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I am writing a thesis for my M.Sc. dissertation, and I am struggling to identify how big the contribution of my paper has to be.

I've heard professors in our campus saying "you don't have to save the world, just add a little bit of something to an already existing work." But that is vague and seems too little for an M.Sc. program. Do you have any advice on what could be considered a sufficient contribution?

Ps. My field is distributed systems (cloud computing) and it would be nice if you could explain it in that context.

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    How did your advisor answer this question? (You did ask your advisor, didn't you?) – JeffE Mar 9 '13 at 10:10
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    Asking "how little do I need to do to get by" is not the best way to look at it. It's better to ask "how far can I go with it" instead. – Paul Mar 10 '13 at 15:11
  • I agree with Paul here. Any time you start with 'what is the least I need to do to get by' you're probably coming at the problem from the wrong direction. We all do this to some extent but you may be setting yourself up for trouble in the long run. – grauwulf Mar 10 '13 at 16:36
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    you don't have to save the world, just add a little bit of something to an already existing work." But that is vague and seems too little for an M.Sc. program — Really? This is an honest description of requirements for tenure! – JeffE Mar 30 '13 at 19:56
  • Your school's library should have copies of previous theses. Read several that have your advisor -- you'll get an idea very quickly of what you need to do. – Kathy Sep 8 '16 at 14:21
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In my opinion and experience, it is relatively rare for an MSc thesis to yield truly original research resulting in a paper. The primary goal of a MSc thesis is to teach you important research skills: come up with a general idea of what to do, researching literature, coming up with a specific question that you want to address, performing research (computations, fieldwork, lab experiments), and finally writing it down in a thesis. If you successfully complete this cycle, I think your MSc thesis is a success. If the thesis, after some editing, is original enough to end up as a journal paper this is a big bonus.

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This is largely depends on your supervisor expectations.
Some professors have certain requirements for their MSc students to graduate (i.e. publishing one paper) others do not have contribution requirements and knowing the literature is enough to them.
Even if you do have publishable work, some professors will keep pushing you and you will end up with three years MSc thesis similar in away or another to a PhD thesis.

In general, you are required to know the current literature of your subfield/problem area very well and summarize it in a thesis. It is definitely better to implement/compare different techniques, trying to identify challenges and trying to tackle one of the challenges.

For example, your general area is cloud computing, your thesis topic is about materialized views or query processing under cloud computing infrastructure. This requires finding the current literature of query processing, how it is different under cloud computing settings and what are the main research challenges

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As someone who supervises MS and PhD students, your question makes me very nervous. Why are you now, at this point in your career, trying to sneak by accomplishing as little as possible? You are at the age and time when you should be envisioning great things and trying to create new knowledge (or at least add to it). I always tell my students that the aim of the MS is to generate something publishable (conference or journal paper). The reality is that not all achieve this (and I still let them graduate) but this is what you should aim for. It is for your advisor to know the field, but you need to ask him/her the question: where is this topic publishable? When can we take it to a conference (or to a journal)? If the advisor can't see how your work could be publishable (if it works out as you plan), then find another topic or find another advisor.

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    You are right sir, thanks really for your candid comment. I just fumbled across so many topics and I kinda burned out. I have started to think that academia is not the right place to make meaningful contribution. Some of the researches that we do are in search of a problem and we then write it convincingly enough that evil lurks unless these problems are addressed; there by magnifying our contribution. I feel like I'll contributed once I started working for some company. But deep inside, I know that this is some sort of procrastination. – Avram Mar 10 '13 at 14:04
  • But can't you more comfortably aim high when you know that you can't fall too deep if you fail? That's why I would pose such a question: to reassure me that I could just calmly do my best without fearing for the worst. – Nobody Sep 8 '16 at 15:20
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MSc thesis requirements vary. It is best to ask your course director.

I know some students in the UK getting distinctions for literature reviews, while other departments only give a distinction if the work is publishable or potentially publishable.

I was in fact at an UK university where MSc dissertations quite regularly gets published either during or a little after the course.

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    Besides your program, it also depends on your field or even on the subject you are studying. – user4511 Mar 9 '13 at 15:13
  • @VahidShirbisheh - Good point. +1 – Legendre Mar 11 '13 at 17:39
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The requirements probably change depending on where you are, but, having just finished my MSc in the UK, I can tell you what I was told supervisors are looking for in a Master's dissertation.

Some of the requirements I had have already been listed by seteropere. Basically, demonstrate you know your chosen topic very well, identify some challenges, perhaps try to tackle one.

But the main thing that supervisors here are looking for is that you have gone beyond the material in the course. They want to see that you took what you learnt throughout the taught part of the masters program and applied it to something that wasn't covered, or in a way that wasn't discussed. Alternatively, you could also choose a topic that wasn't covered at all in your course and provide an overview of it, discussing challenges, open questions, important examples (which is where dissertations that are basically just literature reviews come in, as mentioned by Legendre).

Good luck with your thesis! Unfortunately I don't know much about cloud computing, but I hope this helps anyway!

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