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Is it adequate to expect to accomplish some amount of original work in a masters thesis?

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closed as not a real question by Pete L. Clark, Arturo Magidin, Jonas Meyer, Sivaram Ambikasaran, Willie Wong Feb 19 '11 at 9:27

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Just so we are all clear, should we assume that you mean a Masters thesis in Mathematics? Anecdotally, I know that quite a few soft-sciences like Education and Business do not require original research. –  Hooked Feb 18 '11 at 13:15
In what country and at which institution? These things vary enormously. You should ask your institution. –  Qiaochu Yuan Feb 18 '11 at 14:19
I'll echo Qiaochu's propositions. Some institutions require some original work, though not of the quality, quantity, or originality that is expected of a Ph.D. thesis; other institutions expect strong scholarship, but not necessarily original research. However, the thesis itself should surely be "original work"... (I suspect that's not what you meant, but still). It may also vary by advisor! –  Arturo Magidin Feb 18 '11 at 14:40
I've hit this with the Wiki-hammer. The only "correct" answer to this question would be the one given by your thesis advisor/director of graduate studies/dean of the graduate school etc. Anything else is speculation/general poll that should be a CW. –  Willie Wong Feb 18 '11 at 17:05
@Willie: I agree. For essentially the same reasons, I have voted to close. Of what use is my opinion on this issue to the 99.99(9?9?)% of students who are not planning to do a master's thesis under my supervision? (And, by the way, my opinion is different from that of some others in my department.) –  Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '11 at 20:21

2 Answers 2

The answer depends on the standards of your institute, but even in good institutes, it is often acceptable to just present a summary of a difficult paper, with all details filled in. While certainly not original work, it can be difficult for the student since in math often results are presented in a very cryptic way, as part of the conventions of the subject (this is very different in, say, computer science).

It is always better if you do some original research, but you may not be mature enough for that, or versed enough in the subject you're hoping to work on. Original work comes later, during your PhD, which is significantly longer, and having an appreciably higher starting point.

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How is this different to CS? I find reading CS papers even harder in many aspects. –  darij grinberg Feb 18 '11 at 16:36
In CS papers there is sometimes more effort to provide motivation and explain what's going on. Some of the "classical math" papers I've looked at do not bother at such trivialities, perhaps since "anyone who's interested enough in the result should be motivated enough to deconstruct the paper herself". –  Yuval Filmus Feb 18 '11 at 16:40
Maybe we are reading different mathematical papers. Mine provide enough motivation; the problem lies more in the quality of proofs and the ambiguosity of some formulations. –  darij grinberg Feb 18 '11 at 16:45
"ambiguosity" is a lovely word! Carroll would be proud :) –  Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Feb 18 '11 at 19:25

Your question is abstract and needs to be made concrete. Much like finding a husband or wife, you don't need to know how to charm every person in the world, just one. In this case, you only need to satisfy one relatively small group of people at a particular institution.

Identify the people who will directly need to approve your work. For instance, it might depend on a particular adviser. Alternatively, there may also be a committee. As people have said, there are no real rules here. There is no central authority that forces every mathematics department in the world to do the same thing; and so, as far as I know, they don't. After you have figured out the main players, figure out their relative importance. It may turn out that if you adviser approves, then everybody else will rubber stamp it. This may be the case even if the rules on paper say otherwise. Bureaucratic institutions can be like that and universities are quite bureaucratic. It may turn out that you need to have some committee's approval. There may be some people who will not bother to read it. There may be others who will nitpick everything and make you rewrite everything a dozen times. The best way to avoid nasty surprises is to get some intel on the people involved. The easiest way to do this is to just go and ask directly, "Prof. X, I am planning to do Y for my thesis. Would that be what you are looking for?". Later you might have to say, "Prof. X, I tried to do Y, but I only managed to do Z. Is that enough?" If you keep him informed, then it shouldn't be a surprise to you when you turn in the final copy whether he will approve it or not. You can also get information from people who have been through the same process, other graduate students.

This all involves a lot of chatting and people skills and you may not want to do this. However, the alternative is you are wasting time and money. It's okay to approach this in a professional way. I think most professors will respond professionally and provide you with the information you need to make informed decisions.

If you don't have an adviser yet, try to schedule a few meetings and try to specify as much as possible what you might be working on. Pick the project that has the best chance of allowing you to complete everything adequately and on time.

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