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I finished my master’s program last year. The topic of my thesis was suggested to me by one of the PIs at the faculty, who then supervised my project. The question seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it had what seemed like a clear hypothesis that I then approached with appropriate methods, and I was excited to be working on it.

I did an okay job: my thesis received a top grade and I later presented my results at a conference poster session. The reviews I got there were also good.

Now my supervisor wants me to write it up and try submitting it to a journal. As a master’s thesis it worked fine, however, now that I’m preparing a manuscript (I have been for the last 9 months, albeit not full time as I also have a job), the “story” just doesn’t seem coherent to me anymore. I’ve rewritten it over and over again trying to meaningfully tie together the motivation for the study, the question, and the discussion, but it just doesn’t work as a coherent narrative.

The problem, in my opinion, is that the question is framed as something like, “X might be behaving weird in our observations because of Y. Let’s see what else behaves like this X given Y. let’s look at Z, because it’s kind of like X (but not really)”. So it’s not that I tested some predictions based on the possible influence of Y on X, I just checked out to see if something else behaved similarly to X when I introduce Y. The results don’t tell us anything new about Y (or Z), We don’t learn anything new whether or not we get a “positive” result.

Steps I’ve taken so far to make this work:

  • had a thorough discussion about the logic of this paper with my supervisor. we agreed on a structure. It seemed okay when we talked about it, but it does not work at all on paper. It does not read like a well-motivated study, so there is no “link” that would tie the narrative together.
  • Tried to reframe the question and discuss the motivation from a different angle. It doesn’t work however many times I’ve started my draft from scratch.

Was my research question just poorly motivated in the first place? If you agree that it was, what do I do? Can I rescue this paper without making the introduction deliberately vague about how this research topic came to be? Or am I totally wrong and this is a reasonable type of question to ask in science?

I am stressed out and embarrassed that I still haven’t managed to turn it into something publishable. I would be even more embarrassed to contact my supervisor this far into working on it and explain that I find the study rationale flawed, and that this is why I am still working on the first draft. I would appear lazy and as though I am trying to find excuses, even though I’ve been consistently trying to make it work all this time.

If this is of any relevance: I think my supervisor’s published papers are well motivated and thought through. Somehow it’s just this study that doesn’t work imo.

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  • It can be really hard to disentangle one's emotions from one's work, especially for a first paper. You talk a lot about feeling stressed, embarrassed and appearing lazy, but you are working on this effectively for free, while doing a full time job. No wonder you are stressed! I suggest having a honest talk with your supervisor about what you have said here, and consider if it's worth continuing to work on this paper. (If you're not planning for a career in academia, it's probably not.) May 6, 2021 at 12:59

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