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I am working on my masters thesis which is the first time that I have ever really taken part in research activities. Throughout the experience I have learned a lot and I think that I would like to pursue a PhD in the field that I am currently working in right now. However, I feel that when all is said and done with my masters thesis, the end product will not be that great. There are a number of factors that I think contribute to this - the first being that it's my first time doing original research and second I am the first student of my supervisor, so we are experiencing the student-supervisor relationship both for the first time. But given that, I think it is primarily a function of my introduction to research. A similar analogy would be a first year undergraduate student that doesn't do well, but finds their groove in the last couple years of the program.

My concern, however, is that if I produce a low quality thesis that I might actually be disadvantaged compared to a recently graduated undergraduate student. For example, my undergrad/grad GPA's were (3.5/3.8) and assume that the undergraduate also had a GPA of 3.5-3.8, but I can foresee that a committee might view my weak thesis as an inability to do research in contrast to the undergraduate does not have any published research either, but doesn't show signs of being a "weak researcher" by nature of not having done any.

So the question really becomes whether or not somebodies MSc experience is a good predictor of how they would fair out as a PhD student, and whether somebody applying to a program with an MSc can actually be disadvantaged.

Edit: Perhaps mentioning my perspective on the MSc experience in my SOP might be of benefit? Unless, all of this might be moot if entrance committees might not even read your MSc thesis.

  • What do you mean by low quality? Is it terms of research findings or rather the format of it? Most master's theses are rather short of new findings, and thus the focus will be on the format, and ability to structure your own research. It's fine if you haven't come up with something brand new, but it should still look decent on paper. – Seal Dec 11 '19 at 17:05
  • @Seal I would probably say in regards to findings. Objectively speaking, I don't think that the idea is all that great. In regards to format, do you mean formatting in regards to if it is structured, well written, etc? – GrayLiterature Dec 11 '19 at 17:10
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    Yes, that was what I meant regarding the format. If you have a thesis with a good format, but not necessarily great findings, you have still shown that you can produce some work. When it comes to master's theses, it can be hard to produce high quality results. It shouldn't be expected of you, but it is a merit. – Seal Dec 11 '19 at 17:16
  • Where are you and where are you applying (country). Things vary. – Buffy Dec 11 '19 at 17:38
  • @Buffy I would be applying from (University of Alberta) Canada to University of California, Davis. – GrayLiterature Dec 11 '19 at 23:06
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First, you may be judging your own work more harshly than is warranted. It may not be as weak as you think. It is fairly common for problem to appear easier after it is solved than before you began.

Second, no one is likely to read your master's thesis as part of a doctoral application. They will take note of it, and any grade you got, and the general field. At most a few people will read the abstract. They are too busy to read it, frankly.

Third, an application for doctoral study is normally judged on a wide range of criteria with different candidates scoring higher or lower on the various elements. But the overall picture is what is important. "Does this candidate have the necessary background?" "Does this candidate have a good chance of success now and hereafter?" And since most programs are competitive, "How does this candidate compare with others in the pool?".

But, if you are accepted then you still have two hurdles. The first is passing comprehensive qualifying exams. Some advanced coursework may still be needed to get you to that point. The other is writing an acceptable thesis under the direction of an advisor, along with whatever research enables that.

In the US a lot of doctoral students enter the program with no research experience at all. You already have an advantage there, no matter how your recent thesis turned out. And, even at the doctoral level, not every dissertation has the same impact. It represents early work, not the person's best career work.

Make sure your CV is solid with your background accomplishments. Don't negatively characterize your thesis. Make sure your SoP explains your goals, short and long term, along with how your background supports that.

And, though you name a specific school, don't cast a narrow net for a doctoral program. Give yourself more than one chance.

  • in which way are "most programs competitive"? What kind of programs are these? Where is the competition? What is the pool? :) – Ben Dec 12 '19 at 6:51
  • @Ben, by competitive I meant that the pool (all the qualified applicants) will be larger than the number of slots available. Few programs can accept everyone who applies. – Buffy Dec 12 '19 at 10:54
  • Indeed, makes sense. In my field it is more or less common that once you do a master thesis in the certain working group, you'll highly get the chance to add a phd there. Hence, there is not really a competition. – Ben Dec 12 '19 at 13:01
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Your Master's thesis is mostly irrelevant as the only thing that matters is they you did your master and depending on the university, your overall grade (around the world, most countries require you have a master to be able to do a PHD).

What will matter is your research for the PHD (and the PHD thesis if that is your graduation requirement) and any other pre-requisite the university with the PHD demands.

Keep in mind that you dont have a weak master thesis. You merely have a thesis. It's binary, you have it or you dont, and having it approved and published means it has enough quality to have been deemed appropriately.

A thesis is not graded like homework, it's a work of knowledge and/or an effort(for title requirements different than a thesis) evaluated by the scientific/academic community as a valid contribution to the field, and backed up by a country's government as legally real. Therefore if it is accepted, it's good enough to award a professional title. So remember that you dont have a good,weak, strong or bad thesis, you have a thesis and it being 'good' is not an assessment you make.

Also the experience on a master is no indication for a PHD in general because it can vary wildly, but at the very least it already gave you a test for writing stuff down. Remember that it doesnt matter if you have the cure for all types of cancer, if you dont write it down under a proper paradigm , a big useless theoretical frame, and many references in APA/CHICAGO style, it will be themed useless by academia.

  • It can be worth noting that your thesis could be a merit if you want to apply for a PhD within that specific area, but that's mostly it. – Seal Dec 11 '19 at 18:48
  • @deags I like how you think about the quality of a thesis, that being it's not really my decision to decide it's merits but my peers. Interesting take and definitely a piece of wisdom i'll be sharing if it comes up. – GrayLiterature Dec 11 '19 at 23:22
  • @D.Gray What can I say but that a thesis is not graded like homework, it's a work of knowledge evaluated by the scientific community as a valid contribution to the field, and therefore if it is accepted, it's good enough to award a professional title. That makes having a thesis/title a binary thing. You have it or you don't... let me put this in the answer. – deags Dec 13 '19 at 16:51
  • @Seal I would say that having graduated via thesis might be considered a merit, but graduating is the requirement. – deags Dec 13 '19 at 16:58
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    @deags Sure, what I meant was that the topic of your thesis may matter if you apply to a position in the very same topic. – Seal Dec 14 '19 at 13:39

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