials and Methods

This chapter should contain the description of methods which you are using for your main research work. In case of computational or theoritical study, it can contain the methods developed or applied. Number of pages may vary depending on the type of report and work.

Chapter 4: Results and Discussions
These can have more than one chapter depending on the nature of the report. These are the main and most important chapters on which you will be evaluated; these chapters reflect your original contribution to the selected topic. Thesrefore, it is important that these chapters are written concisely in a simple and clear language.


There are few points which can be considered while writing these chpaters: (i) one should not live in their own world while presenting the work but is always recommended to compare their results with already published someone else's work, (ii) these chapters should not just report the results but should include discussions on the results presented - sometime it is better to raise questions yourself to raise curocity in readers mind and then address them, (iiii) in some cases students have too much figures or material to include but it is dangerous to include all of them without their proper discussion - therefore the best way is to filter out the results (or try to merge figures together, if possible) and include the
best figures/tables that fits well to the theme of the work, and (iv) it ihas often been observed that students get very impressed with someone else's work and bury their original contribution while discussing other's work - it is very important that you distinguish the difference between yours and others' work and present your work as main contents and use others' work to compliment or justify your results.

Number of pages (or word count) may differ depending on the type of the report. However, it is generally expected that this part contain bulk (~60% or more) of the total word count.

Chapter 5: Summary, Conclusions and Future Work
This chapter should summarise your whole work in 1-2 pages and make your conclusions using bullet points in further one page. One should not forget to include one or more paragraphs on future scope of work.

References

Besides related books that you can search from internet or library, you should look for research articles. Few of the search engines may be Science-direct or ISI Web of Knowledge or Scopus.

It is an important part of any report. You should provide a reference to any work which you refer (i.e. done by others). Moreover, the references in your report should be consistent in writing style. You can use EndNote or similar softwares for making the job easier.

Appendices

Include all of them in order at the end of the report (i.e. after references) but include only those contents that has been referred in the main body of the text.

One more point to remember:

Editing

Editing is crucial for a report. Without a proper editing a report is 'like a very expensive cloth stiched in a poorly manner'. Such reports do not leave good mark on the readers/ or examinors. This is not difficult to do proper editing. If you are using Latex, its automatically take care most of the things but you can also do good editing in word by defining style, headings, etc. One should always try to maintain consistency in writing, font type and size, spacings between (or after) paragraphs, figures and tables, and referencing styles, etc.

Happy reading!
Prashant

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