Pretty straight forward. I am starting to apply to grad school and I was discussing possible projects with some (grad student) friends of mine. When I mentioned something in particular one of them said "that might even be too good for a Master's, sounds more like a PhD..." Then he also went on to say that I could use part of a project like that for a Master's and then use the rest to finish it off with a PhD. For some time I thought about this, then I decided to ask it here.

So is there such a thing as a project that is too good for a Master's? And if so, should my future advisor generally know where this "boiling point" is?

Note: if you need more info about my major of study or the specific sub-field, leave a comment and I can make an edit.
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    The most important criteria for a project for you, both PhD and Masters is that you complete it and can graduate. A too good project is likely something that has a low probability of completing within a Masters which is shorter than a PhD. – RJ- Jun 22 '16 at 0:36
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    "Too good" is euphemistically for unrealistically ambitious, a pipedream in plain English; and yes, such projects exist. – gnometorule Jun 22 '16 at 4:31

From my reading of the conversation between the two of you, he meant 'too good' in one of two ways:

  1. "Too Good" as in the topic will yield many high-quality results, potentially many publications, and opportunities for continued/extended research.
  2. "Too Good" as in requiring too much time to complete in the typical Master's degree time period, and actually should be understood as "Too advanced" or "Too in-depth".

In answer to your second question 'will future advisor know the boiling point?' Yes. That is what they are there for, to help guide the scope of your project to a Master's level.

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I don't see a problem here.

If the project is too good, then

(a) you will not be able to finish it in the timeframe of a Masters, in which case you can continue working on it for your PhD, OR

(b) you will finish it for your Masters, in which case you have a great Masters thesis, and then you can tackle something else for your PhD.

You should not kill yourself to achieve case (b). If you find that the problem is too difficult, just do case (a).

Finally, be aware that other graduate students may not be able to gauge the difficulty very well. Only you will know once you have begun working on it.

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    (a) can be very, very bad if it's not a project for which one can report meaningful intermediate results. On what basis would the masters degree be awarded? – ff524 Jun 22 '16 at 3:18
  • @ff524 that is always a possibility with a research project. You can't know ahead of time if you will have any success, even with a problem that seems easy on the surface. But even if no substantial progress is made, you can demonstrate a good knowledge of the background material, previous work in the area, and describe your own (failed) attempts. This can produce a passable thesis. – Forever Mozart Jun 22 '16 at 4:40
  • Yes, we don't know everything ahead of time, and we can do some damage control if we turn out to have misjudged a problem; but we use our experience and judgement to identify problems that have a high probability of having something meaningful to show for the work after N years. I would definitely discourage the OP from taking on a thesis project if he knows a priori that there is a very small chance he will get meaningful results in the time given. There's a difference between "we can deal with this outcome if it happens" and "I don't see a problem, no need to try to avoid this outcome". – ff524 Jun 22 '16 at 4:47
  • In my experience many master students propose projects that would take two or three PhD project to complete. It is the job of the advisor to help students come up with more realistic plans, and they can do so as they have the experience the master students lack. So it is a huge problem which can and should be prevented. – Maarten Buis Jun 22 '16 at 8:38

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