I am a PhD student and the next milestone in my program is my thesis proposal. I need to present what I plan to do for my thesis including specific aims, major contributions, timeline, etc... to my thesis committee approval. Over the course of a year I have presented three different potential proposal topics to my PhD advisor with specific aims and major contributions. All three times I have been told the ideas offered no major contribution and to abandon them. In each case my advisor said that my ideas utilized existing techniques therefore they can not be a major contribution.

I am frustrated by this because as I understand this argument I have not read a paper or thesis that has a major contribution as they all utilize and build on prior work. I am additionally frustrated because I have been told to simply start over again from ground zero three times based solely on this argument without any indication of how to improve on it, despite me attempting to probe further to find out how to accomplish this. This is becoming problematic because I feel like I have been playing a year-long guessing game with my advisor as to what work they want me to pursue, but never provided any indication as to how I can improve on my prior attempts. I feel like I am stuck in a perpetual cycle which is blocking my ability to progress my research, publications, and graduation.

Has anyone had any similar experiences? Does anyone have suggestions about how I can better work with my advisor or when I may need to seek an advisor with research more in line with my ideas? Thank you!

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    Have you tried to have a deeper conversation with your supervisor, telling them that you don't feel sure about what is a worthwhile project and why? What if you ask them directly for help with this? They could for example give you examples for better project topics and explain to you what makes these worthwhile. Mar 21 at 13:17
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    BTW what subject area is this? Mar 21 at 13:19
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    What domain is this? Using "existing techniques" is practically a requirement in some domains and practically a disqualification on others. Are you expected to develop techniques or just apply them? Mar 21 at 14:21
  • I am in the information science department. So my understanding is that I live in a grey area. There is room to go the applied route where existing techniques are used on novel data, or the theoretical route where benchmark datasets are used to evaluate new algorithms.
    – b19wh33l5
    Mar 21 at 14:33
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    Maybe look at previous theses in your department, especially written under the supervision of your advisor, and if they appear to you to utilize existing techniques (i.e. looking at them doesn't take care of your concerns), then ask your advisor why these theses were deemed acceptable. It may simply be a matter of degree, and having specific examples of what is sufficient might clarify why your proposals are not sufficient. Mar 21 at 16:09

1 Answer 1


I think your advisor is giving good advice and you need to look deeper for a problem. Note that building on previous work and making a significant contribution are not the same thing. The former, as you note is almost always (actually, always?) true, but the latter takes more. All mathematics advances, for example build on previous work back as far as Euclid. Even Euclid based his work on ideas from elsewhere, synthesizing it in a well structured way.

If your advisor can see the crux of a solution to a problem with a few minutes (hours) of thought, then the problem isn't worthy of a dissertation.

OTOH, you are right to be frustrated. That is common enough in research.

One of the easiest ways to get out of your dilemma is to ask your advisor to suggest a problem. They probably have more experience at this than you do and are more likely to know what might be possible to do without it being blindingly obvious that it is do-able. I think that is the current situation. Your suggested problems are too easy to solve and have more or less obvious solutions from the literature.

Find a problem with no obvious solution. Others can help you do this until you have more (and deeper) experience. Of course you can also pick a problem that is too hard. It is a classic Three Bears Issue. Some problems are too easy. Some are too hard. Some are just right. But it takes some work to find the balance. The first kind aren't worth the time. The second can result in too much wasted effort. The third can earn you a degree.

Personal note: In my dissertation studies (math) I worked on three problems, all suggested by my advisor. The first was too easy and I proved "new" theorems every day. Fun, but not significant. The second was too hard and I wasted some weeks pounding my head against an impenetrable wall. The third was "just right" and resulted in a major piece of work and a lot of insight into a major class of problems. Not easy, not impossible. Just Right.

And, yes, it built on a lot of previous work, much of it over the previous half century.

Long term note: Once you have a problem then, along the way to solving it, you may stumble across other, related, problems. Keep a notebook of such things so that you have something to return to later. Don't spend too much time on them now, keeping on your main path, but you build up a backlog of possible future research. You also build up a set of problems that you can give to your own students later when they are in the same position you are now.

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    "I think your advisor is giving good advice" - this is impossible to tell from the given information. It may well be, but it may also be that this supervisor has much narrower ideas about what could be a good topic than necessary. Also if the supervisor wants to be helpful, they probably should explain themselves better so that the student can better understand what the issue is (although obviously we can't know what exactly the supervisor has said and whether this is more of a communication problem on one side or the other). Mar 21 at 13:22
  • @ChristianHennig, even if the advisor is being overly "strict" the result is the same if they have to approve your dissertation by signing it, as is often the case. One can go to a new advisor, perhaps, but with no guaranteed result. But, yes, I can't read the advisor's mind.
    – Buffy
    Mar 21 at 13:28

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