I am supposed to be admitted to a M.A.Sc. graduate program in engineering at a reputable Canadian university. I am now communicating with my potential supervisor about the potential plans for my research... and here is my concern:

My background and enthusiasm have been shaped around applications research and implementation of the acquired control techniques within the realm of robotics, whereas my supervisor has a more theoretical viewpoint. When we had started to communicate, he did assert that we would determine the research theme, according to our common interests and overlapping subjects. But today, I have received an email from him, consisting of an idea for research that is considerably theoretical.

I am not really attracted by that subject, since it does not cover my desired research field, considerably. I might notify my idea, frankly, but I am afraid of confronting him and creating any dissatisfaction from him. He is eager to hear my viewpoint, and I have no idea how to transfer my perspective, efficiently, such that any misunderstanding will be avoided.

Have I right in this case, or have to do whatever my potential supervisor is saying?

I have not yet met him, face to face, but I know that he is, amazingly, kind and able to track what's going in my mind. How should I declare my opinion about the concern, such that he would not consider my clarification as a disobeying?

  • 5
    What does "not along my code of ethics, noticeably" mean?
    – virmaior
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:29
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    @virmaior: "It does not cover my desired research field, considerably"
    – user41207
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:31
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    In most dialects of English, that's really not what it means. The sentence you used would be appropriate for 'they're asking me to kill rabbits' or 'they want me to lie to patients'.
    – virmaior
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:34
  • @virmaior: That's borrowed from a north-american (but not so common) reference... But thank you to mention the expressions...
    – user41207
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:37
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    How should I declare my opinion about the concernDirectly, honestly, and respectfully. You're an adult; if you really don't want to work on the topic this professor proposes, you really don't have to.
    – JeffE
    Jan 24, 2016 at 22:12

3 Answers 3


I sometimes find it helpful to think about research focus as having three entirely distinct aspects:

  1. Passions: the core "gee whiz" that is what really draws you to research (e.g., in your case, swarm robotics)
  2. Techniques: the methods and skills that you actually use in your pursuit of a research project (e.g., discrete-event methods, domain-specific languages, control theory)
  3. Applications: the societal issues that (e.g., environmental issues, civil security, traffic, elder care)

There are often many different techniques that can be used to pursue the same passion, and many different applications that can be used to motivate its development.

These pieces can combine in different ways, and at different times in one's career, different elements will be on top. It's most satisfying when your passion is on top, but there are times when you need to focus on one of the other areas, e.g., to develop or apply skills in order to advance yourself to where you can get back to your passion, or to work on application-specific elements that are necessary in order to make your passionate work relevant. These may be passing detours that you need to take and return, or they may turn out to be more interesting than you thought and to lead to new passions of their own.

Where you are in your career, right now, I would suggest not being too picky about maintaining focus on your passion. If you can see ways that the other things you do might be later related back to your area of passion, then I would suggest taking that detour. You don't need to let go of your passion, and you can keep looking for ways do satisfy both elements, but right now, at the Masters level, you probably need to focus on the techniques aspect of research.

  • Actually, as an undergraduate with 6 proceedings and 3 ISI publications (all as the major researcher), I have done some research in my field, in depth, a little bit. Therefore, switching to another major sounds tough for me, because I feel all of my accumulated experiences, acquired from that field will be futile, empirically, and I have to start from the scratch... So, you advice me that I better to rely on my supervisor's path (is who a hero in his field with over 5 decades research experience), right?!
    – user41207
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:05
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    @Roboticist I don't understand why you think this choice would be "switching to another major", since it's clearly also relevant and applicable to your area of passion, just not apparently your preferred approach. I am also not telling you "your supervisor knows better," I am saying your interests and your potential supervisor's interests (and funding constraints) may only have potential overlap in some areas, but not others. Your choice is likely not "How do I persuade this person?" but "Can I find sufficient value for myself in the program which I am offered?"
    – jakebeal
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:22
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    @Roboticist It's hard to say without being intimately familiar with both the proposed research and your own interests, but my immediate thought (as one who works in the area myself), is that a strong theoretical grounding might be invaluable for ensuring that your application systems are actually resilient and suitable for field conditions and don't have hidden scalability flaws or other such dependencies that don't appear in the small systems you can test in the laboratory.
    – jakebeal
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:39
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    @Roboticist I'm afraid that I don't know what you mean by "the other privilege"
    – jakebeal
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:46
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    @Roboticist Precisely. Only you, however, know your goals well enough to actually make that judgement.
    – jakebeal
    Jan 24, 2016 at 15:54

A successful project profits from both supervisor and candidate being interested in the same question. If you really dislike the topic, you should try to convince the supervisor to accept a different question. He will then, if he is amenable, try to convince you of a variation of his, you will amend it, etc. until - hopefully - convergence.

However, you may find that the supervisor is simply not interested in your direction. This can happen, even if he likes you. That's fine, and then you either have to find somebody closer to your question of interest or compromise.

That being said, it seems that you are talking about an MA Sc degree. This is considerably shorter than a PhD, so, depending on the details of the situation, it may be easier for you to find a compromise.

If topic really matters for you, however, you need to think hard whether you want to go into a field which you have qualms in.

I am not sure about what the ethical consideration of a "theoretical topic" as opposed to a practical one could possibly be; be is as it may, I would avoid bringing this up, as it may insinuate that you cast doubts about the ethics of your prospective supervisor.

  • 1. Theoretical topic just like "discrete-event systems" v.s. my desired research field: "swarm robotics" 2. Thanks for your contribution... But I know that the sole options are either "considering a compromise" or "digging into something not so sweet(!)"... I was hopeful if you could guide me how to discuss about the case with my supervisor in order to acquire the optimized convergence... (My experiences just suck in this case)
    – user41207
    Jan 24, 2016 at 14:25
  • @Roboticist Now that you clarify the topics, these look really disparate. Does the prof at all do swarm robotics? If not, is there anyone else at your department doing it? You will not convince a prof that runs no project in an area to take on a project in that area unless he is interested to learn and there is no departmental better match. Jan 24, 2016 at 14:27
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    @Roboticist As a thumb's rule, there are two things that need to fit for a thesis: topic and supervisor. Everything else can be somehow sorted out. If this guy is theoretically interested, he will probably only accede to your topic suggestion if he sees any benefit in theoretical understanding for himself. Do not forget that the supervisor, in 99% of the cases, has a bigger overview than the student. I am troubled by your statement "not ... so eager to broaden his scope a little ... because he shows no positive reflection ...". This sounds as if you are a teacher tut-tutting your student. Jan 24, 2016 at 14:56
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    ...You may want to consider the possibility that the supervisor understands more about the opportunities of a field than you do. I strongly advise against coming even close to a statement like that in discussing with your potential supervisor. Frankly, your supervisor's response to a statement of that vibe could be "I am sorry that my openness is not up-to-par with your expectations, and am sure you will find a more intelligent, open and reflective supervisor somewhere else." It is perfectly ok not to be interested in a particular topic - from both sides. That includes your supervisor's. Jan 24, 2016 at 15:04
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    I do not know; perhaps he doesn't understand the field better. However, you seem to have a strong opinion of what should be pursued in your research. Which is fine. However, if the supervisor pays the position, and you do not agree with what he wants, that's where the problem lies. You appear to want to convince that supervisor to fund your project which seems outside of his scope and expertise. I stand by what I said: you should pick a supervisor that supports your topic. Assume even if he decides to fund you, if you pursue your line, he may not be of much help. Are you prepared for that? Jan 24, 2016 at 15:15

All things are negotiable... unless, conceivably, your sponsor-professor's research money is explicitly tied to a specific goal.

Also, as in the other answers and comments, it would surely be profitable to you in the larger picture to broaden your expertise in directions that your sponsor thinks would be productive. His/her experience should translate into insight and perspective that you yourself might not yet have.

And, responding to a particular point in your question and comments: I don't think that different "specialties" are as disjoint from each other as you seem to worry. Work in a "different specialty" might indeed be very helpful to you in gaining new understanding of your "current specialty", maybe seeing possibilities for innovation that you hadn't seen before, due to "being in a rut".

Also, although the immediacy of generating publishable research has its appeal and reward, some enterprises (e.g., education and acquisition of insights) have a longer cycle time.


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