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I completed my MA in 2014 (humanities, third world country) but due to very bad (almost non-existent) supervision and other reasons my thesis is subpar in some areas (e.g., research design, data analysis). However, during the past 7 years I have not only been working in my field, but I have also managed to make up for this by publishing a couple of world class peer-reviewed articles, have a couple of articles under review in flagship journals, and a book chapter with a quality publisher to be released soon. Now, I am applying for a PhD and they want my MA thesis among other documents. It does not reflect my "current" research abilities at all so I think it is not a fair way to assess me now after all this time, effort, and achievement.

In any case, how can I confront this situation? I was thinking about adding a cover letter to my thesis which indicates upfront that this thesis is not my best work and may have flaws and then proceeding to more precisely refer to these flaws and how they can be rectified.

Is this a good strategy? Do you have any other suggestions?

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  • 8
    If your articles are indeed "world class" then you should have no problems at all.
    – cheersmate
    Mar 19 at 8:30
  • I believe they are in my field. Firstly, the journals where they were published are considered flagship, leading journals in our discipline and they are published by prestigious publishers (Elsevier). They also have very good impact factors and other indices. But, what do you think about adding a cover letter?
    – DIanon
    Mar 19 at 8:48
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    The following is a list of all flawless masters theses that are accurate representations of the authors' ability 7 years later ever produced:
    – Sam
    Mar 19 at 11:30
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    @Sam: Indeed, if any satisfied BOTH these conditions originally, then it probably didn't remain an example, as was the case with this originally submitted Masters thesis that otherwise might have made it onto your list. Mar 19 at 16:12
  • 3
    It's worth noting that if your research and writing skills are better now then they were in 2014, that's a good thing. If someone says "hey, your thesis sucks", you can say "yes, I know - I didn't really want to point that out - but I've learned from that, look at my more recent work"
    – Flydog57
    Mar 19 at 17:23
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Since you have been less than perfect in research so far, it is imperative that you only apply to graduate programs where your work will be judged by people with imperfect research histories.

Lucky for you, that describes everyone.

No need to dwell on or emphasize past work that you can imagine improving on. If you have interviews you can be prepared to talk about ways you would improve if prompted. Be forward-thinking: what have you learned and how would you do different next time? rather than "my past work doesn't meet my standards". Definitely don't dwell on things like the quality of your supervision - it sounds like an excuse. Otherwise, focus on work you are most proud of when applicable, and feel safe in knowing that research is never a flawless process.

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    Oh no no no... not meeeeee.. what? ..... never mind. (+1) -- Apologies to Gilda Radner.
    – Buffy
    Mar 19 at 13:44
  • (+1) for "Definitely don't dwell on things like the quality of your supervision - it sounds like an excuse", as you've already gotten a +1 for your second sentence. Mar 19 at 16:16
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Do not mention anything related to the master thesis being flawed or of poor quality. It is supposed to be a degree rather than a big contribution.

The situation would vary depending on the selection procedures. Perhaps nobody will even have a glance at it, especially if you have already two papers. Those would be probably scrutinised in more details, or at least taken into greater consideration.

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  • This is a good point thank you. Even if I want to include a letter or note maybe it is better to simply state that this work reflects my very early attempts at learning how to conduct research. Or, maybe not. I need to think about this.
    – DIanon
    Mar 19 at 10:32
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    Exactly, no need to think.
    – Alchimista
    Mar 19 at 11:05
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    While the thesis should be in the CV (etc) there is no need to talk about it at all. Focus on recent work in the application. If anyone asks about the thesis, just say that "I've learned a lot since those days." Don't give excuses, just focus on where you are now. If someone says "this thesis is terrible", just say "yep" and refocus on the present.
    – Buffy
    Mar 19 at 12:44
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In the cover letter, just state that you are happy about how you could progress from writing a Master thesis with very poor supervision and no chance to have it reviewed, since bein written while a student at "university X" of "country Y educational systems plagued with issuesABC" to publishing articles in top journals as first author and that you feel ready to pursue a PhD.

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    No, don't talk about poor supervision. It is a "whine".
    – Buffy
    Mar 19 at 12:39
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    Please don't take any of this advice. Mar 19 at 20:50
  • @MorganRodgers congrats. If it was "country USA educational systems plagued with issues of racism and sexism" I am sure you would see the cover letter in another light. Unless you are the classical white privileged male from US, that cannot see farther than one nose length, while pretending to have progressive views.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 21 at 12:46

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