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.

28 responses so far

  • Interesting post. In our department (epidemiology), it's extremely rare to admit a student to the PhD program who doesn't already have an MS or MPH degree. Also, a decent fraction of our MS students tend to continue on to a PhD, either at our institution or another.

    As far as my own advising, I've not specifically written MS students into my grants, but I do employ them as hourly students and have budgeted for this in my grant applications. (I also pay undergrad students hourly, so that gives me some flexibility if I don't have any good Master's student candidates).

  • Nicholas DeLateur says:

    I am an undergraduate chemistry major at Northeastern University. Here, there is a BS/MS combined program ( for which I'll be applying. I take summer courses and came in with alot of AP credit, so I figure it makes more sense to get both a BS/MS rather than just rushing into a Ph.D. program. Would you rather see an applicant who got their BS in 3 years, or a BS/MS in 4-4.5?

    This may be something to ask university/colleges about if one knows they want to go on a research/academic track. Just another option to consider. Admittingly, it's something you would ask applying to colleges so it might be a far time away from when one would need to make the decision, but it does provide a nice opportunity for those who don't know which direction they want to go yet.


  • DrugMonkey says:

    In many of the psych/neuroscience/cognitive science and biological graduate programs that I am familiar with, the MS can be awarded with essentially paperwork in the first year or two of the PhD program. It can also be the consolation prize awarded to people being turfed out.

    At the self-same programs if one continues on, say from the BS to the MS sure it is only one more year but the student pays tuition rather than being paid (as in the PhD programs).

    So my advice is always to enroll in the PhD program and see how it goes...

  • When I was finishing up my Bachelor's degree in geology (in Oregon) in 1994 I sent letters (snail-mail in those days!) to some universities in other countries to ask about doing graduate school there. The letters I got back basically said that they had found that a US Master's was roughly equivalent to a Bachelor's degree in their country, and that I would have a better chance of a successful application to a PhD program at their University if I did a Master's in the States, first. Therefore I enrolled in a Master of Science program, got that degree, took a few years off of research, and, eventually, enrolled in a PhD program in Australia.

  • Psyc Girl says:

    When someone applies to our graduate program with an MA/MSC I would say it is sometimes considered an unofficial black mark - there is concern about whether or not we can allow them to transfer MA/MSC credits or if they will need to "unlearn" things they have learnt at other places. However, we don't apply the same caution when the student enters our program (the MA is often used to "prove" one is ready for the PhD in cases where we are not sure), or if you enter a straight MA-PhD program where the Master's is obtained along the way (As Drug Monkey described).

  • Name redacted says:

    Hmmm... should I assume you are talking specifically about the USA? Because I just enrolled on a undergraduate course that will end with me getting an MSc, but I am in the UK..

  • moom says:

    I'm in economics not natural sciences. I liked to get PhD applicants with MS degrees because it gives me more data to evaluate whether they will make a good PhD. People from more than one institution writing letters and more experience and projects done by the student. We took both types of students but a lot of the applicants with just a BA/BS were hard to evaluate.

  • DNLee says:

    I never considered getting a PhD. Heck, I wasn't trying for a MS either. I was just taking classes and stumbled into research & LOVED it. Though I had *some* independent research experience in undergrad, my experience at my MS institution really developed me as a scientific thinker. I began to come up with good questions, develop hypothesis and understand how experimental design works. How it was explained to me, each training level has a purpose.
    UG: become learned in the subject content. Broad focus, exposure to lots of info. Can have a cocktail tail on a lot of stuff, but can't get too deep.
    MS: becoming trained in

  • DNLee says:

    MS: becoming trained in the discipline. Learning how to ask and answer questions. You begin to 'master' the techniques of scientific inquiry and the theory of your discipline. Your focus is becoming more specific, but your overall comprehension (& acculturation) of the subject is deeper, too.

    PhD: time to demonstrate that you can synthesize lots of info in your discipline. You should know how to come up with a good question, design a good experiment and in the end "philosophize" on your subject area. Afterall, it's a doctorate of philosophy bot biology (what a prof told me in my qualifying exam) You had better be able to know, understand, & explain how the different fields of your discipline are related.

    Post doc: time to demonstrate that you can pull off running yourself. Develop & implement your own research (& sometimes manage others), and get your own $ to prove that you could be your own PI one day soon.

  • Canadian_Brain says:

    I'm at a largish Canadian research university, and it we really don't care about the master's degree. Basically, after a year in the MS program, you can choose to (A) Write a master's thesis, or (B) Get promoted, with departmental permission, to the PhD program. There really isn't a big difference between the process (you get to keep your MS data for your PhD thesis if you get promoted), but there does seem to be a difference between the people that choose A or B.

    If you choose to write a MS thesis, in my experience, it seems like a 'hedge' against moving/dropping out/don't know what to do. The people who 'know' they are getting a PhD just don't bother with that shit.

    In my experience, the real red flag is the student who does their MS at the same institution as their undergraduate. My department is full of these 'charity cases' whose supervisor likes them, but everyone knows will either get a PhD and leave the field, or will flame out at some point... There are exceptions, obviously, but that seems to be the warning sign. I can imagine candidates with the same institution for their BSc/MSc/PhD being royally screwed in job interviews...

  • Foxglove says:

    Perhaps things are different in biology, or in Canada, or both...
    1) I've never heard of a MSc as a "consolation prize" for a failed PhD. If you fail to complete your PhD, you don't get a degree. Period.
    2) Anyone going straight from BSc to PhD has to do a qualifying/probationary year. It's considered normal to have an MSc first.
    3) Several fellow students started as MSc students, and when their projects took off splendidly after a year or so, transferred to a PhD.
    I did an MSc first, and I'm very glad I did. I got one paper out of it, and might've got another if I hadn't been scooped by someone who did much the same thing only better. I would have been lost as a PhD without the experience of seeing that project through.

    • 29 and a PhD says:

      As far as failing the qualifying exam and leaving the PhD program, I think some US institutions give the option of putting your data together and defending your work as a Master's thesis. That was a common practive at my previous school. My current school (I'm a postdoc in Canada) things look more like Canadian Brain's comment above.

      When I was taking my qual I failed the 1st attempt, and it became clear that while I had several years of research to back me up, I lacked the gran-writing experience and many things that my boyfriend knew by heart from his MS were not taught to in my PhD program. That has been remedied, but it was tough, especially since I'd never come up with a full length proposal and such, which was expected of me for the exam. When this happened I saw it as a clear message that although for some people it works when you go straight from UG to PhD, some do need an MS, or at least the experience would be beneficial to familiarize yourself with not only the research but the methodology as far as how to write things up and such if your PhD program doesn't really focus on teaching you those skills.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    In the biological sciences, I see an MS as a student's first real intro to what being a scientist is all about. For the MS students I have either directly or co-supervised, nearly all of them use it as a solid foundation for considering what they "really" want to do and often feel the experience was instrumental in focusing them on their future goals, be it in a PhD program or elsewhere.

    Related to this, I have all of my fresh-out-o-undergrad graduate students enroll first as MS students before switching into the PhD program (if they decide to). This seems to work well for both myself and the students, giving us flexibility if either party decides things are going to progress well.

  • anonymous says:

    I am in a top 10 biology dept at a R1 university. Labs here take master's students and BA/BS students, and there doesn't seem to be a bias against either type. If anything, profs prefer to admit MA students because they usually require a shorter "training" period as they've been doing independent academic research for longer. Also MA students typically are more focused - they are coming to join a particular lab and they know what they want to do. It's definitely not a black mark.

    Still there is a ratio of about 10:1 MA:BA/BS among students, and this is probably because most students would rather go straight to PhD (it's a much better deal for students - fewer years and you get paid for the entire thing).

  • Asphericity says:

    I'm an assistant prof in a small, private school with a PhD program in physics. We do take applicants with MS degrees -- as moom said above, it's another data point by which to judge someone's potential. However, we have also had the situation Psyc Girl describes, where someone has to relearn or unlearn things they learned in their MS program, and this can be unpleasant and time-consuming for all involved. Thus, applicants with pre-existing MS degrees aren't at a particular advantage or disadvantage with us. Sometimes people apply specifically to get an MS with us, but we usually encourage those people to switch to the PhD track if funding exists to support them.

    I was able to get my MS en route to my PhD just by filling out a form, and I did so because it felt like a milestone and made me proud that I had accomplished something. My current PhD students can get an MS by taking an extra oral exam, and I will probably encourage them to do so as well. An MS in physics will allow a student to teach physics at community college (or even as an adjunct for us, should the need and funding arise), which could be quite useful extra money and professional development for some people.

  • [...] Professor has a new post on the role of taking a Master’s degree prior to entering and/or completing a Ph.D. There are a couple of reader questions so go over there [...]

  • mathgirl says:

    In pure mathematics, the situation is very different between US and Canada. In the US, the MSc tends to be a consolation degree for those who couldn't finish their PhD, either because they didn't finish their dissertation, or because they failed at their quals. In Canada, doing an MSc is the norm, and in fact, some good students do stay in their undergraduate institution to get a MSc and "have better chances" at getting in the school they want for their PhD.

    I think the difference may be due to how the grant system is structured. NSERC really encourages (almost forces) profs to take students at any costs (in pure mathematics we don't have labs, and we don't need students for continuing our research program). I know NSF encourages students, but not as much as NSERC. Most of our grants in pure math come from these agencies.

  • moom says:

    At many US universities once you have sufficient grad credit for a masters degree you can file the paperwork to get a masters degree. I usually recommended students do this.

  • GMP says:

    There are MS students in my department, but those who enroll for MS only are usually self-supported. You can get an MS en route towards a PhD [there is a course-only option, or an option with a couple of courses less but a required thesis (I require 1 published paper before an MS thesis)]. Occasionally, I will let the student go with MS only as a consolation prize if I think they are ultimately not a good fit for my group.

    Students who have a MS from another institution are sometimes more mature and more focused than those coming fresh out of their BS, but not always. Overall, in my field that features good industry employment capabilities, MS is a respectable degree, which does bump one's employability and salary and is probably a better value for many industry-minded students than a PhD.

  • Matt says:

    I'm currently a M.Sc. student studying geology at a relatively large Canadian research university, and I must say, I've never heard of a Master's degree being a "black mark" or considered as a "failed Ph.D." before. In my case specifically, I decided to do the Masters before the Ph.D. because I felt it would give me some much-needed experience that I could then carry forward into a Ph.D. program. While I conducted my own research project for my undergraduate B.Sc. thesis, the things I'm doing right now as a M.Sc. student are much different (i.e. grant writing, preparing journal manuscripts, conducting my own field work), and I feel are necessary skills that I am now learning, in preparation for a Ph.D. Maybe it's just the norm to get a M.Sc. before a Ph.D. in Canada (... as it seems from the previous comments on this post).

    I just don't understand why someone applying for a Ph.D. (that already has a M.Sc.) would be "black marked". If you had to choose between two people, one with a M.Sc., and one coming straight from a B.Sc., wouldn't you be more likely to take the one that already has refined academic skills (as mentioned previously), has several published papers, and just overall more experience and contacts in academia?

    Also, and I don't know if this is similar for other fields, but in geology, if you decide you want to get a job in industry, you're virtually un-hireable with a Ph.D., just because most companies assume they can't afford your status, or feel you've become to specialized to do something more generalized. But with a M.Sc., you'll get paid more than the students hired straight out of an undergrad program. So in this case, it's actually beneficial to get a M.Sc. over a Ph.D.

    • Canadian_Brain says:

      Hey Matt,

      Its not a black mark "per se" but the circumstances surrounding your MSc need to be investigated by your future employer... But that can be cleared up in two seconds with a call to your old supervisor. But PIs who don't bother to find out can get saddled with a student who was turfed out the program

      • Matt says:

        Yeah, I totally understand where you're coming from; there's a big difference between someone who gets a M.Sc. degree on their own accord, as a step toward a Ph.D., and someone who initially attempted a Ph.D. but then flunked out, getting a M.Sc. as a "consolation prize".

        I would hope that any PI I apply to (for a Ph.D., after completing my M.Sc.) would look into the circumstances, or at the very least (as you said) consult my M.Sc. advisor, to realize that I didn't do the latter. I'm still young, and am absolutely loving the M.Sc. program, and look forward to the fact that once I have my Ph.D. I will have had the opportunity to work in two different universities, on two different projects (in slightly different, but still related fields), have twice as many contacts, have received more grants, and have had several more publications than someone going straight into the Ph.D. program from their B.Sc.

  • gerty-z says:

    In my program (basic biomedical science) we don't have a terminal master's degree. This degree is only given to students that do not pass their qualifying exam. It was the same at every program that I knew of in my field. I don't think it was considered BAD if you had one, but it didn't get you anything.

  • AnonProf says:

    Let me try to describe a standard system in my field, computer science, as best as I understand it. Typically a university will have two programs: a PhD program and a MS program. Students can apply to one or to the other. The two programs are radically different.

    The MS program tends to be taken by students with a professional interest: they are headed to industry after the MS degree. (In other words, the MS degree is a terminal degree.) The program is designed accordingly, and tends to be focused on their needs. Also, MS students tend to pay their own way, and the tuition can be high.

    Thee PhD program is for students headed towards a research track. Students enrolled in the PhD program can receive a MS degree fairly easily along the way. There's little distinction made between PhD students who are pre-MS vs post-MS, nor between students who got a PhD and a MS vs students who got a PhD but not a MS along the way. The main reason to do a MS along the way is that it's good practice for a PhD dissertation: it's like a mini-PhD dissertation. Students in the PhD program tend to have their tuition, fees, and a stipend paid for them (regardless of whether they are pre-MS or post-MS). Some companies who hire summer interns pay the interns more if they have a MS than if they only have a BS, so there is some potential financial benefit to getting a MS along the way, but it's relatively small. There is also the potential that for students who enroll in the PhD program but cannot make it, we give them a MS as a consolation; but this is a relatively low fraction of students.

    Admission to the PhD program tends to be much more competitive than admission to the MS program.

    I suggest that students choose which kind of program to enroll in, based upon their career goals. For students who know their career goal is research and a PhD, they should apply to PhD programs. It's usually not in your interest to join a MS program, if your real goal is a PhD. (Exception: Some foreign students who cannot get admitted into competitive PhD programs will enroll in a PhD or MS program at a less competitive university, then get a MS along the way, and after they get the MS, apply to admission at a more competitive PhD program. Also, the education system abroad is often very different, so some foreign students who are headed towards a PhD may get a MS somewhere else first, because that's just how it's done in their education system. And of course there are some students who join a MS program, but then get excited about research and apply to a PhD program after that. Usually these are not routes I would advise my own undergraduate students to follow.)

    • CSgrad says:

      I'm an MS student in computer science, intending to apply for PhD programs next year. I am not a foreign student. I knew that I wanted a PhD eventually when I applied for the MS. I went for the MS first because:

      - My undergraduate major was in a non-CS field and I figured I'd be more competitive for a PhD with more formal CS education.

      - Because of (now-successfully-treated) medical problems, my undergrad grades were...not very good. I wanted to prove that I could perform well in classes.

      - I had a good research job in industry and wanted to save up more money before going back to school full-time. I can do the MS as a part-timer while building up lots of full-time research experience through work, and work pays for a nice chunk of the degree.

      I don't think any of these are particularly uncommon in CS.

  • Willy says:

    I did a BSc., MSc., and PhD in the physical sciences, all in Canada and only recently finishing my PhD.

    I initially enrolled in an MSc. with the intention of 'rolling over' into a PhD. Many Canadian institutions do not allow you to enroll directly into a PhD program, instead requiring you to qualify by proving yourself with your classes. However, after a year and a half I decided to finish and defend the MSc before continuing to work with the same professor because of funding issues. At my graduate school finishing an MSc and then starting a PhD restarts the funding clock and I was able to get a prestigious fellowship for all three years of my PhD (following 2 years of a research based MSc) that I would not have been eligible for had I rolled over. As well, students were eligible for more total years of stipend if they completed two separate degrees. Completing both degrees is the norm at my grad school, with only maybe 20% of students rolling over into the PhD without finishing the Masters program even though most of us stayed to do PhDs with our same advisers. It was also very helpful to have been through writing a formal thesis and having a defense at the Master's level before being faced with my PhD defense!

  • An MS degree, or rather the training that one receives to earn this degree, is of primary benefit to the student that is unclear on their career path. Nowadays, it probably does not have a major bearing on one's ability to get a job. Sometimes, it may serve as part of a backup plan for an unsuccessful attempt to enter into medical school. Other times, M.Sc. graduate studies may provide an opportunity for a student that is not necessarily outstanding scholastically in their undergraduate years to demonstrate their true potential for research.

    Personally, I would advise against pursuing a M.Sc. degree if one is not seriously contemplating going on further later in their education to begin with. This does not have to be into a Ph.D. program, but could include other careers where the extra scientific training would be helpful. In my experience, for technical positions, employers are more likely to hire B.Sc. students that have graduated from coop-education programs than M.Sc. graduates. In terms of management and leadership positions, the applicants with a Ph.D. degree will almost always fare much better than those with an M.Sc. degree. This is probably because those that are doing the hiring are well aware of the difference between the requirements for these degrees. There is certainly no shortage of people with Ph.D. degrees that are looking for work so the competition is stiff.

  • miedvied says:

    The majority of biostatistics PhD programs actually require a master's in biostats as a prerequisite to entry into the PhD. There's some overlap in the coursework (i.e., Epi101), but for the most part, the MS isn't just the first 2 years of the PhD - it's actually a real and separate MS. Likewise, one doesn't get another free MS for dropping out part-way through the phd.