I have recently started supervising MSc students in Statistics and I noticed a trend: students who produce a NEW small result are often more challenged by reviewers/markers of their dissertation than students who present and use an OLD Big result (e.g. LASSO, Random Forests, ...). The reason for this is that the contribution, even if new, is usually modest as this is just an MSc thesis. However, for old-results projects, students can present lots of formulas and theorems from papers they read (usually from famous people), and present a relatively simple application, which ends up being more impressive in the eyes of a marker.

I find this a bit unfair, as usually the students who produced a new result have worked hard, but in a different direction (novelty). This has bugged me to the point that I am considering only assigning projects of the second kind (old chestnuts).

Are there any guidelines or suggestions for assigning topics for MSc theses? Should I work harder in explaining markers about this strategy?

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    Is this the difference between pure and applied research, rather than "old" and "new"?
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 13:55
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    Sorry, but I still don't understand. Most new results, especially at masters level, are small. But most are based on older, likely bigger, results. This is just how it works, especially for novice researchers. But reviews of old work in theses is also completely natural. As a reviewer I'd be skeptical of any result, small or large, that didn't seem to be based on older results. We build the new upon the old in the vast majority of cases. Even Einstein's special relativity, which changed the paradigm, did so with precursors back to Galileo.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 14:21
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    Are you suggesting that reviews of old work are sufficient for a thesis? That would seem odd to me. I'll likely vote to close unless you can clarify the issues - by editing, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 14:30
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    @Buffy go for it. Close all questions that disagree with your view. Clearly, you work in a different area and do not understand how a thesis can be a review.
    – novo
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 14:30
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    So, at your place, a review of old work is sufficient for a MS and some small new result is also fine? I'm looking only for clarification of the issue, not trying to push back. I don't actually have a "view". My ms thesis was actually a review of a small area of math.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 17, 2022 at 14:32

2 Answers 2


First of all, your question hinges on what "challenging" students actually constitutes. Is it really a surprise that reviewers are more inquisitive about something new and unknown to them rather than something well-established? Now, if a completely new approach beating SOTA by 2% gets the same grade as the one basically adding two lines of code to an existing RF/Lasso implementation it might be weird.

To a reviewer, an ability to familiarize yourself with existing approaches still scores points. More so for BSc than MSc though. If you worked thrice as hard to reinvent the wheel, sorry, that is actually a big negative - it means you have not learned to work efficiently and are wasteful. In that sense, a good minor improvement is better than a good (but late) independent idea which failed to be uncovered by a basic literature review.


The actions of the reviewers seem pretty natural to me. If someone knows an area well then they can easily (more or less) evaluate extensions of old work. But truly new work is harder to judge.

Every student is different, however, and their wishes should be taken into account when you advise them. So rather than deciding which of the two sides of this coin you would prefer, you an also just explain to them the options and the outcomes you have seen in the past. If you see risk, say that. But give them a chance to choose.

You can also help them interpret the results returned by reviewers so that they can respond appropriately.

Presumably you are willing to accept either sort of work for completion of the degree, so in some ways it is moot.

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