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After completing my Master's Thesis, I continued to learn about the topic and unfortunately what I found is unsettling.

I found that the whole hypothesis is wrong. The basic assumption on which we could do some useful work is wrong. My supervisor and his supervisor both are working in the same field for years. The topic was offered by my supervisor from the University, who is a PhD student and the topic was also verified by his supervisor. Still, its frustrating to find how they could have missed such a basic assumption and expected[Maybe] a student to figure that out.

Now my Questions are:

  1. Isn't it the supervisor's responsibility to verify these things before?

  2. What should I do morally, should I inform my University/supervisor? If yes. what happens to my Thesis grade.

  3. Since I entered the Master's curriculum to continue into a PhD program, and since I want to continue in the same field as my Master's Thesis, how does this whole wrong hypothesis scenario affect my chances of getting a good PhD program.

As I can think, why would some professor hire a student for PhD, when if he/she reads my Master's Thesis can understand the whole idea/hypothesis amounts to nothing.

  1. While applying for any PhD program, I need to provide at least 2 academic references. After figuring out regarding my Thesis, I can't even think of asking my supervisor of his recommendation. What do you think, how should I go about finding right references.

Honestly, I am really stressed and am thinking of enrolling into another Master's program, but I wish there is a way to find a right PhD program.

I am sorry for not providing details of my Thesis/Uni etc. for obvious reasons and for a long post with many questions.

Please help, as this whole scenario is really freaking me out.

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    What field at least? The answer for math might be different from others for example. – Buffy Jun 3 at 20:08
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    Why is it that you can't think to ask your supervisor for a recommendation? – Bryan Krause Jun 3 at 20:17
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    @Buffy Computational Neuroscience. – matharug Jun 3 at 20:34
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    @matharug It's more of a problem that your supervisor didn't teach you that research is often about failure and finding out what doesn't work than not "verifying things" - what were they supposed to verify? Why bother doing anything if you already know how it's going to turn out? – Bryan Krause Jun 3 at 20:40
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    Is this a correct interpretation? You were given assumptions by advisors as a starting point. Taking those as true you came to come conclusions that turn out to be consistent with the assumptions, but invalid in the real world. The (possibly) correct methodology applied to incorrect assumptions led to incorrect conclusions. Now you know better about those assumptions. Does that capture it? – Buffy Jun 3 at 20:52
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One of the most revolutionary physics results of the last century is the Michelson-Morley experiment. The experimenters set out to measure something, but measured zero instead. It turned out that the basic assumption (Aether theory) was incorrect. That didn't jinx the experimenters in any way; instead their names have since become immortalized in undergraduate textbooks and one of them even went on to win a Nobel Prize.

Is it the supervisor's responsibility to verify these things before engaging a student? Maybe, but without knowing the details it's hard to say. In the case of aether theory for example, it's the experiment itself that's supposed to verify the assumption; in other cases, there's still a good chance there's something subtle that you're missing (or why would they engage you to study it?). This means the solution is to talk to your supervisor. See if you can convince him/her that the hypothesis is indeed incorrect, because a basic assumption is incorrect. If that's true, that's quite a result: it means both your supervisor and your supervisor's supervisor assumed something that seemed reasonable enough to engage a student to work on, and then later turned out to be incorrect. If the field at large also made the same assumption then even better.

As for getting into a PhD program, don't worry about it. Showing that a basic assumption is wrong is quite an achievement, and this should be reflected in your recommendation letters. It's possible the admissions committee will read your thesis and find out that you didn't discover anything revolutionary, but that's not a big deal: as illustrated above, proving that something doesn't work / doesn't exist is still a result.

  • Allure :- I understand and I already know what you are saying. I will try to say something which might be close. The whole wrong assumption thing, I am talking about is like assuming Pythagoras theorem is wrong and based on that we prove a set of theorems. My argument is anyone working in Math's will know Pythagoras Theorem is not wrong, so new theorems are wrong. Thus the validity of whole theorem proving work. Hope you can relate, else I will think of a more closer example. – matharug Jun 4 at 20:22
  • @matharug again I can't say for sure because I don't know the details, but even this example doesn't seem that bad to me. There's plenty of work that go something like, "if we assume the Riemann hypothesis is false then ...". If the Riemann hypothesis is later proven to be true then all these results are bogus of course, but a priori you don't know if the Riemann hypothesis is true. If you've now done the equivalent of discovering that the Riemann hypothesis is not true, then you've really discovered something important. Again, talk to your supervisor. – Allure Jun 5 at 2:11

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