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I'm a student in the technical field A in a European university. I'm currently doing a master thesis in a field that's notoriously at the interface of subjects A and B, I haven't officially started the thesis time yet, but I've been doing preliminary work for about a month and a half and there is verbal agreement with my supervisor that I'm doing it.

The more I delve into the thesis and the more I realize that, while being at the interface, the topic is mostly subject B, with very little subject A. While I don't hate subject B, I've come to realize that I'm not really interested in it, and I'm finding working on this thesis rather demotivating.

I still could technically leave the thesis, although I suspect it won't make me look good in the eyes of my supervisor, since I already told them that I intended to go through with it and I've had multiple occasions to leave by now.

On the one hand, I still like other aspects of the interface between A and B, doing A with a B perspective instead of the other way around (which I'm doing right now) is still a possibility for me, hence I don't think it would be wise to break ties with my supervisor and their group. I feel that if I leave the thesis I'm just going to look bad, lose potential references and just restrict my possibilities for the future. The group is quite important in the subject and the master thesis admission process is pretty selective, and I don't have any other readily available alternatives. From this perspective, it seems better to soldier through this thesis and do it well in order to have good references. I've been told that it's not at all uncommon to do a PhD in a different subfield than your master thesis. And who knows, maybe interesting elements of subject A (or even B) might come up along the way, though that seems unlikely to me right now.

On the other hand, I fear that committing to a thesis in a subject I'm not passionate about will prevent me from doing a good job. I fear that I'll just survive through it doing the bare minimum and end up with a mediocre thesis and mediocre references in a subject I don't really enjoy, making it much more difficult to both stay in this subject or switch. Beginning a thesis I do not enjoy, while I have still time to leave, feels somehow like lying to my supervisor, and starting a project alreading looking forward to end it is not a good looking prospect. Even if I do manage to write a good thesis, I fear its strong element of subject B will make it more difficult for me to be considered for subject A positions. Also I would like to stay at the same university after my Master's, and I think the chances of that would be made better by doing a thesis on a subject I like, which could be continued in a PhD.

I guess I'm demotivated and looking for advice from experienced researchers on what of the concerns I listed are sound, and what, if any, am I exaggerating.

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I've personally encountered this problem before, albeit in one of projects for my engineering PhD (which I haven't completed so take this with a grain of salt).

What worked for me was to actively poke around the current topic and try to find a new direction which has a reasonable connection with the original thesis topic while still being appealing to me. It was important to have a concrete proposal about what the alternative is, what steps are to be taken and what the final outcome is going to be, ideally with some preliminary results.

This may come across as patronizing but in my case, I discovered a spectrum of interesting research topics that are becoming fruitful. My advisor was happy to see that I was taking the initiative to pursue new directions, and to be honest my advisor wasn't sure about how exactly to approach the problem either (which seem to be pretty common in my field).

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This is certainly a question you need to explore with your supervisor. What they would accept or recommend is certainly important.

What an experienced researcher would do is one of the following, maybe both. First, they would be likely to consult with colleagues (not unlike your supervisor) and explore viable alternatives.

But, assuming that they have a secure appointment, such as tenure, they would do whatever most appealed to them. Of course, wisdom would suggest they keep their options open.

But you don't have the luxury of a secure appointment. Your supervisor's advice is needed and should probably be followed. They will also have advice on the probably effect on your career, if any.


Actually, I think you may be suffering from a common ailment: Buyer's Remorse. For most such situations, the feeling of regret goes away in time. If you are making progress toward a better future, you are probably doing the right thing. Don't let emotions get in the way of progress (easy to say, of course).

  • Hi, thank you for your answer. I fear that being open on this with my supervisor is a point of no return. Why should they continue to supervise me after they learn I'm really not interested in the topic, should I decide to stick with it? – user2723984 Nov 17 at 14:52
  • Don't present it that way. It is an exploration of alternatives, with a preference for a different direction. – Buffy Nov 17 at 14:54
  • I feel this would have been acceptable maybe a month ago. In the beginning I mentioned I was worried about the lack of subject A, but I stupidly dropped it hoping the situation would solve itself. How common is it in your experience for a master student to change their mind this far into the thesis? – user2723984 Nov 17 at 14:56
  • Six weeks doesn't seem long to me. I can't answer the question about "how common" it is, but lots of research trials don't go anywhere and the researcher has to redirect efforts. I worked on three problems in sequence for my doctorate. Only the third was fruitful. – Buffy Nov 17 at 15:00
  • I doubt it's an instance of buyer's remorse. I genuinly expected a different thesis topic, and in large part it was due to my poor research on the topic before applying. – user2723984 Nov 17 at 15:39
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As a professor, I could tell you about how I would feel in that situation.

On one hand, I would definitely avoid having a low-quality thesis work: if you feel that topic B is not your best, be honest with your supervisor and tell them. They would suggest you how to increase the "A" part of the thesis, or they would suggest you drop the thesis altogether. Both options are preferable to having to work with a student delivering "mediocre" results (your words): it's a waste of time for both parties.

On the other hand, if you feel like you could deliver good results on subject B, and you are relatively close to the end of the thesis, I would suggest trying to finish the thesis. We don't always have the luxury of working on what we like the most.

Both qualities (honesty and transparency, and commitment and resilience) would be positively evaluated.

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