Sponsored dissertations: Connecting undergraduates with companies to research problems that matter

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In this post, Dr Sergei Plekhanov, a Senior Teaching Fellow at the School of Economics, highlights a sponsored dissertation scheme, which connects undergraduate economic students with organisations who need real-life problems researched…

Do you remember you first big piece of individual work? For many of us it was our undergraduate dissertation. Would it not have been great if somebody other than your supervisor had taken the content matter seriously, and it hadn’t been just the markers who read it? The Sponsored Dissertations scheme at the School of Economics gives students a chance to work on real-life problems which matter for organisations outside the university walls.

All students studying Economics at Edinburgh write a dissertation: a ten thousand-word piece of independent work on a topic they choose. It is a daunting task, and it is so easy to lose motivation half-way through when things start to get complicated. Just think about it… There is no one in the whole cohort who is working on the same project and, no matter how good the work is it is unlikely more than two or three people will ever read it; it’s even less likely they will truly care. At the same time, you worry about your future, spend time applying for jobs, and you might be thinking that the knowledge you gained at university is completely theoretical and cannot be applied to real-life problems.

We understand these concerns and have a solution. There is a lot of demand in the industry for academic work. Some companies are small and simply don’t have enough resources to spend on researching a topic that is of interest but is not directly related to their day-to-day activities. Some firms come across certain questions only once in a few years and it makes little sense for them to keep a full-time employee with enough expertise to research an answer. Some companies want to hire graduates, and they are looking for a screening method that would reveal more information about the candidates than a standard interview.

We talk to all these companies, figure out which questions they would like to be answered, and let our students write their dissertations on these topics. The questions are very diverse. A few questions which were recently answered by our students are:

  • Is it true that undervalued currencies appreciate faster?
  • Is divestment from fossil fuels companies the best strategy to stop global warming?
  • What are the likely effects of reduced migration after Brexit for Scottish economy
  • What is the best way to forecast housing prices?
  • What is the best measure of unemployment in the modern world?
  • How can we predict potentially deadly incidents at work using firms’ economic indicators?

The scheme is very popular. Projects are allocated on merit, but academic performance is only one of many factors we consider. The students’ interests, strengths in particular areas, and motivation are equally as important. Those who end up working on the projects usually enjoy it; we regularly hear it’s the best experience they have in their four university years. They work on a hot topic, they get additional presentation training, and their work culminates with a presentation at the organisations’ offices. The results are often published as various reports and are used to inform firms’ actions.

The companies we work with are also very positive about the initiative. They get a high-quality piece of research as well as a good idea about the capabilities of the student. A few of our students have ended up working for the same company who sponsored their dissertation.

Over the years, Sean Brocklebank (who started this programme back in 2010), Anna Babloyan and I have supervised more than 60 sponsored dissertations, and we are planning to keep the scheme going. If you work in the industry, we would welcome an opportunity to work with you. You can find all the details and contact information on our website.

Sergei Plekhanov

Sergei is Senior Teaching Fellow at the School of Economics. He lectures in the first two years of economics degrees, coordinates the second-year core economics course, and works on various projects aimed at improving students’ experience.

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