Start early – Machine learning capstone projects require a significant amount of time to complete. Don’t wait until the last minute to start your project. Giving yourself plenty of time to research, plan, experiment, and refine your work is crucial for success. Starting early allows room for issues that may come up along the way.
Choose a focused problem – Machine learning is broad, so try to identify a specific, well-defined problem or task for your capstone. Keep your scope narrow enough that you can reasonably complete the project in the allotted timeframe. Broad, vague topics make completing a successful project much more difficult.
Research thoroughly – Once you’ve identified your problem, conduct extensive background research. Learn what others have already done in your problem space. Study relevant papers, codebases, datasets, and more. This research phase is important for understanding the current state-of-the-art and identifying opportunities for your work to contribute something new. Don’t shortcut this step.
Develop a plan – Now that you understand the problem space, develop a specific plan for how you will approach and address your problem through machine learning. Identify the algorithm(s) you want to use, how you will obtain data, any pre-processing steps needed, how models will be evaluated, etc. Having a detailed plan helps keep you on track towards realistic goals and milestones.
Collect and prepare data – Most machine learning applications require large amounts of quality data. Sourcing and cleaning data is often one of the most time-consuming parts of a project. Make sure to allocate sufficient effort towards obtaining the necessary data and preparing it appropriately for your chosen algorithms. Common preparation steps include labeling, feature extraction, normalization, validation/test splitting, etc.
Experiment iteratively – Machine learning research is an exploratory process. Don’t expect to get things right on the first try. Set aside time for experimentation to identify what works and what doesn’t. Start with simple benchmarks and gradually make your models more sophisticated based on lessons learned. Constantly evaluate model performance and be willing to iterate in new directions as needed. Keep thorough records of experiments to support conclusions.
Use version control – As your project progresses through multiple experiments and iterations, use version control (e.g. Git) to track all changes to your code and work. Version control prevents work from being lost and allows changes to be easily rolled back if needed. It also creates transparency around your research process for others to understand how your work evolved.
Prototype quickly – While thoroughness is important, be sure not to get bogged down implementing every idea to completion before testing. Favor rapid prototyping over polished implementations, at least initially. Build quick proofs-of-concept to get early feedback and course-correct along the way if aspects aren’t working as hoped. Perfection can sometimes be the enemy of progress.
Draw conclusions – Based on your experimentation and results, draw clear conclusions to address your original research questions. Identify what approaches/algorithms did or didn’t work well and why. Discuss limitations and areas for potential improvement or future research opportunities. Support conclusions with quantitative results and qualitative insights from your work. Draw inferences that others could potentially build upon.
Present your work – To demonstrate your learnings and the skill of communicating technical work, create deliverables to clearly present your capstone research. This may include a written report, website, presentation slides and poster, or demonstration code repository. Developing strong explainability through presentations allows evaluators and peers to truly understand the effort and outcomes of your project.
Reflect on lessons learned – In addition to conclusions about your specific problem, reflect thoughtfully on the overall research and development process that you undertook for the capstone. Discuss what went well and what you might approach differently. Consider both technical and soft skill lessons, like iteration tolerance or feedback incorporation. Wrapping up with takeaways helps crystallize personal growth beyond just the project scope.
Throughout the process, seek guidance from mentors with machine learning experience. Questions or obstacles you encounter can often be resolved or opportunities uncovered through discussion with knowledgeable others. Machine learning research benefits greatly from collaboration and feedback interchange. With diligent effort on all the above steps carried out over sufficient time, you’ll greatly increase your chances of producing a successful machine learning capstone project that demonstrates strong independent research abilities. Commit to a process of thoughtful exploration through iterative experimentation, evaluation, and refinement of your target problem and methodology over consecutive sprints. While challenges may arise, following best practices like these will serve you well.