Top ten “problems” with master theses

Top Ten problems during master thesis projects

Quite some time since a top-ten list was posted here … mainly the facebook mixedsignal pages have been the forum lately. Trying to boost these blog pages again though (as well as I can…).

This list is hopefully a bit of an inspiration to things to think about before/during master thesis. Mainly I refer to the Swedish system and the way the thesis are conducted here. In Sweden, for example, we do not have a tutor system like they do on other universities throughout the world. The master student is not allocated to a project upon registration. Instead, (s)he needs to look for a thesis that (s)he thinks fit well into the course package. I think that’s a bit odd, or sad actually. There are quite a few chances things go wrong along the path.

Also, this list is biased from a supervisor’s/examiner’s point-of-view and thereby most of the “blame” is put on the student in the list. Of course, it is not that simple. An overloaded, stressed, and impatient supervisor/examiner adds of course to the problems (sorry guys…)

1. Supervisor/examiner and students talk different languages

A tip is to step back to the time you (supervisor) was a fresh master student too.
When you did your master thesis – did you grasp all the details? (No, you didn’t back then.)
Somehow you need to be modest for the exercise and outline it properly and refer to
the courses that the students just recently took. And the students should also learn to interpret, understand and break
down whatever the supervisor says into bits and pieces that can be understood.

2. Student believes supervisor knows the answers

Some answers (s)he might know, but there are two more sides to it:

No, but seriously, quite often, you can find the answers to your questions on google, fellow students, alumni, and more. This is a good training during your project work on how to gather information from many sources.
Sometimes, lack of answer from the supervisor might also depend on the following bullet.

3. Student doesn’t realize supervisor has many master thesis students

Quite often the supervisor has a decent set of students doing projects with the department.
This implies a couple of things: it is hard to switch context for the supervisor in a short time, especially if the projects are very different. It could be that examiner/supervisor even cannot remember your project without having to look in the database.

Which leads us to the next topic.

4. Lack of communication

There are control documents to read, quite a few web pages (in our case) that dictate what formal actions/documents you are required to perform/fill in during your work. And there is an excellent tool, service, called e-mail, that has been around a while now. You as a student have a responsibility to make yourself heard. See bullet above. There are many students around and to keep track of everyone, you have to …

Now, e-mails you can send away to someone and hope for a reply within reasonable time. However, if you want that time to be even shorter you can then prepare it a bit more properly. For example tag the subject of the e-mail, introduce yourself, status of project, list of questions to supervisor, your own suggested answers to those questions, and voila – life will be a better place.

5. Student underestimates the documentation process

Unfortunately, this is an never-ending story. Student believes it takes just a few days/weeks to finalize the report. Normally not. There is much more work than that. My standard suggestion is to keep a diary (here your e-mails to supervisor are a great help to remember your work). Also start with the outline of your report early!

6. Supervisor under-estimates the specification process

Referring to some of the previous bullets. The supervisor should sit down and write a proper document/project specification outlining the project. This would also help the supervisor to understand the different aspects of the project better. Most often, it leads to down-scaling the original plans to a somewhat smaller project.

7. Save the world!

Students often get the impression they are about to “save the world” when presenting their master thesis. Unfortunately, that is aiming too high. Of course, one should have ambitions – but unless you put a lot of time and effort into your work it won’t happen.
Sorry to bring you down to earth.
After all, there are not too many weeks of work there: 20. Documentation and introduction, literature survey, etc., easily eats up some five weeks. 15 weeks left to save the world… and quite often the last few weeks you find that someone has already done the work you’ve been struggling with for so long.
Sorry for being cynical.

8. Cheap labour?

Is the master student simply cheap labour for the supervisor to do his duties? Well, no, not really. It is rather time consuming to set up and monitor a master thesis. If one does the maths given the amount of money we get from the “government” for each finalized thesis, one quickly see that there are not too many hours that can be spent on each thesis. Just think of all visa extension and reference letters Ive written…

9. Professional relationship

To quote one of the finest actors America has to offer: “That doesn’t mean we’re going to take a shower together”. As in most projects, teams, etc., one does not necessarily have to like each other. (But it is mostly beneficial if everything runs smoothly and you can take a pint together…) One should be able to work together anyway. There can be tension, etc., but one has to go in open-minded and make the best of the situation.

Now, speaking about professional relationships, see next bullet.

10. Step-on-others’-toes

The Academic System brings up selfish people (for example, in the Ph.D. goal descriptions (for Linköping University), it says something that the “Ph.D. should be an independent researcher”, “be able to communicate results”, etc). Team work as such does not really exist.
So, even things like master thesis topics might make people upset. Even worse when students asks someone else than the supervisor – gasp! Unfortunately, to a large extent the academy lacks the concept of working together, a common goal, shared resources, etc. That’s not part of the deal. The problema is that this seems to leak down to the students too.
For example, why not team up with another master thesis team working on a similar topic. Share resources, literature surveys, etc., boost each other’s work and march forward.

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5 thoughts on “Top ten “problems” with master theses

    • Thanks. I guess one has to think out some mutual understanding for the 6-month work ahead (slightly longer for some…) to get the flow going. There are control documents and there are check list, but there should also be some list of common misconceptions, or most common errors, etc. Just as a reminder for both supervisor and student.

  1. Yes … you can refer your new master students to this post prior starting their projects. Pity my time is over, but I could have been much more cooperative and easier to work with…
    In my opinion this is a win-win situation. Having that mutual respect and understanding makes the student’s job much more easier… and in turn he can get better feedback from his/her supervisor. I should remember to recommend this list to any master student 🙂
    Keep up the good work Jacob … these kind of lists are really useful.

    • Thanks, and good question!

      I guess the main differences are two:

      • longer time to spend on a PhD and thereby some tuning towards topic and personal chemistry is involved,
      • a master thesis project has a short-term and (hopefully) well-defined goal – a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

      My view, bullet by bullet:

      • 1. Still true, but after some two years, PhD student should be trained enough to formulate the problems him/herself.
      • 2. After a couple of years, the PhD student realizes the supervisor does not know anything (hehe)
      • 3. Luckily and hopefully, one has less PhD students than master students. Supervision can also be controlled in a better way (calendar-wise) with PhD students.
      • 4. True for PhD too.
      • 5. Definitely true for PhD too. They didn’t learn anything from their master theses 🙂
      • 6. I guess here the issue is a bit different. The projects are longer and it might even be that there is a deliberate lack of specification for a PhD project in order to emphasize on an open-minded view on research.
      • 7. A PhD might actually save the world 🙂 The research topic and results could be very valuable to the research community.
      • 8. A PhD student in Sweden is not cheap…
      • 9. There will still be tensions and a longer time together might grow into something bad…
      • 10. And yes, stepping on others’ toes is definitely a hard-core PhD problem.

      So the question is what would replace some of the bullets that are “invalid” for PhD students – I need to compose a new TTL.

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