I am doing a masters in electrical engineering which involves a project done in association with a company related to the university. I initially thought this would be a good thing as I expected the people at the company to already have the resources and knowledge to train me on the relevant things. But as I have come to realize, the project I was given was chosen out of a wish to have a certain product, without really knowing how feasible it would be.

There is existing literature by groups who had done similar things in the past, but all of them had access to different resources that I cannot use (fabrication processes with certain steps that do not seem available in what I have access to). In addition, their focus was more research-oriented, while in my case the intention is to make a commercial product eventually. The papers also tend to lack important information which, to be honest, even makes me doubt the amount of rigor that has been put into this kind of project before. Of course I have already done a literature review on what has been done, and I have some ideas about how to implement certain things, but basically everything I do is based on my guess for how things "ought" to work given what others have done and my understanding of the theory. I have no idea about how the fabrication will work out in practice.

In addition, before doing this project I had no prior experience with any of the chip fabrication details. In undergrad we had electronics courses, and I have sufficient understanding of the electronic circuit design, but the project also involves chemical aspects that I have never had to deal with before. It also requires knowledge of process details which are not usually needed for most applications, and are therefore not documented in what I have access to. I have tried to figure out a lot of this when doing the literature review, and I believe to have done a good job understanding relevant concepts, but my lack of any real experience prevents me from ever being confident that what I am proposing has any chance of working in real life. And none of the other persons I work with have ever done any similar work on that before, so I don't really have someone to guide me.

I regularly have meetings with my supervisors, and I have explained my concerns, but it seems like we keep having misunderstandings about what can be done. I usually try to explain rationally the problems that I see with particular ideas, but they tend to rely too much on "what the other group has done", and seem to just assume optimistically that certain things will work out. Of course relying on previous work is generally a good idea, but given the important differences in terms of available resources and goals, there is no way for me to simply replicate what others have done, and to me it currently looks somewhat far-fetched.

So basically, I am worried that I will eventually reach a dead end due to infeasibility or issues that I have overlooked, and that I will then get blamed for not completing the project. Perhaps I am wrong in expecting this, but I thought that there would already have been something organized or planned out before I joined the project, but it is really all from scratch and with little guidance, and relies on various things working out which I have no control over.

So am I right in expecting more concrete guidance, and should it be a problem if the project turns out to be infeasible or not work as expected?

3 Answers 3


Welcome to the wonderful world of research! You're describing what research is like: nobody really knows the answers, so nobody can really give you concrete guidance; nobody really knows what will work, so the only thing to say is "try it and see what happens". It might sound optimistic, and in some sense it's a good optimism, because no matter what happens you've discovered something new.

So relax and do your best. If you try something and it doesn't work, explain why it doesn't work to your supervisor. If you get stuck, also let your supervisor know. Your supervisor cannot really spell out what to do for you every time; it's quite possible he'll say "okay, we're stuck. What do you think we should do next?" and you can try thinking of something (don't worry if you fail; after some time he'll probably think of something himself).

Finally don't worry about what happens if the project turns out to be unfeasible or not work as expected. Nobody can guarantee beforehand if the project is going to work as expected. You're likely to be graded over your work, not your results. If your supervisor had given you a project that turned out to be more complicated than expected, he'll undoubtedly factor that into the grade, as well.


Thesis projects students do at companies have a high chance of going off the rails and ending badly for the student, the university, and/or the company. At least, that is what a professor told me when he gathered all the master students in a meeting to warn us of the dangers of doing a thesis with a company. After numerous bad experiences, my university has had to set up a standard contract containing all kinds of protective clauses (for the student and university) that the student and company MUST sign before the university gives the go ahead. As well as there being a blacklist of companies who've so blatantly taken advantage of students that they will never be considered again. There are plenty of horror stories of students having to start over from scratch after spending 9 months on a failed thesis.

So yes, you have all the reason to be concerned!

The only thing you care about is completing your thesis and graduating. I presume by supervisors you meant the people at the company. It does not matter what the company thinks, it matters what your supervisor (and the thesis committee) thinks! The university decides in the end whether you graduate, and their criteria are that your thesis shows valid, original research. It should be your number one priority to make sure that the work you're doing for this company aligns with that goal! Remember though: even if your work ends up 'failing', that doesn't mean you've failed your thesis. Failing experiments are a crucial part of research, you just have to discuss with your uni supervisor what this looks like.

My advice: go to your supervisor at the university right now and explain them everything. Discuss with them if the project the company wants you to do is something the university would consider appropriate for a thesis, even if it 'fails'. If it isn't, you need to re-align goals with the company ASAP. If either your supervisor or the company aren't helping, or if you have no clear plan that your supervisor can approve of, seriously consider cutting your losses and quitting this project. Starting over now hurts but it sure as hell beats starting over in 3 months or 6 months.


There's an old saying by managers in industry: "Don't come to me with problems, come to me with solutions".

You're seeing lots of problems. But this is a research project - your job is to find solutions. If you don't have the equipment to do X, then is there another way to achieve the same result? If so, then you've found something to write up in your thesis. Just copying things that other people are doing isn't research.

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