Employability Skills: Economics Dissertation at University of East Anglia

Matthew Aldrich, University of East Anglia
matthew.aldrich@uea.ac.uk
Published October 2019

This is an optional year-long module that gives students the chance to hone their skills as economists and undertake an independent research project of their choosing. This can be viewed as a ‘capstone’ module that brings together the skills learnt throughout the degree programme, applied to one specific topic that demonstrates how real-world economics can be used for the benefit of society. This may be through an academic-style piece of research or through a work-based project on behalf of a company, charity, or other external organisation.

Module structure

The first semester consists of a series of a series of workshops designed to help students to develop the skills required to be good researchers, using a number of formative assessments that students undertake in relation to their own topic, at the same time helping them to refine their research idea into a feasible research question. The workshops are designed to cover different elements of the research process and are informed by resources available from the Economics Network[1]. Students are directed to Greenlaw (2005)[2], Neugeboren (2005)[3] and Studying Economics[4] (the Economics Network student site) for further guidance, all focussed on undergraduate research.

The summative assessment at the end of the semester requires students to present their proposal to their peers in a conference-style setting under a strict time limit. The students are assigned a discussant to start the Q&A, before questions are opened to the rest of the group. All students give feedback to each presenter, creating a strong group mentality and a chance to receive and give a lot of peer-to-peer feedback, as academics would receive at a conference. Lunch and break-out sessions are incorporated into the day so that students can continue the conversations about their research ideas. Presentations are marked by lecturers, and further feedback is provided. In the second semester, students are allocated supervisors and are supported through the writing of the dissertation.

Work-based learning

Students have the option of a traditional academic-style dissertation or to undertake a work-based project for a business or charitable organisation. The School of Economics sources a number of projects through its contacts, or individual students can create their own project with a business (they go through the same vetting process to ensure suitability). Externals are required to provide some support to the students, but they are also assigned an academic supervisor.

The project does not need to be about ‘economics’ but must allow students to apply the skills they have learnt as economists to the problem at hand, for example data analysis, problem solving, application of economic theory and understanding of behaviour, or simple modelling. This helps students to appreciate the wide range of job roles suited to their skill set. We allow flexibility in approaches to the submitted write-up; a business report is more likely suitable in some situations, and this is the output we will mark in these cases. This gives students the opportunity to improve their communication with non-economists, but also experience how to manage a client relationship and/or project, act professionally, and enhance their commercial awareness and organisation skills.

The skills developed though the module depend in part on the topic of the dissertation, and whether it is academic in nature or for an external organisation. To that end, students complete a skills audit early on (as one of the formative assessments) to identify their strengths and areas for development, at the conference (as part of the summative assessment), and again at the end as a reflective exercise to help students to identify the skills they have developed throughout the module.

Feedback has been positive on all aspects of the module. Students particularly enjoy and see the value of the student conference, the freedom to conduct research on a topic they are passionate about, and it shows through in the quality of the work produced. Businesses’ feedback on external projects has also been positive, and we have been able to expand the number of projects offered.

This module has been running for two years, and as such, we are still learning and improving the design and delivery of the module. Organisation of the conference and external projects takes some time but is worth the effort. The biggest challenge we face is with student confidence, particularly in encouraging students to undertake a project for an external organisation. The conference really helps with this, as students are given the opportunity to share their own challenges – both in terms of perceived skills and with the research process – and give encouragement and feedback to each other to help them overcome these.

Skills developed by this activity

The main skills that this activity explicitly helps students to develop:

Communication 

 

Writing for academic audience 

X

Writing for non-academic audience 

X

Presentation to academic audience 

X

Presentation to non-academic audience 

 

Application to real world 

 

Applying economics to real world context 

X

Solving policy or commercial problems 

X

Simplifying complex ideas/information to make them accessible to wide audience 

X

Data analysis 

 

Sourcing and organising quantitative data 

X

Analysing and interpreting quantitative data 

X

Fluency with excel 

 

Fluency with statistical/econometric packages 

X

Collaboration 

 

Team-working with economists 

 

Collaboration with non-economists 

X

Wider employability skills 

 

Flexibility 

X

Creativity and imagination 

 

Independent thinking 

X

Can do attitude 

X

Reliability 

X

Resilience 

X

Commercial awareness 

X

Time management 

X

Project management/organisational skills 

X

[1] Smith, P. (2016), Undergraduate Dissertations in Economics, The Handbook for Economics Lecturers, https://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/handbook/dissertations

[2] Greenlaw, S. (2005), Doing economics: a guide to understanding and carrying out economic research, Cengage Learning, Boston

[3] Neugeboren, R. (2005), The student’s guide to writing economics, Routledge, London

[4] Dissertations, Studying Economics, http://www.studyingeconomics.ac.uk/dissertation/

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