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I have recently ended up in a position where I can supervise bachelor's and master's theses, and there has been some discussion in my research group of organizing thesis supervision within the group. I would like to hear your opinions on getting this work started. I want to focus here on bachelor's theses, which are the first longer (more than five pages) mathematical writings that students have to write — if the corresponding thesis in your university is called something else, don't let that bother. Comments and answers regarding all pre-PhD university theses are welcome.

Here is what is supposed to happen: When a student thinks that the time is ripe for writing such a thesis, he contacts the BSc thesis coordinator. He tells the coordinator what kind of mathematics he most likes or which courses he enjoyed the most, and possibly describes his attitude towards some possible advisors. Then the coordinator sends the student to speak with a suitable advisor. The advisor presents possible topics (related to their own research or other expertise) and together with the student they pick a thesis topic and the actual thesis work commences. The exact topic may of course change during the process.

I want to make sure that my possible future advisees find a topic they actually like (enough) and that the challenge is of suitable level, so that they find the motivation to finish what they start. My concern here is getting a good start, not the thesis work itself. I would like to hear comments and experiences regarding the following questions (which are listed in no particular order):

  1. If I meet a student for the first time, is he likely to be so overwhelmed and excited that he will not say his true opinions? If yes, how to prepare the student so that the meeting could be more useful? (This preparation could be an email conversation or something on my homepage.)
  2. Is it useful to list possible thesis topics on my (or my group's) homepage? Do students actually read such pages? Has using such lists brought students to your door?
  3. Would it be helpful to compile written presentations of possible topics instead of describing them orally and on the blackboard? Would it be better to give such presentations at my homepage instead of showing them when a student comes knocking on my door? (My group is planning to make a poster advertising our field of expertise, but the poster can only contain coarse ideas and possible titles.)
  4. What are the most important things about a thesis topic from a student's point of view? How does this depend the level of the student? Related to the previous question, what should a presentation/advertisement of a topic include? (Topics are not supposed to be hardcore research problems at this stage, but hopefully something that gives a flavor of actual research. The exact difficulty level of the thesis will be adjusted to fit the student, and the topic proposals are therefore somewhat open-ended.)
  5. Is it better to first present several different topics and let the student choose or offer one topic at a time until the student accepts one? (I might first ask if the student has proposals of his own, but I cannot assume that such exist.)
  6. What are the most important things to ensure that the thesis work starts well and the student commits himself to it?

If there is an important question that belongs to this category but which I have overlooked, let me know.

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Computations are often the core of good bachelor's and master's theses: do a non-trivial computation, and then explain the result.

You can tailor this to their area of interest; most of the real work is in understanding the subject well enough to do the computation in the first place.

I've found and read a few such theses in the past couple years when doing research online. E.g.:

  • Would you get more money investing in a mutual fund with higher management fees, or in an ETF with higher transaction costs?
  • How do various measures of skewness, or measures of risk-adjusted performance compare?

These projects don't require creativity: they require surveying the literature, and systematically doing calculations on that basis. It's within the range of a thesis project, provides a learning experience that benefits the student, and can result in a useful contribution.

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