Tricky master's thesis problem

  • #1
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Hi,

This is my first post and by no means a simple question, I believe. But all advice is appreciated. In particular, if there are university teachers/professors that are willing to give their opinion, I’d be very grateful. So thank you in advance.

Here’s a little background regarding my situation. I am a master’s level student in engineering writing my thesis. In my country it’s more less the norm that the thesis is written for a company that provides the advisor. The supervisor is a professor from uni. Since the thesis functions as the final “test” that gives the student a chance to prove their competence and it acts as a ticket to a professional career, the thesis is of the utmost importance to me and for my future. This is particularly since I have a definite plan to go for a doctoral degree. I am especially interested in the United States.

At least in my country, getting a high grade for the thesis requires scientific/industrial significance – some sort of a finding, solution or new information. I’m quite sure this is also the case globally (correct?). The problem I’m having is that my thesis is almost completely a rerun of well-known and simple methods and is therefor, at the very best, trivial. I have, however, identified two critical mistakes that were made during the project before I started my thesis. These realizations will be included in my thesis, but as my professor said, it is always easier to award for positive findings. His role, in any case, is typically to decide the grade at the end – nothing more. In general, the whole process should be carried out as independently as possible. My professor, thankfully, is giving me some support, but according to himself, his knowledge in the problem domain is unfortunately quite limited.

So my main question, finally: Are my plans for an engineering doctorate in the states doomed? And,

when the thesis is trivial, is it better to:

- Try and claim it is something “great” and try and present the little if any findings there are as scientifically or industrially significant, even though that’s actually not the case?

- Openly state that the thesis is trivial, but that these findings are the most significant findings possible considering the problem domain and the methods that I was constrained to?

Once again, thank you for taking the time to read and hopefully give some thoughts/answers.

BR
Immu

(For privacy reasons, I don’t want to go into details in this post.)
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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During my master`s thesis work i was also initially given the simple, trivial task. It took significant effort to grab the role in more complex engineering project, but it paid off after all (i got a PhD abroad afterwards).

Your main problem is what both your options are bad (although 2nd option is a bit better for future - PhD supervisors are frequently resistant to fooling).
Likely selection between bad choices happens because you you do not access to more challenging projects. Best strategy in your case would be to improve the access to challenges and tools to solve them, by taking part-time engineering job.
 
  • #3
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Hi

Thank you for a fast response and for sharing your experience and opinions. While I would wish a similar situation on nobody, it's conforting to know that I'm not the only one in with this situation.

Getting a job after graduating where I can carry out and publish research is certainly possible. However, I want to do all in my power not to have to rely on that option.

So what might be the best ways to either improve my research or bring to knowledge, either implicitly or explicity that I am fully aware of the trivial nature of the methods, but that it is not my fault and that I have done the very best that is possible in this situation? Surely this should help me earn some credit in the admissions office? Any thoughts anyone?

Thanks!
 
  • #4
Choppy
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His role, in any case, is typically to decide the grade at the end – nothing more. In general, the whole process should be carried out as independently as possible. My professor, thankfully, is giving me some support, but according to himself, his knowledge in the problem domain is unfortunately quite limited.

This is not the way a master's thesis is supposed to work -- at least not in any system I'm familiar with (Canadian). A supervisor is supposed to be involved with the thesis work from the beginning, helping the student to outline the project, giving the student feedback on everything from background reading to methodology to analysis. Further, a supervisor isn't really supposed to take on a supervisory role in a domain he or she is not knowledgeable about. But I realize that it doesn't always happen this way.

when the thesis is trivial, is it better to:

- Try and claim it is something “great” and try and present the little if any findings there are as scientifically or industrially significant, even though that’s actually not the case?

- Openly state that the thesis is trivial, but that these findings are the most significant findings possible considering the problem domain and the methods that I was constrained to?

Neither. It's not your call to make claims about how "great" or "trivial" the thesis is.

You should be able to explain however why the work that you've done is important. Why was it necessary do investigate this problem in the first place?

Sometimes it's important to re-work conventional methods. Even if you're ultimately only reproducing something that's already been done, science is not based on a train of individual eureka moments. It's based on reproducibility and independent verification. And sometimes it's important to establish that your lab can get results consistent with those already well-established in the literature as a form of benchmarking. This is a necessary step in order to push forward into anything that's unknown. How else will you now that your methods and equipment are reliable? And in fact, it's quite common for masters-level work to be about this. It has the double advantage of establishing reliability, and fostering skills in an up-and-coming researcher.

So don't try to claim anything about your work that it's not. In fact, avoid any subjective claims at all if you can. Explain what the work is about. Explain what it's relevance is to your field. Explain how it fits into the bigger picture. And leave it at that.
 
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  • #5
bigfooted
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There are also many professors that still write 'introduction to thermodynamics' books. Why do they do this? It has already been done!
Still, it is not a trivial task to write such a book, even though many examples are already available. The writer felt that something was missing, or that it is better to explain it in a slightly different way. The result is that some of the books will become classics in the sense that many students find the explanations good, the examples useful and the book gives a good overview of what thermodynamics is.
Your thesis can become a boring thesis on a trivial subject, or the classic thesis that everybody refers to when dealing with the topic. And is it really so trivial as you think it is?

Having said that, I think it is also up to you to think about ways to broaden the scope of the thesis. Use your curiosity to investigate additional topics that connect to your topic, and if it makes sense to spend more time on it to investigate it in more detail, convince your supervisor. Convincing supervisors is one of the most important skills you should acquire.
 
  • #6
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Once again, thank you so much for all the comments! I appreciate them.

The division in my country is such that the supervisor really does only look at the thesis in order to establish a grade and for that grade to be a 5(out of five), the uni requires for the thesis to have novel information/findings etc. And as my professor i.e. supervisor said, those that get a 4/5 merely function as pacesetters when applying for PhD. positions while those with 5/5 actually get the positions.

It is the advisor (in my case my boss at the company) who should be on the student's side helping them get that good grade. However, in my case it strongly seems like the thesis only fulfilled a requirement of an academic publication in order to get funding for the actual project.

We have a US scientist in our language centre who explained the situation very well: In North America the student essentially pays the professor's salary making them obliged to work with the student until he/she is happy. Here, the state pays their minuscule salary... Also, here you get six months to work on the thesis and that's it.

And is it really so trivial as you think it is?

Anyway, you've all given me a lot to think about and ideas as to what I need to do(like find someone to verify the quality of my thesis).

Thnks!
 
  • #7
DrClaude
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We have a similar system here in Sweden. I have been an examiner for such work a few times, but fortunately we only grade pass or fail. (If others want, I can give more details of what such a masters thesis is, but it is definitely not like a Canadian masters, which is basically a junior Ph.D.)

In this situation, what you have to do is impress your examiner. The "novel information/findings" can be in how you found the mistake, what can be done to correct it, what can be done in the future to avoid such mistakes, and so on. An important part of engineering work includes the supervision of others and management of projects, so you can tackle the task this way also.

So don't try to claim anything about your work that it's not. In fact, avoid any subjective claims at all if you can. Explain what the work is about. Explain what it's relevance is to your field. Explain how it fits into the bigger picture. And leave it at that.
+1
 
  • #8
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In this situation, what you have to do is impress your examiner. The "novel information/findings" can be in how you found the mistake, what can be done to correct it, what can be done in the future to avoid such mistakes, and so on. An important part of engineering work includes the supervision of others and management of projects, so you can tackle the task this way also.
+1

Thanks DrClaude. That's what I thought originaly. It's just that the professor "shot down" that by saying that rewarding for negative findings is not easy. But I think that might be my best bet alright.

Tack! (And no, I'm not Swedish for those who might be thinking that :wink:)
 
  • #9
DrClaude
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Thanks DrClaude. That's what I thought originaly. It's just that the professor "shot down" that by saying that rewarding for negative findings is not easy. But I think that might be my best bet alright.
You have to turn the negative into a positive, that's why I mentioned focusing on the methods . Also, weren't there existing results using the incorrect approach? Analyzing the differences between the incorrect and correct results could be of interest.

Thinking about it, I wouldn't call what you have a "negative result." If you are asked to find black swans and only find white ones, that's a negative result. If you are told to use a method that found that 10% of the swans are black and you can show how that method is wrong and why it finds black swans when there are none, that's a positive result.
 
  • #10
CWatters
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In my final year at uni my tutor gave me the same project brief he had given his student several times before. It involved designing a matched filter. It would have been easy just to repeat much of the previous work but I realised I somehow had to find new approaches to solving the same problem. Fortunately a bit of research gave me some ideas that worked out.

I didn't do great in my final exam and was on a grade boundary so had to be interviewed by an external examiner. He made some comments that suggested he knew full well my tutor was a lazy old goat and gave me credit for the new approach. That almost certainly secured my higher grade.
 

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