So I'm writing my undergraduate thesis and I have written around 80% of it. My project was to develop a device to use in the lab, but my first prototype doesn't work at all and I don't know if I should just write that it didn't work. I don't have time to make another one. I have to finish this as soon as possible because I'm starting grad school at a really good university :(. I haven't told about it to my supervisor. My question is how bad is it to present a failed attempt at something like the development of a device.

I hope someone can help me.

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    You need to talk about this with your supervisor. This is a normal situation, but only your supervisor or another person very familiar with your work can tell you what you need to do. Dec 27, 2020 at 8:47
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    This is perfectly fine. My undergraduate thesis project didn't work either. Just write up your work and talk to your supervisor. Nothing to panic about. You can write about your troubleshooting attempts... what you thought went wrong etc. But yes, most importantly talk to your supervisor. Dec 27, 2020 at 13:23
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    Also, don't panic. Worst thing that happens is a lower grade. Maybe not even that if your writeup is good. It's not the end of the world. Dec 27, 2020 at 13:32
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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/30995/… Dec 27, 2020 at 16:51
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    On a related note, if you are passionate about your device and want to develop a working prototype (and this is a novel device), consider asking if you could continue this project on as a Masters or PhD. Undergraduates rarely have enough time or skill to develop cutting edge technologies, only the truly gifted or extremely lucky manage such a feat. It usually takes several years of research for us mortals. Dec 28, 2020 at 1:08

3 Answers 3


"It didn't work" is not a thesis.

However, "this is what I made, this is how I tested it, these are the results of those tests, this is how I attempted to fix/would attempt to fix in the future", etc, can be just fine, even if the ultimate conclusion is that your device isn't currently functional.

Undergraduate theses are typically fairly short-term projects, so you may not be able to follow up with all the avenues you would have for a longer project.

Most importantly, though, talk to your supervisor. Their role as a supervisor is for exactly the situation you're in: applying their experience and expertise as a researcher to help guide you in what to do. If everything worked out perfectly without any kinks or setbacks a supervisor would hardly be necessary.

Also most importantly (I'm running out of superlatives here), as a student, the success/failure of the endeavor should be primarily judged on what you as the student have learned along the way rather than the overall outcome (the proverbial "it's the journey not the destination"). Your device may not be working, but if you've learned something along the way I would not say the project is a "failure".

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    Many projects that might be described as "failed" are actually valuable since they extend knowledge. Knowing what isn't true or doesn't work can be just as valuable as knowing what does. As you say here, the writeup can describe what was learned and thus be "successful". If we only ever get the expected result then we aren't trying hard enough.
    – Buffy
    Dec 27, 2020 at 12:48
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    An enormous amount of trouble is caused by young researchers in countries with a "you must succeed" culture falsifying results to look good... and being forced to retract papers later. If something doesn't work then write it up as accurately as you can, since there's always a chance that what you've done will provide inspiration to somebody with the experience to fill in the gaps... at which point you've scored an honest citation. Dec 27, 2020 at 14:35
  • Imagine you discovered that COVID-19 cannot be treated by ventilators, or hydroxychloroquine. That would be a pretty important discovery, don't you think?
    – user253751
    Dec 28, 2020 at 17:24
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    @user253751, there's already quite a bit of research showing that malaria drugs don't work on Covid-19. Also, ventilators aren't a treatment for the disease, it's for the lung failure the disease causes. It's to keep the patient alive long enough to overcome the acute problems, not a cure. I know that seems like nitpicking, but with all the misinformation already spamming the internet, I think that line needs to be drawn. Sorry, and please, let's get back to the regularly scheduled thread about the Answer. Thanks. Dec 28, 2020 at 21:24
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    Thank you I notice now that yes, I have learned so much from working on my thesis and that counts more than the final product working since I basically designed everything from scratch and I'm not even an engineering major, also my written paper is really good, I think that counts too to have a good grade, thank you, everyone
    – asm821
    Dec 30, 2020 at 7:55

What have you told your supervisor? And when?

If you've kept them posted on progress, and they know what you've been doing all along, then the fact that some part of this failed (perhaps you didn't allow for enough strength in a 3D print, say) is not the end of the world. You may still have proved the concept.

If you have actively lied to them about your progress though, you can rightly expect your final grade to be extremely bad.

And if you haven't been in contact with them at all for the entire year, that is a major fail from them. The purpose of having a supervisor is to guide you in the right direction with regular expert feedback. If your project has failed because of a lack of supervision, you may need to talk to your head of department about considering mitigating factors in your grade.

Do you know why it failed, and can you say what you would have done to improve it if you'd had more time?

That's the crux of this. The point of undergraduate projects is to practise your skills in real life, before you start using them in a real job. In a real job, things often go wrong and you need to work out how to fix them. If you can show you're picking up those skills, you should still get decent grades.

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    To expand on this answer - it's especially interesting to describe whether you think the approach itself could work (with a second prototype, now that you have more experience), or whether this approach isn't likely to work at all. Either one makes your thesis interesting, either to someone who wants to try the prototype but avoid mistakes; or to someone who now knows a different approach is needed. Making a good analysis of this question is how you make your thesis valuable and impress readers with your future potential.
    – ObscureOwl
    Dec 27, 2020 at 18:22
  • thanks, I made a mistake in my question, it works but not completely, lets say that it does 50% of its functions, my supervisor knows about that but since its holidays I haven't told them about me failing to make it work at a 100%. I know some of the problems and how to fix them but I don't have time to actually fix them.
    – asm821
    Dec 30, 2020 at 7:49
  • @asm821 That's not too bad then. Perhaps you won't get full marks for having something working perfectly, but if your report says what the next steps are, you should be OK. Of course that depends on if you've run out of time because you've left the project to the last minute, or if you've run out of time because it's a genuinely difficult problem which needs several iterations to find the bugs! If it's the latter, and you've made real progress which another student can build on, then you should still be looking at a solid B grade and maybe an A if the work is good.
    – Graham
    Dec 30, 2020 at 11:58

As previously mentioned, as long as you update your supervisor with the situation and be diligent about actually explaining what you did and what went wrong you should be fine. Again as previously mentioned, sometimes a nonfunctional project is a guide for others on how to improve and what to avoid.

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    both sentences here start with "as previously mentioned". What does this answer add to the previously posted answers .... ?
    – Ben Bolker
    Dec 27, 2020 at 18:34
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    Hi and welcome to Academia SE. Your answer contained a long part which was totally unrelated to the question. Please recall that, unlike forums, Stack Exchange sites are not built for general discussions, but as repositories of answers to well-defined questions. It's thus important to keep the answers focussed, and for this reason the irrelevant part has been removed. I kindly invite you to have a look at the Tour and at the Help center to see how this site works. Dec 27, 2020 at 19:06
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    @AntonMenshov and DailyReader: Meta discussion on the edit. Dec 27, 2020 at 19:28
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