Picking my thesis project
May 14, 2016 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Will anyone (besides me) care what I did my master's thesis on, if I'm planning on going into industry right after?

I asked about grad school in this question about a year ago. Though I've been enjoying the student lifestyle in the short term, I have definitely decided that the PhD will have to wait (possibly indefinitely). I've just finished all my required coursework, and have been batting around some ideas for my thesis project for some time now.

My supervisor has been nudging me with increasing urgency to take on one specific project. From what I can observe, he has a utilitarian reason for doing so: me taking on this project will resolve (or at least win him some points in) some bizarre lab equipment-related situation that our lab and an adjacent lab have been in for the past few years, and I'm the only "free" student in his lab who is qualified to do the project.

The project itself: it's all right, I guess? The scope seems to be fairly well defined (or it was: lately he's tacked on a significant extra portion to it...) and the problem itself is intellectually interesting. The two reasons I still have reservations are that: a) the subfield in which the project is situated seems to have fallen out of fashion in the past 15 years, i.e. there aren't really any labs that do this sort of work other than the occasional one-off paper, and b) both the project and motivation behind it are sort of abtruse and difficult to explain to a lay audience (and not for lack of trying: science communication is one of my Things and I just cannot with this, for some reason)

My question is: do either of those things matter, in the grand scheme of things? I haven't looked too closely at the kinds of jobs I'll be applying for after I graduate, but despite its obscurity the project will give me some decently transferable skills (mostly sensor wrangling and some statistics). Assume that, even though I might not sound particularly excited about the project, I would be able to find enough motivation to see it to completion if it does turn out to be the best way to go.
posted by btfreek to Education (9 answers total)
Transferable skills, well-defined, you find it interesting, your advisor really cares about it? Green light!

It sounds like it will take you forward in the direction you want to go. This is what you want in a thesis. Actually, I would be worried if it sounded super-amazing and perfect and it was your dream project, because those are the ones that tend to grow out of control and lag on for years (because the perfect project needs the perfect results and the perfect thesis...). This one sounds grounded to me. Grounded is good.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:53 AM on May 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

Based on my experience in software engineering (I don't know your field) the fact that you did your masters thesis in a certain subfield will be a boost if you want to work in that particular subfield, but not a negative if you wanna work in a different subfield.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:55 AM on May 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

P.S. I didn't answer the actual question. Once you get the first job out of school the topic of your thesis largely ceases to become relevant. Getting the first job is important, but again this is less about the content of your thesis and more about skills, networking, and other work experience.

I might be concerned about the fact that it is hard to explain, not for the job market, but because that makes it seem a little less well-defined and that will create challenges in doing the work and writing it up. Make sure you can boil it down to an answerable research question before you commit to it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:04 AM on May 14, 2016

i may be biased, because i live with a prof, but your characterisation of your prof's motivation seems a little uncharitable to me. there is no limitless supply of good, interesting, not-too-hard, not-too-boring projects. so they might just have motivations other than wanting to win an equipment war, like, actually trying to help you.
posted by andrewcooke at 11:04 AM on May 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am not in sciences, but I expect that you'll be asked about your thesis in interviews for at least five to ten years after graduation. If it's not something interesting enough to you to talk excitedly about in a situation like that, it may hurt you in interviews. I definitely skim the papers of people I'm interviewing, even if it's not directly related to the work, because it's a giant project that the person spent a lot of time on and I want to see how they did with it.

It might help if you clarify which industry you're going into - are you going back to Mechanical Engineering professionally or staying in Acoustics?
posted by Candleman at 11:11 AM on May 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be opposed to either, really: my degree, when i get it, will officially be in ME, and I did quite a bit of general ME/EE coursework this year. I still really like acoustics and it would be great if I could find a relevant job, but it is a small niche in my area (where I would prefer to stay for the time being, for family reasons).

(Also, I don't want to mischaracterise my prof! He's been really great and I'm sure he wants me to succeed, etc etc. But it's also abundantly clear that there is another reason why me doing this project would be good for him that has little to do with me, and I'm just staying aware of that.)
posted by btfreek at 1:06 PM on May 14, 2016

One thing you don't mention is whether there are other specific alternative projects you have in mind that you would otherwise opt for, and how they compare in terms of interest, supervisor support, job relevance etc?
posted by penguin pie at 1:14 PM on May 14, 2016

There was one proposed project that seemed promising -- more exciting topic for me, had more directly practical applications, also seemed pretty well-scoped. After some more reading and discussion, both my supervisor and I agreed that it wasn't viable in its current form. I've been trying to see if I can rework that project, but my supervisor hasn't been very forthcoming with feedback as of late.
posted by btfreek at 1:34 PM on May 14, 2016

The topic may not be all that important in the long run. My MSc was in Chem Eng and I didn't find employment that makes use of the specific research I performed - it was in biofuels and bioenergy and there's not been much commercial progress in that area. (We picked the thesis based on what would make me a good candidate to be in a graduate exchange program with a Japanese university.) Prospective employers and indeed my bosses have been quite appreciative of my particular skill set, earned from doing a master's degree in general -- technical writing, professional presentations, and being a whiz at info gathering/researching stuff.

I can empathize with the "out of fashion" tech situation too. I did an undergrad summer research project with that same lab a year earlier along with a master's student doing a sibling project for his own thesis... it also involved using a particular technology that seemed to have had its heyday a few decades back and then not anymore, but hey! maybe we will have success. Ultimately we figured out why it wasn't applied more often - it doesn't work well enough to make it a viable approach. I figured that out in my short summer-long undergrad project, the master's student figured it out and wrote his thesis on it, AND THEN... our Primary Investigator's own old mentor for his thesis was around visiting, and told us he did it waaaaay back in the day for a while... and also found out it was not worthwhile. Works, but not as good as other approaches. This conclusion just wasn't explicit enough in the published literature to figure out, no one wanted to say it outright.

So... you may want to further examine why your prospective subfield has fallen out of fashion.
posted by lizbunny at 7:06 PM on May 14, 2016

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