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When I studied my bachelor's degree, my professors often let me write papers in whatever area I wanted, even if it was an area completely outside of their expertise. Within master's programs, is this still the case, or must students generally stay within the specific expertise of their professors or advisors?

In my particular situation, I want to study second language acquisition (SLA), however, none of the programs I can attend have professors knowledgeable in my particular language of focus. Is it likely that I'll face resistance from advisors in trying to write my research papers and thesis about a language which none of the school's faculty are familiar with?

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Whether an advisor will agree to supervise a master's thesis outside of their area of expertise depends on the advisor. It may also vary between fields or universities, but I believe the personal variance will be much higher, so the best way to find out is to ask a potential advisor.

As for whether it's a good idea, I see three issues.

  1. You will not receive expert advice in your chosen area. Of course, there's a trade-off here: would you rather study what you love best without expert advice, or get better advising on another topic?

  2. You may receive actively bad advice. To avoid this difficulty, it's important for you to read extensively and to choose an advisor who is open minded and flexible.

  3. Your advisor may not write an enthusiastic letter of recommendation for you. Sometimes an advisor will let a student choose to do whatever they want, but when the advisor recommends the student, it becomes clear that the advisor is uninterested in the student's work and unimpressed by it. I've seen this cause trouble for several people, so I strongly recommend trying to find an advisor who is actually enthusiastic about your topic (even if it's not what they work on).

In your specific case, choosing to study second language acquisition in a language nobody on the faculty speaks sounds like only a mild concern (assuming you speak it fluently or have access to excellent informants), since I imagine much of the advising would be about research methodology or language acquisition theories, rather than language-specific issues. However, I don't know enough about this area to say for sure.

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I would like to add 4. that "you won't get help in networking or getting info on conferences and postdoc positions". –  Piotr Migdal Dec 25 '12 at 16:52
    
@PiotrMigdal: Since this is a master's thesis, conferences and postdoc positions don't seem nearly as critical here. But for a PhD thesis, those concerns would matter a lot more. –  aeismail Dec 25 '12 at 23:06
    
@aeismail Somehow, I've missed the word "master's" (my fault). However, then PhD opportunities are still very relevant (when it comes to networking). –  Piotr Migdal Dec 25 '12 at 23:11
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A master's thesis is an original piece of work by the candidate on any topic that falls within the scope of the master's program. In principle, at least at my university, there is no formal requirement that the advisor be expert of the topic of the thesis, even if this would clearly help a lot from a student's perspective. Going for a topic outside of the professors' expertise requires a strong motivation on the candidate's side.

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