MSc en route to PhD?

Dec 07 2010 Published by under advising, graduate school

The question of whether to do an Masters degree (specially in Science) before continuing on for a Ph.D. is one of the most common questions that I get from readers. This is an impossible general question to answer  because the 'right' answer will vary:

  • for each individual, depending on their goals and skills;
  • for each field, depending on whether an M.S. is valued as a step toward a Ph.D. or seen as an unnecessary distraction for the uncommitted, unconfident, and underprepared; and
  • for each institution or department; some graduate programs view the M.S. as a consolation prize for failed Ph.D.s, others require the M.S. as a useful 'weed out' step on the way to the Ph.D.

A reader recently asked if an M.S. would be seen as a "black mark" on an application for a Ph.D. In my experience, as long as the M.S. was good/productive and the M.S. advisor or other respected faculty at the M.S. institution is willing to write a positive letter of support, an M.S. can even be seen as a plus. A student with an M.S. has (in theory) gained some research experience and focus.

A successful M.S. is also one way that students with less-than-stellar undergraduate records can show that they may have what it takes do to a Ph.D., an option that might otherwise have been closed to them when applying directly to Ph.D. programs as undergraduates.

If anyone is in a field or at an institution where a Ph.D. applicant with an M.S. is considered less qualified than one without, I think some student-readers would be interested to know of those examples.

A few years ago, I addressed the issue of M.S. vs. Ph.D. students in my research group. In general, I like to have some of both, but realistically, M.S. students are not cost effective for me, given constraints on time and money and the need to produce tangible results from research. Nevertheless, some excellent Ph.D. students start out as unsure M.S. students, so I am reluctant to have a policy of not advising any M.S. students ever.

Certainly the M.S. is a useful degree for many jobs in industry, government, and education. But I wonder what my colleagues who are Science Professors at major research universities think about advising M.S. students. Here are my questions for you:

Do you write M.S. students into your grant proposals or do you only advise M.S. students supported by teaching assistantships?

Do you value M.S. students  or consider the M.S. an option for "failed" Ph.D. students? (Or something in between those views)

For those who value M.S. students as an important component of your R1 research program, feel free to rhapsodize. Or, if you think M.S. students are a huge waste of time and money, best educated at M.S.-focused graduate programs, that's useful information as well.

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