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I am about to start a masters degree in the UK. Our induction day is late next week and on this day we will have a talk on choosing our modules and preparing for the dissertation. Formal teaching begins in 2 weeks time.

On the website it says that we can select dissertation topics listed on the website or if we have a topic in mind, we can pursue this as long as we can find a supervisor.

Say I have already found a topic that I would like to pursue.
Would it be inappropriate to contact the supervisor for that topic this early before the start of term? Or should I wait after induction? I do not want to miss out on this topic.

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    I'm not sure about the UK, but I think that in general, it is better to contact the supervisor soon. Btw, you really call the master's project a "dissertation"? – yo' Sep 8 '15 at 12:44
  • yeah I call it a dissertation and so do most universities I have come across lol – user232183 Sep 8 '15 at 13:38
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Guidance is typically provided on when you'd be expected to come up with your research question and your nomination of supervisor. Follow that guidance. If you haven't been told yet, then at least wait for the induction week to find out how things are organised. To kick off on choosing a dissertation topic and supervisor before induction really would be too early. Indeed, it would just look silly. So at the very minimum, do at least wait for two weeks.

On our (UK) Masters courses, the selection of thesis topic and supervisor doesn't happen until the second term. That's because the taught modules in the first term gives the students the grounding in research skills and research areas, and an introduction to the staff, that enables them to make better decisions.

If a student approaches a member of staff earlier than that, then a common response would be to note the interest, and to invite them to come back in the second term if they were still interested, but that there's no commitment to do so, as lots of things change after the first term.

An early approach does not necessarily make a good impression. It can look hasty. It can look like you're not expecting to learn anything in the first term.

And we don't really do reserving of research-questions, as such. At least, merely being the first to propose a research question for your dissertation doesn't give you priority in doing it. We work with students to get the best match of question, student skills, and supervisory support. If student B provides a better match than student A, then we'll recommend that student B does that dissertation, regardless of whether A or B proposed it first. In recent cases where we have had overlaps between particular students, then the research area has has sufficient open questions that the students have each been able to do a distinct dissertation within it (and indeed subsequently co-author papers together). So I don't really recognise this notion of "missing out on a topic".

It takes quite a bit of subject familiarity to understand where the open questions are, and that's one of the reasons why we wait until the second term before we get to topic and supervisor selection.

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  • I think this answer, like mine, is just common sense. No contacting a potential supervisor doesn't guarantee you a project, no you're not forging a binding contract for either party... but is it really "inappropriate" to contact a fellow human doing interesting work that you might like to work with in future? I'd still vote not. – blmoore Sep 9 '15 at 10:41
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It would not be inappropriate to contact a potential supervisor in advance. Getting in touch early and specifically mentioning your topic of interest seems a good idea and an opportunity to make a good impression.

A potential issue is that, assuming the MSc begins with taught courses, you may meet other academics you'd rather work with or your interests may change before the project begins. Still, informal discussion about a potential project down the road would be fine.

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  • MSc courses do begin with a taught course and we work on dissertation over the summer. However I think they want us to choose a topic and a supervisor at the start of the course. – user232183 Sep 8 '15 at 13:42
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In my experience having done an MSci in the UK, if there is a list of possible topics there will probably be a process to enable people to best choose a project suitable for them.

When I did it we had to rank our top 5 or so projects from the list by a certain date and then you would be assigned one from your selection. This was because most projects could only support a pair of students and some would be very popular.

I suspect most institutions will use some variant on this sort of system, in which case contacting academic very early is of no advantage and you will only have less of an idea of what you actually want to do. In any case I would at least wait until you know what the system used is.

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