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I am a master's student majoring in a natural science subject. I spoke to a professor in my university about a master's thesis last year. Unfortunately I was unable to interact with him for the rest of the year due to mental health issues. I ended up in my final year not having emailed any professors outside about a thesis, and I have too poor a CV for anyone to consider me.

But this prof I spoke to last year may take me under his wing. He is kind. Not an active researcher, but a very accommodating person. I am in a much better position now, and hope to do some good work under him, maybe get a letter of recommendation to compensate for my otherwise terrible CV and academic record, in case I wish to pursue higher studies and research. (I wanted to do that, but it is hard to maintain interests when you are battling inner demons. Indeed, I do have many gaps in my knowledge, and zero research experience at the moment.)

What concerns me though, is that the topic he recommends is not his area of expertise (he is switching fields), although related. The topic also seems to be unpopular, and indeed he is not an active researcher. A grad student of his did publish a paper recently in a Q2/Q3 journal I have never heard about the before (but not predatory) related to this topic. I do find it interesting, somewhat. At this point I am more interested in just working and gaining experience rather than hyper-fixating on interests because of my personal situation. I can see that the topic may have some potential but I am unsure as to whether or not it is worthwhile to pursue this topic if few others are working in it, I worry that it is known to be useless. How do I figure this out ?

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    Are you sure that "professors outside" care about your CV when it comes to supervising Master's thesis? Also, why are you so concerned that a Master's thesis topic might not be the hottest topic out there?
    – kejtos
    Sep 11, 2023 at 7:07

5 Answers 5

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You seem to have gotten yourself into a situation in which you have few options and this may be (seems to be) the best one. If you can use it to get your degree then the overall impact won't matter as much as you think it does.

You need to find a way to better outcomes, but you need to start elsewhere. Having a supportive professor is a big plus. I suggest that you work with them. They have more experience in this than you do, including on evaluating the potential of the project.

If you can find a better option, then take it, but your description doesn't suggest that. Make the best of the situation you find yourself in. Good luck. That and hard work can make the difference. And, work as closely with this prof as you need to to make it come out right in the end. They have an interest in making it happen, just as you do.

It is hard (actually impossible) to predict at the start of a research project how it will turn out. Among other things, you learn something along the way.

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Actually, most students don't end their master thesis with a publication. That being said, what's more important is to learn a little bit flavor of what research looks like. You should never set goals that are too far to reach, like making the thesis work into a high-impact journal.

If you do have zero research experience as you said, honestly, I believe you don't have enough knowledge to judge if a topic is popular/useful or not. Sub-fields with fewer citations are not because they are useless or boring, but may also be due to the higher difficulty or there are simply fewer researchers in this field.

Considering your experience last year, I would suggest switching to the new professor. Stick with your new research project and build your research skills and taste.

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I would argue that how useful or liked a topic of a Master's thesis is, does not matter. Just go through your uni database and you will see how many theses are stale and useless. As far as I am concerned, what matters is whether you enjoy writing and reading about your topic, because when you don't, the resistance to the thesis grows exponentially as you slowly approach the finish line.

Two more points that comes to mind.

  1. Depending on the topic and depending on how much you want to interact with your supervisor, their area of expertise might not matter at all. The fact that he is not an active researcher might not matter either. This depends on the specific situation you are in and your interest/capabilities/university policies.

  2. This may be university/country specific, but it has never ever occurred to me to check someone's CV or their academic record before supervising their thesis (nor after) and this is the first time I see someone mentioning it. While it surely can happen (and might even be common), I would double check whether it actually applies to your case.

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To keep my answer brief, if you are struggling with feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth (you don't say explicitly, but I don't think I'm unreasonably reading between the lines), finding a supportive mentor and a project you're interested in could actually do you a lot of good. Graduate research is hard, for sure, but if this professor truly has the time to work with you and is supportive, the experience and competence you gain could actually be very restorative. Academics has a tendency to explicitly reward only high-risk endeavors (often including having to cope with unsupportive, neglectful, or even toxic work environments), but that is also a road to burn-out.

I speak from a related experience of my own, where my master's program was not very rewarding and I had an absentee mentor. But, during that time, I took a couple of graduate elective courses and taught myself some programming languages that led to a position in a PhD lab in a different field, which was a much better fit (it had its own issues, but that's another story 😁).

tl;dr: One's career is a winding path, and while I can't discount making strategic moves, it's important to choose what makes you happy and/or comfortable.

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I think it is great that you are thinking about the impact of your choices now on your future career! But I also think it will be okay if your topic isn't the snazziest!

If you don't end up deciding to continue on to a PhD program, but get a job in industry/etc related to your field, it is likely most employers won't care about what your particular topic was, or even know enough to discriminate against you for it being marginal (this might depend a lot on the field though). On the other hand, if you do continue in research, regardless of your topic, your advisor will probably have connections that could help you later on.

I think probably doing any research is better than none – and so what's most important is how likely you are to be able to do that research – how long will the relevant experiments/studies take, how soon will you be able to determine if a run isn't working, how much is the question structured in a way that will allow you to learn something useful even when your plans inevitably encounter problems.

To make this more concrete – imagine you are a biologist, studying the effects of some chemical on the development of an animal to a particular stage. You have to raise these animals for the entire time it takes for them to reach this stage, and you don't exactly know how long it will take. You could spend weeks working on an experiment only to end up with no data if they just fail to make the developmental transition you are expecting, or if the other objects in their environment turn out to interact with the chemical in some way you didn't expect, etc. Say these animals only reproduce during one season, meaning you only get one shot each year – then you risk doing work that yields nothing. Or, imagine you are doing field research, and due to a fire or pandemic or hurricane, the area you need to study is simply impossible to access for months. Same issue. You can never predict every risk like this, but it is worth thinking about how robust your topic is to unexpected roadblocks. That's not to say you shouldn't pursue such topics if you are interested! I did and I'm glad I did, even if I was frustrated at some points!

Depending on how your program works and what you want, you may or may not even need to produce publishable results. My program was a bit unusual in that it was a three year thesis that resulted in publications for pretty much everyone. But, even the people with the best projects, who were the most put-together, didn't get published before moving on to a PhD or a job. It simply takes too long to get a paper published (which is another thing you will have little control over). While in many contexts you can put papers that are partway through the process on your CV, I think it would be unreasonable to expect someone who had just gotten an MS to have a publication out.

Aside from the issue of publishing, I think it's worth considering what skills you would aquire working on your research topic – and especially if you are considering jobs outside of academia, I would strongly encourage you to spend some time looking at job listings to see what skills are expected for the positions you are interested. Some of these might be pretty easy (eg, if you are doing any "data science" type stuff, being able to say you are confident with Python, R, MySQL, whatever, is good). Others might be harder, but easier to pursue in a master's program than on your own. For instance, if you want to do anything related to marine biology (even working at an aquarium) many jobs expect you to be able to SCUBA dive, which requires expensive training and equipment that you probably can't afford on your own — if you can get a university or grant to help with that, that's a massive expansion of opportunities in the future. Likewise, many jobs require knowledge of expensive proprietary software like ArcGIS, which very likely will be free for you at a university.

Probably more important than any of this is your advisor. If you don't get along with them, it will be unpleasant, you'll likely drop out, and even if you don't, they might not be helpful references. If they are abusive, and have a reputation for trying to keep grad students around as long as possible, you could add years to your program just for someone else's benefit. If they are aloof and hands-off, you might not get the guidance you need. If you have a competent and kind advisor, your life will be way better and they will make sure you get something out of your master's. So I think if this potential advisor seems like a good person who is kind to you, that's the most important thing. He may even be open to letting you research a different topic.

I'm sorry this doesn't directly answer your question, but I hope some of it is helpful!

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