I am writing a master's thesis in Computer Science. It's the first document I write, so not much experience.

My supervisor told me to include some previous/related work on the topic I am writing about. In short, it is about computing influence in social networks. I have found about 10 papers which I think are the most relevant ones.

The problem is that, while the topic and goal are the same as mine, the math/algorithms they apply are often way different than mine, and advanced enough that it would take a lot of work to truly understand them. So in other words, I want to somehow argue why my model makes sense and not others, but at the same time my work is not directly based on others.

The question is, can I write about it even though I don't understand it? How well am I supposed to know the previous work I am writing about? Is it enough to have some intuition?

Sorry if this is obvious, but my university do not teach us how to write (I guess one point of having a Master's thesis is to learn these things).

  • 55
    Best to put some effort into understanding them.
    – Buffy
    Jun 3, 2020 at 23:17
  • 14
    How can you write about something you don’t understand? I mean, you could, but that’s not gonna get you a degree. Jun 3, 2020 at 23:40
  • 7
    Read, extract what you do not understand, prioritise which of these are the most important issues, try to read up on them, go to the prof with the most important of these, and clarify the remaining open issues. Sometimes (not always, of course), a prof can resolve an issue in 2 minutes. Jun 4, 2020 at 0:38
  • 13
    I want to somehow argue why my model makes sense and not others. It is impossible to do this without first understanding how the other models work. Without that information you cannot make the argument you propose. It's a simple as that. ...it would take a lot of work to truly understand them. Yes, postgraduate research requires that you do a lot of work to understand things. That's effecitvely what you have signed up for.
    – J...
    Jun 4, 2020 at 14:27
  • This is the main reason why I never solve an old problem. Nov 14, 2021 at 21:01

10 Answers 10


The thing that strikes me most about your question is "the topic and goal are the same as mine". If this is the case, then those papers are intimately related to yours, and you will want to understand them for your own good. Granted you might not have the time - it is a Masters thesis after all. However, you'll still want to compare and contrast their results against yours. After all, a big question to answer is "is my method better than theirs?" and you cannot answer that question without knowing how the methods stack up.

You don't have to fully understand another work to write about it, but you might not be able to go into much detail: for example "Alice and Bob (2019) have also studied this problem using [method], but they ran into [issue] which we do not have" is perfectly fine. Nonetheless, with ten intimately related papers I think you will want to discuss this with your supervisor. That's a lot of related work, and your professor might already be aware of some/most of them. He might give you direction on which papers to write about, which to read in more detail, and so on.


One of the skills that you have to learn during your masters is reading papers and previous work done in this particular area. So I suggest you put extra effort to understand them. This will benefit you a lot and will definitely boost the quality of your master's thesis.

Also, learning about these previous papers might give you an idea to improve them and build upon them, and then you have your own paper published! This is how it actually goes in the research world. GoodLuck!


Can you perhaps mention the other research without endorsing it?

Previous work on the subject of frabishes was published by Smith and Jones [2012]. They claim to evaluate all frabishes using methods different than the methods we are using here.

  • 9
    As a reviewer, I don't like that kind of statement. I would expect a discussion of why/when the new method is more appropriate than the old one. Jun 4, 2020 at 8:20
  • "They claim" sounds to me as if you wanted to say the claim is not true.
    – user111388
    Jun 5, 2020 at 12:19

While the most common answer seems to be "well just study all of that thoroughly" I can totally see why this may not be feasible. Related work usually is not the main focus and one cannot spend 2 months just to understand the stuff other people did.

I'd argue that that is not necessary. The key is to understand what those papers did and to get a rough idea of how they did it in principle, but you absolutely do not need to understand their methods in detail. Doing this probably will cost you less than 30 minutes per paper, which seems to be a manageable amount of work.

  • 1
    I like that this mentions a specific amount of time to spend per paper, although I would recommend a half day per paper (very field dependent). The point is that sometimes the different math behind a different method could take years to learn, and that is not realistic. Jun 5, 2020 at 15:32
  • One certainly can spend 2 months or even years to understand important work in your field. But that doesn't imply that you can't do anything else for that time period.
    – Buffy
    Jun 6, 2020 at 19:16

I think you should raise this question with your supervisor. Think carefully first about what part of this literature you expect you could master well enough in the time you have. Ask about reducing the scope of your project in order to write a narrow good paper rather than a shoddy comprehensive one.


You did not mention your country but in some places (at least Europe, vastly speaking) the Masters thesis is the obligatory door out of your university.

This means that the contents are mostly irrelevant.

There are some philosophical discussions about how it should teach you something - the reality of the real world is that this is something you have to do, full stop. Bonus points if you learn something out of the exercise.

Going from there, you should be as serious as possible and have an idea of what is happening around your master's thesis topic but this is pretty much that. Skim though the papers (introduction, conclusions and what is in the middle if it sound interesting), discuss that with your advisor and call it a day.

The question is, can I write about it even though I don't understand it? How well am I supposed to know the previous work I am writing about? Is it enough to have some intuition?

Yes, somehow, yes. Your advisor will redirect you if you start to drift away, so as I mentioned - keep a close contact with him or her.

Sorry if this is obvious, but my university do not teach us how to write (I guess one point of having a Master's thesis is to learn these things).

If they not teach you how to write (I have not seen any who do - probably the best ones have something), they will not expect you to come out with something spectacular.

One important note: this answer is not there to say that your school is not good, or that you are missing something by having a normal, standard thesis nobody will ever read. It is there to say "do not worry". This is normal, expected and will have zero impact on your further life (if you are not planning to go into academics, at least)


I think on any technical field building understanding is crucial, and what unfortunately is not taught sufficiently in technical universities/colleges is how to actually build it. However, I can give you two hints about learning that I have learnt over the years that will push you forward.

There are two good books that will help you to understand how to speed up understanding:

  1. "On Intelligence" by Jef Hawkins, is a good general presentation how your brain works. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Intelligence. The central message is that new things are build on the things you already know. This also means that in order to really understand, you should not leave gaps.

  2. "How to solve it" by George Pólya https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Solve_It presents guidelines how to learn to solve problems you can not yet solve. The basic principle is to simplify the problem as much as you can, to the bone, so you eventually can solve it. Look for similar but easier problems as long as you become confident that you understand the problem and you can solve it, and then move forward.

Unfortunately, there is no possibility for shortcuts. Simplify, try, fail, try again.


Talk to you advisor about that. When I was doing my master's thesis, my advisor (a really good advisor), gave me some papers to read, and she also showed me how to read them. She explained that I didn't need to understand all the technical details of the methodology involved; the big picture was most important.


I think there's two critical questions you really need to be able to answer in this setting.

First, is there some mathematical equivalence or relationship between some earlier paper's methods and your own, even if hidden by a different expression in the algorithms used? This may require some amount of digging in and gaining understanding.

Second, how would you go about comparing results from what you're doing to the results they got? Are you measuring the same thing? Can you run your design on the same problems as they ran theirs, to compare quality of result and, if relevant, computational performance?

Beyond those, I think it's perfectly legitimate to say roughly "these other authors took approaches X, Y, and Z to the problem. We describe A, which is truly, fundamentally distinct from X, Y, and Z, and here's how it stacks up".


If you need to select related papers for your academic work, you actually should not read and understand the whole document you use. You can choose the main thesis of someone's paper, describe the main problem they write about, and even highlight their research methods and obstacles they faced while working on this subject. For instance, if you use other research methods, this information will supplement your paper.

The second moment is if your topic is not clear for you (so you cannot understand similar works from other researchers), and in this case, you usually have two ways:

  • choose a new topic if it is not too late;
  • discuss the key points with your advisor - what are the moments you should pay attention to first of all.

And third, if you do not understand only one-two papers you need for your work, try to look for reviews for them - usually, opinions from other academics clarify everything you need to know.

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