I am halfway through my 2 years masters now. I am doing my masters abroad in Asia and slipped into a bit of an unfortunate situation. I originally studied general science as an undergrad and during this time I discovered my nack for programming, machine learning. I had no previous research experience. I was especially interested in the application of machine learning in neuroscience. After listening to the advise of one of the Neuroscience professors at the university I am doing my masters now,I decided to do a masters in CS to get a more in depth-knowledge. He guaranteed me a spot in a laboratory in the CS department that works together with his lab, and also happens to be one of the best in the country. So far, everything was ideal.

Well, once I began my degree and entered the lab, I was given a big government project related to machine learning and neuroscience and was assigned as a leader. Everyone knew I had an interest in neuroscience, and no-one else wanted to work on this, so I was just assigned. It is a large scale research project, involving a lot of money with no concrete definition and I have to come up with a feasible research idea myself.

Well obviously, I have been extremely overwhelmed, have 0 guidance and assistance. Coursework here is also very unhelpful, the general mindset is, "don't care about your classes, learn trough your research". On top of this I am required to take a class out of each field within CS, hindering me in actually specialising within AI, and further burdening me as I have very little background knowledge in most other areas.

As mentioned before, I have no-one teaching me, guiding me nor assisting me. I am expected to know how things work already and publish a paper. There is great pressure for this from my lab-mates and professor and I am frequently met with disapproval as I have no results yet concrete research to present. Besides my main project I am supposed to improve some previous published work, this is solely Machine learning based but is again very challenging as I started from scratch in terms of coding knowledge etc. And again all by myself.

So for the last year I have been trying to not break down completely, working on the Machine Learning related project and thus improved my coding skills. But also lost all my motivation, ambitions and self-discipline along the way. Regarding the project I am "leading", I keep being pushed to doing mainly machine learning research, which makes sense as my professor can only assist me with that. But I have by now 0 interest in the pure field of Machine Learning, am immensely frustrated and feel foolish as any idea of mine is dismissed as too simplistic. This makes me lose my motivation even more. Not once in my life have a been so disengaged, apathetic and undisciplined as a student and I really really don't like it. Our professor only really cares about advising, once we are actually about to publish a paper. My other lab-mates all interned for one year before entering, but are in general incredibly smart and capable; publishing papers at top-tier conferences as a masters student is the norm here - not the exception.

My original approach has been to accept my situation, fake my way through and just write out a master thesis in the end and then escape. But looking back now, I definitely didn't learn as much as I could have, partly due to the lack of guidance but also my lack of motivation. And I absolutely dislike my attitude and seeing how much I changed from being a good, passionate student to what I am now.

So my new plan is, just doing the research I am interested in: Machine learning applied to neuroscience. Read papers, papers, papers, take online classes and brush up on knowledge I am lacking. Since I care about this field, I might actually be able to make myself work again. This also means though, if I ever do end up wanting to write a paper, I will not be able to get any guidance, same applies for my master thesis. In the end this is similar to the first approach, only with me trying harder.

The other alternative is to just drop out. Recharge my batteries, and reapply to a program that matches my interests better. However I am scared of restarting and then realising I am still not able to actually work and study properly. Or the knowledge gap might be even bigger. Also in that case I will lose my generous scholarship, so funding will become an issue and I will live a financially more unstable life.

If I continue the way I have so far, I will still probably end up graduating , but it really feels like I will have wasted 2 years of my life and I am more than certain that I won't continue to work in this field, seeing how I am unable to motivate myself.

  • 1
    Please provide some feedback once you make a definite decision. It may help others.
    – Scientist
    Nov 6, 2018 at 15:43

4 Answers 4


I totally suggest you step back and drop out. I am not sure whether this seems natural to others but what you describe looks completely out of line. A masters student is supposed to merely take first steps under direct scrutiny of a competent professor, as well as take specialized classes. From my understanding you’re thrown into managing funds, designing complex research strategies to generate high-profile papers with zero experience and background. In such a scenario I wonder what exactly are the local professors doing with their time. This is a recipe for disaster, compromising public funds, the institution, and your sanity. A very dangerous situation, in my view. I suggest you leave as soon as possible before you break down, and search for minimally competent guidance elsewhere. Mind such low brand of people may try to sabotage your chances elsewhere, so stay as far as possible from them after you leave. I suggest you seek a world-class institution for you masters training. Because it is training and guidance you need at this stage, not being wasted bare.

Good luck


@SandraK, with a reference to your story which I understand very well based on my small experience. First of all, I think you must not thinking of dropping your master as there is no reasonable, I do understand what you have mentioned, however, dont ever think that guidance could improve you as much as you learn on your own, believe me,sometimes we need guidance, but not so much as you think, and please dont compare yourself to your peers, they have spent one year before joining the program so they have more hands-on experience and you can be better as long as you are passionate, hard-worker, and having stamina. Definitely it likely moving a huge block of stone, but remember in the end, you will be successful, so don't leave this good opportunity, stay focused to the end of the line.

From my experience, in masters I had zero literally guidance, and I did all of my work on my own although the great challenges I faced, I managed to publish in conferences and having fellowships. To be honest, I liked little bit, however the only drawback sometimes, I would liked to discuss and share with other one experienced, but I managed to seek for support from professors outside my university when I stuck through using on-line platforms and in the end I gained the experience.

Now to show you how sometimes guidance and micro-manager PI could not be helpful, I have been a PhD student for a first year and I have resigned(forced) because my ex-PI is abusive and don't accept ideas out of the box and he wasn't so much experienced in this research, he didn't understand my ideas and underestimated although I was very passionate about my research.

To conclude, stuck to your position, do as much as you can, be perseverant, don't compare yourself to peers, and I am pretty sure that you are going to manage all of this. I think in the end, you are in a need for gainig more skills which is not related for being smart, so in the end you can manage that.

Wishing for you all the best.


As far as I understood, you have a quite significant position but you were taken there before you feel ready to start something this big in scale. And more or less you have managed to keep yourself there even with many negative results up until now.

First, an idea will be too simplistic or out of the way if you don't know what others currently do in the field, and what would be the gap. You have pointed out that as a plan you will read many papers and try to publish in that area. Well, start with reviews, open the WebofScience and select highly cited ones first. Draw schematics of the research being done and tools used, and follow the future directions in reviews as well, and in the end, you will have more than one idea which is very suitable to follow.

After seeing the big picture, you willy-nilly start to feel that you may actually be able to contribute to that field and consequently to science in general if you work your way up there. After getting this idea, set up a time management software, there are many free alternatives and they really help a lot. You can also keep an agenda with notes in different colors in order of importance. This will remediate your self-discipline issue problem.

One last note: Guidance is good, but not obligatory. You may either find some informal guides through the net or other professors in some specific subjects to move faster, but you should improve your traits/skills as well, simply you should be able to guide yourself. You can finish even a Ph. D. and make good publications and conference talks with poor guidance, I have seen many examples in many disciplines.

I suggest you DO NOT GIVE UP. You have a position may very well be dreamed by thousands, and targeted by again many people. And once you get the reins you will start to feel capable and good, so you will fit.


My decision: So after reading the advise, considering my mental and physical health I decided to do the following. I first talked to my superiors, explained my situation in detail, how I feel about everything, and inquired whether there will be any difference if I take this to our professor. Basically the conclusion was that the situation cannot really be changed simply because everyone is swamped in tasks, my project cannot be reassigned nor taken away.

So honestly, if things don't work out for the project than the responsibility lies within my professor and I will just do what I can do considering my current situation and condition. I will finish my degree somehow and take a break from academia, there is always a chance to return later on. Quitting and changing to another institution isn't really much of an option because of financing. And actually, I am already at a world class institution. So basically I just decided to give in, but put my health first and well being first. I will not push through this at any cost, but I will try my best with a calm mindset and less pressure since others and I agree that the reason that I am in this mess is not really my mistake.

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