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Thesis Change With Only 2 Months Left

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Hi Everyone, 

    My department has gone some serious upheaval in the past year. I started my MA thesis research in June under the head of the department. He resigned from full-time teaching because of an emergency. I was working on an obscure topic that I had no prior experience with but was his passion and greatly intrigued me . An adjunct professor was willing to be my thesis chair for that topic. We work well together and communicate easily. A new department head was hired who turned the department upside down. It will be much better because of her leadership but it is painful in the process. Long story short, my research project involved biofeedback. Our department didn't have an IRB (I know! Not good!) because I was the first person to do that type of research. They formed an IRB,  I passed my prospectus, and submitted my prospectus as part of my PhD application, and I got IRB approval.

     The same day that I got IRB approval, another professor from the statistics department found major errors in my research design. I had asked my thesis chair about those errors and she said there were minor or unnecessary additions to the design at the MA level. Yesterday, the head of the department and the statistics professor met with me to tell me in the most gentle way possible that I should not utilize the biofeedback part of my thesis and should instead focus my research on addressing the gaps in the literature and propose a potential study for the future. They also suggested I should create a more specific definition for one of my variables than what is currently available in the literature. This decision was also made because I have to defend the thesis in April. 

     I truly agree with those changes. However, I do not know how to change course so suddenly. I had a plan of what to do every week until defense and now I feel really lost. My thesis chair does not know about the changes yet but she will find out today. Back in October, she told me to scale back my research design but I successfully advocated to my committee and the academic affairs office for using the biofeedback in my study. The errors that the statistics professor found were errors that I also was concerned about but my thesis chair dismissed those concerns. I am having a phone meeting with the head of the department again today to try to figure out what to do now. I wish these errors had been pointed out much earlier in the process (like BEFORE I submitted it as part of the PhD application).  

     Any advice about how to change direction suddenly? I can still use a lot of my research but I have to restructure the thesis as a whole as well as my mental concept of what I will be defending in April. (PS Now I really don't even like my topic anymore. I know that doesn't matter at this point but everyone keeps saying "This will be an amazing dissertation at the doctoral level." I don't have the heart to tell them I don't even like this topic). 


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This happens. I would say that it's a good thing this is happening at the MA thesis level, which does not matter at all if you plan on a PhD (that's what it sounds like).


I think the new plan for your MA thesis sounds a lot better. You say that you don't even like this topic so why does it matter if your MA thesis includes biofeedback or not? At this point, I would just make your main goal be "do the minimum work necessary to finish the thesis and get out". In my field, Masters research does not have to be original research and usually, these theses are just like what your department head advised you to do--Masters theses are often a "future PhD study proposal", but you are not bound to it for your PhD. 


I would sit down with your thesis chair, talk to them about these suggested changes and make a new plan for now until April. I think it's better to have a well-done, less ambitious project for a Masters thesis than it is to have a poorly done but very ambitious project. April is only 2 full months away, so I think scaling back / reducing the scope of your MA thesis is a good idea. Or, in other words, a literature review/proposal is something that you know if you put the time in, it will get completed. New complicated research can be something that you pour months in but get nothing out if something goes wrong (often something out of your control). With only 2 months left, I'd play it safe and make my thesis focus on something I know that effort/time in = product out.

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Everything TakeruK said. This happens, and I have to say the new plan sounds much better to me than the original. It's much better to have a thesis that is smaller is scope but is tight and actually works. It's good that you found out about this now and that you can still work to change what you're doing. It always happens after the fact that we find things that aren't perfect in our work (or, you know, that are plain wrong) but I have a policy of not writing up things that I already know are wrong. Writing a lit review and proposing a study to follow up on your current work seems like a very respectable MA thesis to me. Especially if you're working on something that hasn't been done before and you're taking the time to carefully define the parameters of the study. That is a very important component of any research. 


My advice is going to be on a very practical level. First, you deserve a day or two off to be upset about this big change that you have to make and the part of your work that will be lost. That sucks. But pretty soon you'll need to regroup and come up with a plan for what you're going to do now. I think it'll probably be good for you to think about that by yourself first and have a meeting with your advisor with the express purpose in mind of devising a new schedule. Come with a draft and be ready to make changes. In this meeting or soon after, I think it'd be good to have your advisor/committee's express agreement to what the new project is going to be about, so there are no surprises later on. That is, spell out what is required and make sure that it's doable in the time that you have left. The next step from there is kind of up to you and what would be easier for you. For me personally, when this kind of thing happens I feel better if I am able to take what I already have and transform it so I know what's already done. It feels good to know that X chapters or X experiments are ready and written up, and it helps me to know how the part I'm going to work on next fits into the written piece. For others, it helps to just get the work done and worry about writing it up as a last step. Either way, I think it's good to choose a part of the project where you think you can make easy progress to just get that feeling of momentum going again. 


Good luck! It's hard but this is definitely doable. Two months is enough time to turn things around and end up with something you're proud of. Later, you can choose to continue working on it or change direction completely; you just need to get it done now, you don't need to worry about working on it for your PhD! 

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