This paper analyses qualitative data reflecting the final-year experiences of design (Industrial Design) and non-design (Planning and Urban Development) students in the Faculty of the Built Environment (FBE) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). It investigates the ‘lived experiences’ of these students during their graduation year with a particular focus on the differences between self-directed learning in a design context and in a more traditional research process. The students’ reflections were captured in filmed interviews and in personal journals. Their observations give insight into their conceptions of research; their views on the process of research and the production of their graduate thesis or design project; and their learning experiences. Each one of the student stories provides a wealth of information that can be instructive to the Industrial Design and Planning Programs in the pursuit of student self-directed learning and achievement within the FBE. The paper discusses learning and teaching issues, plus challenges and enabling factors for the success of the students’ final research project.