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I found few professors having supervised more than 200 masters theses 'each' in the past 14-15 years. When looked at these theses, I found that out of 200 theses supervised by a professor, more than 100 works were based on the same idea:

  1. theory is same
  2. method of analysis is same
  3. results and discussion are alike (similar)
  4. proposed future works are same

Only the data sets are different, that is in thesis 'x', he used data in the range 1-2, in thesis 'y', he used data in the range 2-3 and so on. In some cases, I found that even the data set in a particular range, say, 1-2, collected by different filters/methods were distributed to 5-6 students and asked to do the same same work. Even after 14-15 years, the future works to be done have not changed. The proposed future works are appearing same from one thesis to another. I noticed the same behavior in the remaining theses also. The whole bunch of theses were just based on 2-3 ideas.

So, the question is: if such type of works repeatedly supervised is good or bad. My personal feeling is that it is a bad practice. Even in masters thesis there should be newness.

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  • 4
    Have you checked the school/department/program rules to see how much novelty is required in those theses? If so, please add a quote. Aug 4 '20 at 15:05
  • 2
    I assume these weren't published theses. Correct?
    – Buffy
    Aug 4 '20 at 15:09
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    Why is this important to you?
    – user111388
    Aug 4 '20 at 15:13
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    A PhD requires "newness" but a Master's does not or mostly not, it is usually an exercise to define the current state of the art.
    – Solar Mike
    Aug 5 '20 at 7:08
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    @Anstudent Lack of novelty is not the same as plagiarism. You can do pretty dull research about the colour of pebbles, and have 10 independent theses on that topic. Some facts will necessarily repeat, but that is due to the topic, not due to plagiarism. So, is your question about lack of novelty or about plagiarism? Aug 5 '20 at 10:22
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This is a poor supervisory practice. Unfortunately, it becomes increasingly common in Universities, particularly in countries with strong marketalization of Higher Education (e.g. US, UK). Students are treated as customers, and academics are assessed and promoted based on their "efficiency" in terms of the number of students they supervise, not the quality of education they provide. The pressure on academics to supervise more students is constantly increasing, and they rarely have enough time to meaningfully prepare to supervisory meetings. It is not surprising that many academics find it convenient to reuse the same projects over and over again.

UPD: Answering comments, I want to clarify why this practice is detrimental to students' learning. Project-based learning attempts to recreate an authentic experience of doing something, then encourages students to reflect on this experience and learn from it. The authenticity of experience is the key for success. However, after some repetitions the supervisor knows all good and bad ways around the project, and unconsciously projects them to the student. Students don't have the same feeling of terra incognita in their research. Of course, realistically, we can't expect each master project to be completely new, but it's still important that the supervisor has not rehearsed it by heart yet.

A closely related, but not exactly the same reason is potential plagiarism. All theses are published and could be dug out by students. I have seen some supervisors who passed good theses from past years to new students to "get the style", effectively encouraging plagiarism. But they had way to many students to supervise and no time to do it properly. Surely, copying from someone else's paper is a poorer learning experience for students compared to doing research themselves.

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    If the goal is to educate the student, then what's the problem with reusing a project? Will a student learn less if someone else has already done the project? You could make an argument that they might learn better with a project the supervisor has supervised many students through and is known to be well-suited to the educational goals. This answer doesn't really justify your stance of why it's bad.
    – Kat
    Aug 6 '20 at 23:46
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    There's also the question whether by rehashing projects one can really stay at the cutting edge of the field.
    – henning
    Aug 7 '20 at 9:32
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    @Kat The answer provides the response to your comment already: the student doesn't get the experience of diving into a new, unknown project, and all the pitfalls this necessarily entails. It's not about learning how to do one specific thing, but instead about learning general strategies to apply to research projects. We already have plenty of education of the other type in coursework.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 7 '20 at 12:38
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In some places, a masters is mostly based on coursework. A thesis, if even required, can be pretty pro-forma. It can just be intended as a learning experience for the student, rather than a serious attempt to create anything new. My own situation was a bit different, but the thesis was really just a review of a small area of math, bringing a couple of ideas together. It broke no new ground, but was more like a literature review and summary than anything else.

Other places the standards are different.

The case you describe seems like an outlier, actually, but it might be perfectly acceptable for the student to cover old ground and still have validity, depending on what they need to do. Even "going through the motions" on a research project might have some value in a "coursework" based MS.

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    My interpretation of the question is "Is this a good supervisory practice?" not "Is this acceptable behavior for students?" Aug 5 '20 at 9:58
  • Not to mention that the professor likely wanted all the different datasets for something Aug 5 '20 at 19:51
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In the UK there are 3 types of master's degree. An MA/MSc is usually what is called a "taught masters" or post-graduate taught (PGT). An MRes is referred to as a "masters by research" or postgraduate-research (PGR), and then you have "integrated masters" where the master's degree is part of an extended undergraduate. The title of that degree tends to depend on the subject, so in Engineering, its MEng, in biology its MBiolSci etc. Integrated masters can be anything on the spectrum from pure course work to pure research.

A taught master's program will generally have research dissertation which makes up around a third of the credits. But the aim of this is to

  1. Give the students experience in the practical/technical aspects of carrying out research (how to pipette etc).
  2. To teach them to plan a well thought out study
  3. To critically assess their own findings
  4. To situate their results in the context of the field.

None of these learning outcomes require "newness" as such.

Even in a masters by research, the aim is generally to prepare a student for a PhD by giving them the correct skills - they are their to learn something. Although I would expect more novelness in an MRes, many of the aims can be met with a project that is only minimally novel.

I also think you might be surprised that many PhD projects are created by the professor rather than the student.

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This is a symptom of bad supervisory practice.

While it is true that Masters students are not in general required to conduct original research, they should be taught the state of the art. In this case the supervisors have taught the same theory and methods repeatedly for 14 years. This indicates that the supervisors are not continually improving their supervision. Continuous improvement is good practice.

It seems unlikely the best theory and methods appropriate for masters students have not changed in 14 years.

Furthermore, nobody can provide quality supervision to more than 10 simultaneous masters students while also teaching. If these students received good supervision, some very unusual scheduling was involved.

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  • Good point. I struggle to supervise 10 undergraduate research projects a year, let alone 10 masters projects. Aug 5 '20 at 10:14
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    My guess is this bad practice is the result of having to supervise so many students, rather than cause of it. Aug 5 '20 at 10:20
  • @IanSudbery: It can go either way. In many institutions it counts as a "merit" for a professor to supervise a thesis. It can even count as part of teaching load. This generates an incentive to supervise many theses, and this generates incentives to do so in the way described by the OP.
    – Dan Fox
    Aug 5 '20 at 10:51
  • But surely not 10? I'm not sure I could supervise 10 even if I had no other teach or research to do. Aug 5 '20 at 11:09
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    @IanSudbery: in some countries/universities, the supervision formally needs to be by a professor who takes the responsibility but can delegate the day-to-day supervision work to a large extent (e.g. to experienced mid-level staff/PIs in their institute). Aug 5 '20 at 11:19
4

The case you describe seems extreme but I have known a lab that did somethnig similar. They had a huge task to do, analysis to conduct on all existing genes, and each master thesis with them tackled a fraction of that task, one gene.

It was a win-win situation: they got forward on the project and the students could tackle an interesting non trivial task much easier because they had a solid pipeline in place.

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