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I am a month away from graduating in Math. I spent the last six months working on what I consider now a poor master thesis. I was asked to discuss some connections between model theory and combinatorics. I think this bad result was due to the topic itself, my poor organization and an even worse selection of papers that was given to me by my advisor.

In the end, I couldn't obtain any new result, and my thesis is basically a list of well known elementary theorems. I even thought on starting it all over again with a new advisor.

I am feeling very discouraged, because I think I could have produced a decent thesis with the right suggestions.

Is my academic career over? Will I be able to get a good phd in math? In general, how important is a good master thesis in obtaining a phd? Should I consider again writing a new thesis?

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  • What country are you interested in studying in?
    – Buffy
    Mar 2 at 20:01
  • I would prefer to study in a European country.
    – Blueday
    Mar 2 at 20:10
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    Did you get a bad grade for your master thesis or could your self-criticism simply be a result of your progress?
    – Louic
    Mar 2 at 21:02
  • Just produce some nice plots with Python, possibly with some interactive notebook and you will have a safe plan B to get into the industry (any industry). Now, for your plan A about getting to a PhD ... see my answer ;)
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 3 at 10:28
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    @Blueday they are not for your thesis, they are for your next application to industry position when you have to present your work to absolute ignorants (no judgmente intended)!
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 3 at 14:16

3 Answers 3

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Honestly. Of course your academic career isn't over --- that is just ridiculous. Even if you failed your masters program, that would not prevent you from learning more, applying to and completing a PhD, and developing into a good researcher. Hell, there is at least one person I've heard of who led a militant group conducting bombings in their own country and then later became a university professor in that same country. So no, a somewhat disappointing Masters thesis is not fatal to an academic career.

There appears to be a somewhat recurrent class of question on this site from young people who think that any minor misstep in their grades or extra-curricular activities is fatal to their whole career. It is ludicrous self-pity and has no basis in how the academic profession works. A Masters disseration is primarily a learning exercise rather than a scholarly contribution anyway, so if you learned something of value and got to build up some research skills, that will stand you in good stead for a PhD program.

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It looks like you learned a lot with your Master thesis, not about a topic itself but about how to tackle a topic.

Even more, you have one aspect that you can directly tackle and that you should focus:

bad result was due to [...] my poor organization

You have a very strong selling point: you can show that you have an idea about the path to a better Master thesis, maybe you learned it the hard way, but it is still a learned lesson [1].

Now, the thesis in itself is not that important (as long as it does not have a strikingly bad grade, if it is graded), but sooner or later you will have to present it as part of a PhD interview. How do you present it? Show that you learned your lesson, not by saying "I had poor organization, so thesis is crap", but by having a well organized presentation (or poster). You will soon learn that in life the "how" you did something generally has a much larger impact than the "what" you did ... because how you do things dictates what you can potentially achieve, all conditions being optimal [2].

The fact that you did not discover anything new would be just a nice side aspect of the thesis, of course you will win no Fields'medal with your thesis.

But.

An excellent thesis shows that the student mastered the path to the results and obtained worthwhile results, a horrible thesis shows that the student didn't master the path but obtained interesting results, an average thesis shows that the student have an idea about how to get to some results and has an idea about how the results could be improved.

On average in a given year, there are more PhD positions available than excellent thesis prodcuced: good luck!

[1] Try to look deep into your aspect of "failure", the poor organization: are you poorly organized because you had some thought about the path to tackle the topic, but you still tried mostly to follow the path shown by your advisor and the literature you were given by the advisor (exogen disorganization) or was it your side (endogen disorganization)?

[2] don't think in purely rationalistic terms. For example, How does not mean that you should be as efficient as a computer/robot. Optimal conditions refers to your capacity of expressing your potential, maybe someone needs to sleep during the day and work at night and living isolated in a cave, to achieve his/hers potential, while someone else may need continuous discussion with peers and structured working days 8-5, Monday to Friday ...

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  • 'On average in a given year, there are more PhD positions available than excellent theses produced'? What prompts you to make such a statement? I think it is dependent on the specific field, but in general I'm inclined to be more skeptical. Mar 3 at 11:51
  • @ThomasBakx don't limit your applications to a specific country/continent. Then, there are less and less professorship, or postdoc for each completed phd...
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 3 at 14:18
  • @ThomasBakx Additional data from statista/google/etc: In the academic year of 2018/19, about 833,710 students were awarded a Master's degree in the United States, In the academic year of 2018/19, about 85,769 male and 101,799 female students earned a doctoral degree in the United States. I konw the time frame does not match, but it means roughly that there is 1 PhD every 8 completed master student, and that's in the US only. Field dependent? sure it is , but field dependent it is the motivation of a student to pursue a PhD,too ...
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 4 at 8:40
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Is my academic career over? Will I be able to get a good phd in math? In general, how important is a good master thesis in obtaining a phd? Should I consider again writing a new thesis?

These questions are not for an outsider to answer. You should instead talk to your Masters advisor, who will in all cases have a huge impact on your ability to get a good PhD in math. Paramount to figure out is if your thesis really is as bad as you think it is. I know you write that you didn't discover any new results and your thesis is just a collection of old theorems, but whether you were expected to discover any new results is a major confounding variable. For example, if your Masters was one year long, then you might have made real progress but simply ran out of time to discover anything that's genuinely new. If the advisor is engaging another Masters student or PhD student to finish your work, you could easily end up with a second-author publication. Still not as good as a first-author publication, but it's something, and it would indicate that your thesis isn't that bad.

If your advisor says you should not do a PhD, then it might be time to worry (what else did they say? Why do they think you should not do a PhD?) - but it's too soon to worry, let alone make plans, before talking to them.

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    I think that the part about the second-author publication is not really applicable here since OP seems to be in pure maths where this concept does not exist.
    – Christian
    Mar 3 at 5:35
  • @Christian is right, this is not common practice in pure math.
    – Blueday
    Mar 3 at 12:15

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