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A friend of mine is pursuing a Masters course containing a research dissertation as part of the curriculum. He has done a lot of work on his topic (both studying of existing literature as well as tried out some new methods) but none of them have given interesting results. So, what should his thesis describe? Or does he need to succeed in order to pass?

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This depends on the program, the committee, the advisor, and the student. To give some anecdotes in both directions:

I have a friend who was a graduate student for a young professor who was just setting up his lab. My friend never performed any novel research, published few peer-reviewed articles, and for the most part did much more work setting up the lab environment than should have happened. Towards the end of his 5th year, he took his publications, white papers, and other documents, stapeled them together, and called it a thesis. He graduated no problem.

A different friend of mine was diligentily working on a single research problem for a few years and didn't find any results. Push came to shove, his committee wanted to see progress on one particular area, and six months later, when he didn't produce, he left with a masters.

Two separate stories, two separate universities, two very different programs. Long story short, if you think you're heading towards a situation like this, talk to your advisor and committee members and see what you can do. Do note that in these situations you can often take a minor finding which does not directly address your central theme and present it as your major contribution to the field, as this can serve to demonstrate your proficiency in research.

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A criticism I have heard of European entrepreneurship (vs. US) is that bankruptcy for start-ups is too heavily stigmatised. People are less willing to take risks and start-ups are rather more conservative in their outlook than their American counterparts. Thus American start-ups tend to fail more often but, subjectively speaking, foster better innovation.

It's a compelling argument.

Similarly, in research, publishing or otherwise achieving degrees through negative results is important:

  • It fosters an innovative environment where people are willing to try new things
  • Publishing non-trivial negative results ...
    • ... informs people from making the same mistake;
    • ... could be extended or fixed by third-parties towards a better solution;
    • ... stops people from the hype that it so common-place now where even if their results are negative, they feel the need to add an artificial positive spin to get published.

So in summary, I would say that even if the results are negative, if they are non-obvious or if there's some experience to be gained from them, that should be still be fine.

but none of them have given interesting results.

But what do you mean by "interesting" results? Do you mean positive results? Negative results are often interesting too.

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    +1. I wish there was a Journal of Negative Results. As you point out, there's a lot to be gained in terms of preventing other people from pursuing a "fruitless" research direction. – user7123 Jul 15 '13 at 19:20
  • Thanks, agreed! (Wondering about the other -1: should I expect an associated comment with feedback?) – badroit Jul 15 '13 at 19:27
  • It's considered good etiquette to post why you are downvoting, if there isn't already a criticism of the post in question. You've asked, and hopefully someone will answer. – user7123 Jul 15 '13 at 19:31
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    @badroit: this is relevant to your third point: mchankins.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/still-not-significant-2 – user7123 Jul 15 '13 at 19:34
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    If you can prove that something is impossible, isn't it a positive result? – vsz Jul 16 '13 at 6:10
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I'm currently in the middle of planning a master's project that is "high-risk," in the sense of the idea that we're going to try out is a relatively novel idea, and we have no idea if it will actually work or not.

As a "hedge" against this, however, we need to do some methodological work that will support this idea. This work, even if the main idea doesn't pan out, still has relevance within the field, and therefore in and of itself would represent a sizable enough "core" of work that the thesis would be considered successful, even if the "hypothesis" doesn't hold.

In addition, I believe a master's thesis doesn't need to reach the same standards of "advancing the state of knowledge" as a PhD thesis. It should show the results of a project, but it need not be nearly as comprehensive or represent as great an advance as a PhD thesis—in part because of the relative amount of time involved.

What would perhaps be especially helpful here is if the student is able to analyze why the various efforts tried haven't panned out. That could make for a significant finding in and of itself, at least as far as the thesis is concerned.

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  • First answer to point out that the novelty level of a Master thesis is very different than that of a PhD thesis. I would have expected other answers to take in to account that the question is about a Master thesis. – penelope Jul 16 '13 at 13:28

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