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I am an undergraduate student (not in maths) looking for a topic and supervisor for my thesis.

What criteria should I use to judge whether a project/supervisor combination will make for a good thesis and productive experience? I don't plan on going into academia (although this may change) and thus would like to get something tangible if possible (ie. a paper) out of the experience (although preferably not at significant cost to learning)

Conversely, what are red flags/pitfalls I should look out for and how do I avoid them?

This question is extremely similar to this one, although is more general than just math. I'm hoping for some general advice, but if really needed, I'm double majoring in Computer Science and Economics

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  • Can you explain why the answers to the question you linked are insufficient? I think they generalise beyond a mathematics dissertation. – astronat Dec 18 '20 at 10:22
  • If you already know what your goals are, then obviously the thing to look for in your thesis supervisor is 'will this supervisor help me achieve those goals'. You say you do not want to stay in academia, but that really doesn't say much about what you do want to do. And if you think your thesis supervisor (or thesis) is irrelevant to your goals, then go with personal preference or other criteria like interesting topics, fun working environment, short/easy thesis, ... – Mario Niepel Dec 18 '20 at 11:35
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I would recommend you to take to things into consideration:

First, find a topic that you are interested in and motivated to work on. And then, try to find profs in your department that work on topics similar to what you plan to work on.

Second, try to figure out how you would like to work (and this is very important). If you feel confident working more independently, the supervisor won't play a significant role there. If you feel that you need closer guidance, try to find a supervisor that is willing to do that.

Now, it is important to note that you will likely have to compromise some of your needs. It is possible that there won't be many professors willing to supervise you on a topic you want rather than what they want and will recommend you to join his projects/topics. On the other hand, you may find someone willing to supervise you on the topic you choose but won't provide you with close support.

Back in my undergrad thesis, I had a topic I really wanted to work with and only had one prof on the field to supervise me. I had very minimal supervision. Was it the way I wished? No. I could've gone farther if we had worked closely and if I had had someone to discuss with or to push me. Was it worthwhile? Definitely! This has brought me independence, which prepared me for many of the challenges I had throughout my masters and Ph.D.

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From my experience, important things to look for in a supervisor are:

  • They're interested in your topic. Imagine being supervised by someone who isn't interested in your thesis topic! Conversely, it's very stimulating if your supervisor is eager to read your results. My CS theses are more fun because the research is a small shard of the supervisors' broader projects, and they are genuinely curious what the outcome will be.

  • The topic falls within the supervisor's main experience. I did a thesis on early medieval history with a supervisor whose specialty was late medieval history, and he wasn't really able to help as much as I'd hoped for.

  • They help you bound your topic both upwards and downwards. This is one of the things you need a supervisor with knowledge of the field for. They have to know when your ambitions are big enough to satisfy the thesis requirements, but also when they're becoming too big and a hazard to you actually finishing. Good research has a reasonable scope, for your abilities and requirements. But doing good scoping at the outset requires a knowledge of what's in the field that you as a student won't have, that's why you're supervised by an expert.

  • They have enough time. The top professors in your department also tend to have the biggest demands placed on their time. They also have the most power and their name on your thesis or paper can give it a boost. This is a paradox. In my case the solution turned out to be the second supervisor (having two is mandatory in my institution). My second supervisor is less influential, but also not as hemmed in by external obligations so has more time/is more reliably able to make it to meetings. Having regular meetings is important.

  • You get along with them as a person. You need to be able to open up to them about any problems that are holding you back.

  • They're as strict as you need them to be. Sometimes you need a push.

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