So here is the issue. In my masters project, I have worked on a problem and am hopelessly stuck on a mathematical equation that I cannot solve.

I am a non-math student who uses math as a tool. I have tried several ways that I could to solve the equation, but I have failed. I would like to approach a mathematician with the problem. But my guide is not highly accepting of the idea. He is generally not enthusiastic about asking for such helps. How do I politely convince him to do so?

And how does one go about with such a situation? Do I simply find a math professor online and email them asking them to help? Instead of requesting my guide, can I directly email other professors asking them to help? Do people actually help or just ignore such emails?

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    If the mathematical aspects are not lengthy to describe, you could simply ask at Mathematics Stack Exchange. Make sure you provide sufficient context for the problem (like you did here) and any ideas you have toward resolving it. Incidentally, if the problem is suitable for someone to answer there, then this would almost certainly not be a collaboration situation. At least, the culture in math is such that is wouldn't be, although perhaps an acknowledgement somewhere in your thesis would be appropriate. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 18:14
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    @DaveLRenfro I have tried to ask it on mathematics stack exchange, but there was no satisfactory answer. I haven't asked it on mathematics overflow however. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 18:16
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    Sorry, I thought I checked to see what groups you've participated in, but I either didn't or I didn't notice "Mathematics". (The fact that 30 minutes later I don't even remember whether I checked should tell you something . . .) The last 2-3 questions you've asked seem reasonable for that site. It's possible the issue is that there are a lot more (I think) pure math types there than those who are familiar with higher level engineering-physics type math, and perhaps the question wasn't visible long enough. Maybe try to edit one or two of the most relevant questions to get them bumped up? Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 18:50
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    I have two worries here. The first is whether your "guide" is actually telling you that you need to do this yourself if your thesis is to be accepted. The second is that you really aren't asking for "collaboration" but for "help". I think most requests would be interpreted that way at least. It may be that the MS thesis is really supposed to be the work of one person with guidance from the supervisor (guide) only. Are my worries warranted?
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 18:55
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    @Buffy well actually my thesis has been accepted and currently the issue is more about solving the problem. He himself admits that he too can't solve the equation as he is also not a mathematician. I admit that what I am asking for might be understood as asking for help. But maybe if the problem is solved and if we get a paper out of it, I can ask my guide to add the math profs name to it. Would that be called a collaboration then? Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 19:01

3 Answers 3


First, there's nothing wrong with you asking for help. I find it strange that your master thesis mentor objected. Indeed, master thesis is intended to teach you how to do research, and collaboration (or simply talking to experts in other fields) is a crucial aspect of it nowadays. You are not supposed to re-invent the wheel!

Generally, many mathematicians are fond of explaining maths to others, and seeing a problem someone cannot solve, they often cannot resist a challenge! So, if you ask for help, you do have a chance. Much more so if (a) ask someone you know in person and (b) ask someone working in a right domain. Alas, we are not generalists anymore, so don't an expert in category theory to know PDE or be willing to learn them for you! If you do shoot an e-mail to someone you don't know, it's hard to beat the advice of Scott Aaronson.

Actually, if a question went unanswered on math.stackexchange, it is considered acceptable to ask it on MathOverflow. By the look of it, though, MO welcomes more concrete and precise questions than yours on Math.Stackexchange. You should state the problem and what you are trying to achieve in full, refer to "most similar" problems you know of in the literature, and what exactly goes wrong if you try to mimic their method. Since MO is supposed to be "like asking your colleague next office door", the same applies if you ask/email someone.

On the issue of collaboration, I would say that if you asked for help and received valuable input, then you should offer a co-authorship. After that, it depends. If the answer is in the literature and they just point it out to you, or if it is standard for the experts even if hard to pinpoint in the literature, then they are supposed to refuse, and you just mention them in the Acknowledgements section. If, on the other hand, they start thinking or doing computations for you, then it's a different matter. Of course, there are many intermediate possibilities, e. g., they just write the math part in a separate paper, and you cite it, or they write a separately authored appendix to your paper. But it's up to the person whom you are asking for help to decide.


I'll guess that the best help might come just by visiting the math department at your university and asking a faculty member for help. Or asking (say at the the department office) if there is a grad student that might be willing to help you.

It would be appropriate to give an acknowledgment in the thesis, or any resulting paper, to someone who helps. For some kinds of help it might actually be appropriate to pay for the help. But, as long as the driving ideas in the thesis/paper are yours, then co-authorship by another isn't really appropriate.

And make sure your advisor is comfortable with all attempts to seek outside help as long as you are a student.

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    For some kinds of help it might actually be appropriate to pay for the help. I have never seen this happening in academia, especially for an help concerning mathematics. Do you have a specific instance when this is possible or customary? Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 8:32
  • @BlueElephant, I think the OP's field isn't actually mathematics, but needs some math. However, some math results have been built on the results of computer programs (Four Color Theorem). In such cases, if very sophisticated programming is needed it might be fine to pay for that. If the program is specified by the mathematician paying the bills then it doesn't necessarily lessen their contribution or the centrality of it.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 14:20

Ultimately, if you are unable to solve the problem yourself then you are going to have to ask for help, or even collaboration. If it is a large enough problem that you need a collaborator to do a chunk of the work for you (e.g., solving this mathematics problem), that should not necessarily be fatal to it still being counted as fulfilling your project requirements.

Start by seeking help from some mathematics people at your university, and if it is a big problem then you can raise the opportunity for collaboration and coauthorship. Your "guide" (supervisor?) should be able to give you some options here that make it possible for you to get a solution to the problem.

  • Sorry for the term 'guide'. Generally from where I come, supervisors are also frequently referred to as guides as they guide people in projects and stuff, so. And thanks a lot for the answer! Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 16:58
  • It's fine; I just wasn't entirely sure they were the same thing. For the benefit of my future knowledge, what country is this in?
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 22:26
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    Mostly in South-Asian countries (India in my case). Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 5:44

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