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As part of my MSc I have to produce a Thesis/Dissertation which forms an integral part of the program and classification (roughly 1/4 - I imagine the subject can make a difference, so I should say that my MSc is in Mathematics in the UK).

I am wondering to what extend I should expect to be completely on my own in this endeavor. I have a supervisor who has a pretty good research reputation as far as I can tell from his publications and collaborations, so I'm quite happy in that sense, however it s becoming increasingly evident, that he will not provide much guidance when it comes to specific topic selection or anything else for that matter.

Is this normal and to be expected for an MSc Dissertation, or is it a bad sign that should make me think whether it may be better to switch? (I was under the impression that at such a junior level one could still expect quite a bit of hand-holding when it comes to the selection of a feasible topic).

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  • 4
    Have you asked your supervisor this question?
    – JeffE
    Feb 22 '12 at 21:25
  • @JeffE: I think he is convinced that he does what is required of him. I m trying to gauge whether this is the case, because if it is then I don't want to complain, and just accept the challenge. I think asking him directly will not give me the information I am after, as I m sure he will not admit to being less interested in his supervises then he should be. I did ask him for a narrower set of feasible topics given my background, but he says this is entirely up to me.
    – Beltrame
    Feb 22 '12 at 22:49
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    If you can't ask your supervisor directly about the job he expects you to do, you have a dysfunctional relationship with your advisor. If he honestly (and not just defensively) believes he should not give you (and I mean you specifically, not just "his students") more guidance, and you honestly (not just defenseively) believe you (again, not "his students") need more guidance, then you might need to look for another advisor. Or your current advisor might have good reasons to believe you don't need as much guidance as you think you do. But you won't know unless you actually ask him.
    – JeffE
    Feb 22 '12 at 23:11
  • @JeffE: I am of course talking to him directly about the job that s expected. It s pretty clear to me what he wants me to do, namely produce a Thesis on my own :) I also know that his approach seems unusual to me, but this may be due to my lack of experience, and may not mean anything negative, which is why I m trying to gather some more information. It s only wrt this last question that I m not sure going to him is the best idea.
    – Beltrame
    Feb 22 '12 at 23:46
  • I am also sailing in the same boat... and I am doing my M.Sc. in Computer Science. The answers to most of the questions (in the last reply) were 'No' for me and thats what make me feel worried... I can't also change my advisor...
    – user994
    Jun 3 '12 at 3:59
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I'm not sure how much of your issue is related to the specific field—mathematicians are known for being somewhat more independent than graduate students in, say, engineering.

That said, your advisor should at least show signs of being interested in your research. If you feel like you need help, and aren't getting any, then you need to make arrangements to get it. At first, I'd recommend talking to other graduate students and postdocs under your advisor. Next, I'd talk to other students outside the group; finally, I'd move on to other faculty.

It really depends on how easy or difficult it is to change advisors. If it's relatively easy, then in the end, it might be necessary as a last resort. If not, you'll need to make do with a rather unfortunate situation.

Ultimately, this is a case-by-case kind of situation: you'll need to talk to more people in your department and find out how widespread this is. Some advisors are completely hands-off, and expect their students to be self-motivating. Others are hands-on to the point of micromanagement. In math, my impression from conversations with colleagues is that the tendency is towards being hands-off, but it's impossible to say what will be the case in your specific department.

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  • I have spoken to another supervise of his. He is in the same situation, so I m not being targeted at least. I want to get a feeling how normal this lack of involvement is though, before I decide to switch !
    – Beltrame
    Feb 22 '12 at 19:30
  • 1
    I've added a paragraph to address this point.
    – aeismail
    Feb 22 '12 at 19:35
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Staff at my department have to propose specific projects for MSc theses (possibly together with the student). Even if your university doesn't require that, I would expect your supervisor to help you significantly with selecting the topic of your thesis. For the thesis itself the help will be less, but I wouldn't think it reasonable to expect an MSc student to essentially come up with their thesis topic unless they want to.

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It can vary a lot by advisor. You should always talk to current (and former if possible) students of an advisor before committing to one. Some questions you might ask:

  • How often do you meet with your advisor?
  • Did your advisor help you come up with a thesis topic?
  • Does your advisor answer your emails quickly/at all?
  • Do you feel comfortable asking your advisor for help? Does he/she give it?
  • Does your advisor know and care about your career goals?
  • Is your advisor expected to stay around this school for long? (An advisor could be pre-tenure and expected not to get it or could be up for sabbatical soon.)
  • When you thought you were done, did your advisor agree or want you to do more? How long did it take to get the advisor to read the thesis?

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