I am studying applied math. My bachelor's thesis is coming up next semester and I've got a dilemma.

I was originally planning to do a standard project (most of them seem very soft to be honest) and then take an extra course (I got permission to take a PHD level course in information theory) or two simultaneously.

But then a project involving a fairly novel part of control theory popped up, novel enough that it might be possible to get something interesting published from the project. It seemed like a fairly interesting problem and the possibility of co-authoring a paper at this stage is very appealing as I have an eye on a PHD after my masters degree.

Control theory itself doesn't interest me that much, but the tangential mathematical subjects do (optimization, algorithms, information theory, etc). The problem is that it's probably going to be a lot more time consuming than a normal project and I don't know if I'd benefit more from it than just taking another course in an area I'm actually interested in.

I'm nervous it's going to be a stressful spring without much to show for it if we don't manage to get any interesting results at all. On the other hand, I suppose any research experience is positive even if it's not in my main interest area.

So, the question is: for a PhD application, should I complete a research-based thesis tangentially related to areas of interest, or normal thesis focused on my areas of interest plus additional courses in my areas of interest?

(edit: I'd probably drop a PDE course in favor of this project)

  • 1
    I believe this is largely a matter of personal preference. There is a lot that can be learned even through a tangential project, and sometimes even coming up empty handed (at the undegraduate-level) from a project is its own reward, it teaches you (hopefully) how not to come up empty handed in the future! I would personally only go with the "normal" thesis if you are 1) content doing the straight forward thing (nothing wrong with that) and 2) are genuinely interested in that subject to the point that you might consider it as your primary field of interest for a PhD.
    – Loonuh
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 13:53
  • The OP is hoping to pursue a PhD; the question is, which option will help him pursue that goal. I think that question could have an objective answer from someone who has experience in graduate admissions.
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 15:33
  • Do you know where are you applying? As I was told, in Sweden in general projects are the most important piece of the application, and a good showcase of research the best kind.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 17:05

2 Answers 2


If your plans to pursue a PhD eventually are serious, I would definitely recommend the research-based option. You'll see this advice in many other places, but acquiring a PhD is very much the process of learning how to do research and proving that you can indeed do it. Even if the project is not directly in an area that you're very interested in, you'll have the opportunity to start practicing your research skills. The prospect of a publication is also something to keep in mind; an entering PhD student who has already published is viewed as already having proved to some degree that they're capable of quality research, and I've never met a faculty member anywhere who didn't appreciate that.

You're exactly right in that the research experience will be valuable to you even if you do not end up with a publication. Why? Primarily, if you do good work you've given your faculty collaborators some very good material to put in the reference letters you're going to want them to write when you apply to PhD programs. In fact, in your position I'd probably be thinking more about coming out of the experience with a strong reference than a publication.


As a senior phd student, I always recommend bachelor students to have some flavor of research in their thesis rather than doing a pure implementation work. Any research work requires some level of implementation and this gives the student good chance to find out which parts are more favorable and then he/she can easily decide to go to industry or continue academic carrier.

  • 1
    The field is mathematics, not engineering or CS; neither thesis is likely to involve "implementation" work
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 14:29
  • 2
    @ff524 Actually, since it is applied math, it could easily involve some implementation. Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 16:16
  • @TobiasKildetoft Probably not the kind of implementation the author of this post (a CS student) is referring to. It would be what I'd call an "application" rather than "implementation"
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 16:17
  • @ff524 Why not? There are plenty of areas of applied math where it would be a natural part of such a thesis to implement some algorithm. Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 16:20
  • 1
    @ff524 Then I am not really sure what you mean by an implementation. Commented Jan 5, 2015 at 16:22

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