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For quite some time I'm doing research in a topic chosen by my advisor. The problem we are studying is difficult and important, with no good solutions available so far. I am currently unhappy about doing that. There are several issues here:

  1. I feel that we are not making any real progress. Still, our advisor wants to continue with the project and write papers.

  2. I think that the approach we are pursuing (invented by my advisor) is not useful at all. So far it has produced numerous difficulties, but no solutions in any nontrivial cases.

  3. At the moment I'm writing a thesis about the subject. I am to describe my contributions to develop further the earlier work by my advisor. Due to lack of real progress, it will only contain complicated solutions to trivial problems. I think it's worthless. To be honest I'm embarassed by it and don't want to show it to anyone.

  4. I feel bad about the fact that I never had any say in choosing the research and thesis topic.

I think these points make strong case for changing the research team after having finished the thesis. However

  1. In general I do want to stay in the field in which my advisor is working in.

  2. I feel changing would have a negative impact on my career.

  3. I already changed once (after finishing bachelor's). I feel that doing it again after finishing master's would look unprofessional. I fear the impact on my status in the department would be negative.

  4. Moving to different city seems like the best choice profesionally, but it is impossible due to family reasons.

Do you have any advice what should I do in this situation?

  • 1
    A great deal depends on (1) the country you are in, (2) the level you are at (MA or PhD), and (3) the field you are in ... – virmaior Dec 8 '17 at 12:00
  • (1) In Central Europe (2) Currently writing MA thesis and about to start PhD program next year in the same institution (3) Physics – hide_my_name Dec 9 '17 at 23:56
  • Dear colleague, there is no embarrassment at all in changing the field of study when you start a new degree. In fact I think that this is the time to do that, before you get too comfortable performing research on the same subject for several years. I know many theoretical physicists that worked on experimental physics during their master's degree. And more, I know a successful professor (his name is in the Higgs boson paper) that changed completely the field of study after several decades (from high energy physics to biological physics). Keep your mind open. – The Doctor Jan 2 '18 at 17:07
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First there are two possibilities arising from your question that are worth entertaining:

  1. Your supervisor, with greater experience, sees some hidden value that you miss in the work. You acknowledge that the problem is important and such research problems are not typically solved within the context of a Masters. So perhaps your supervisor views your topic as a stepping stone towards some other result, or perhaps they view it more as exploratory and something for you to "cut your teeth" on.

  2. You are correct and the topic is not going to (even indirectly) produce useful results and, furthermore, should not have been given to you as a Masters topic.

If (1) is even a slight possibility still, talk to your supervisor and express your concerns as strongly as you consider appropriate given your relationship. Having such concerns should be taken as you caring about your topic and the impact of your work and your supervisor should work to address them, even if only to tell you that the topic was a long shot and it is becoming clear now that the results are negative.

Aside from this, assuming your masters topic is a bit worthless and you are quite sure that (2) is more the case: what to do? Look to the longer term. Since you are a masters student, this is not the end of the world. If you wish to do a PhD and are accepted for the program, my advice would be to put your focus into that. Working on a masters topic you are embarrassed by is a difficult pill to swallow, and in an ideal world one you would not have to swallow. But doing PhD's is rife with such difficulties for all but a lucky few. And it is worth noting that your professor is also human and one of the hardest challenges of academia is to come up with new, worthwhile research topics; furthermore, the nature of research is such that there are no guarantees that a topic that seems initially promising will fulfil that promise.

In summary, my advice is: Do what you need to do to complete your Masters thesis and then look to get the best start/topic/supervisor possible for your PhD.


Regarding embarrassment about the Masters topic, again assuming the topic really is worthless, there are three things to note:

  1. Anyone whose opinion has value will understand in the context of a Masters thesis that probably the topic came from the professor, not you, and will understand the difficulties you faced.

  2. If you continue to do a PhD and progress further onwards into academia, in a few years time, nobody is all that likely to read about or care your Masters thesis (unless, perhaps, the results were published as a research paper).

  3. The standard expected for a Masters thesis varies wildly from institution to institution, but solving an important research problem is certainly not to be expected. (I mention this because perhaps you have set very high standards for your thesis.)


Aside from all that, even though your Masters topic has not been great, probably you have learned at lot from pursuing it (about the problem itself, the other work done in the area, how it could be done better, how to conduct and describe research, how to avoid a similar dead-end topic in future, etc.). The main result of yours Masters is you (and what you learnt), not your Masters. Your Masters is one or two years of research; it is a gateway to potentially decades more research on the topics of your own chosing.

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