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For the last few months I have been working on an undergraduate research project with a professor. This was the first project I was given to work on. I want to pursue a phd after undergrad so I took this project on and have dedicated a lot of time and energy to the project as I really wanted to see it succeed. However, this project is in a branch of CS that is not related to their research expertise at all. So I have been on my own to to read papers to see what the SOTA is and try to come up with algorithms. In our meetings, the professor likes to see my work but the ideas he proposes show that this isn't their area of research and is unaware of SOTA algorithms. Furthermore, there is no one at my university who is specializing at this research currently. The way I saw research is to improve upon the SOTA or to develop innovative algorithms to achieve some task, however I don't see that happening without some expertise in the domain.

I have a very high amount of respect the professor, however I don't see myself getting very far by myself and without any fellow undergrad/grad students. Has anyone been in a similar situation? I want to ask for research directly correlated to the professor's areas of expertise but I don't want to be negative towards the professor as I am very grateful to the opportunity that was given to me. How should I approach the professor about my situation?

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4 Answers 4

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In my experience, my professors were not able to contribute much in terms of my thesis. They gave me lots of advice regarding the document's structure, the research approach, grammar, and the like, but not in terms of the actual thing I was writing about.

Their advice was great, and one that served me well over the years. Go out and ask on my own!

They pushed me to ask experts on my field, to approach professors from other Universities, and gain the knowledge and experience that I needed.

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It is common for research to go a different direction than anticipated.

I don't know anything about your research or what a SOTA algorithm means, but yes, generally more compromises have to be made as an undergraduate research with regards to what sort of support you can get locally.

The way I saw research is to improve upon the SOTA or to develop innovative algorithms to achieve some task, however I don't see that happening without some expertise in the domain. I have a very high amount of respect the professor, however I don't see myself getting very far by myself and without any fellow undergrad/grad students.

I think if it's your understanding after discussion with your mentor that this is going to be a hard track, you would be wise to select a project closer to their expertise for this experience, and maybe keep learning about SOTA and you can return to it in a different institution or with a new advisor.

That said, you should sit down with them and say "I want to do this project: ... Would ou be able to advise me through this?" If they say no or prevaricate, find a good middle ground.

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  • Sorry for not specifying. SOTA means State of the art.
    – Ray Green
    Oct 4, 2022 at 22:08
  • @RayGreen Hm, well, your question is still generic enough that I would still suggest hewing a bit closer to what support you can get at this stage in your career. Oct 5, 2022 at 0:43
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Assuming you want a US centric answer, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Extending the state of the art as an undergraduate (or even in some masters programs) would be unusual due to factors you mention as well as time constraints. Pretty much anything you do that is acceptable to your professor will, IMO, be a strong benefit in a doctoral application.

Most people don't take up serious research until well into a doctoral program. Serious research, looking into the unknown and trying to learn something from it, is very time consuming.

Very few applicants to doctoral programs with only a bachelors will show any research at all beyond reading and summarizing what is already known. You are already a step ahead of the pack.

Keep on. Keep the professor happy and engaged.

It is probably late for this, but if you can manage attendance at one of the major CS conferences in your field, then you would have a chance to meet and speak with others, some of which might be interested. Presenting a poster, if possible, is especially good for meeting folks.

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You can communicate to the professor that you'd like to collaborate with someone who has previously worked extensively in that domain.

Professors usually have a wide network, and are not new to collaborating - so your request won't come across as rude. In fact, the prof is more likely to be able to connect you to people in that domain than you yourself would.

In short, communicate.

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