Advice on whether to do an M.S. before the Ph.D.


If you have undergraduates who are thinking about doing a Ph.D., they may be seeking advice about how, or whether, to do an M.S. first.

I’m in a field in which the M.S. is entirely optional. Some people have ’em, and many don’t. (I don’t.) Many folks have strong-ish opinions about whether or not doing a Master’s is good. Some say it’s good because it helps you hone your experience, get into a better lab for the Ph.D., and results in a higher quality dissertation research. Others will say that an M.S. could be an unnecessary, financially and temporally expensive detour that might result in a subpar experience. In addition, sometimes students get trapped in M.S. programs for a long time, as many M.S. granting institutions like to treat their graduate students like the Ph.D. students that they can’t train.

Here’s my suggestion for those who are about to advice a promising undergraduate for or against the M.S.:

Throw your experiences and biases out the window.

There is no generalized reason why an M.S. degree is, or is not, a valuable precursor to a Ph.D.

The reasons that a Ph.D.-bound student should pursue or avoid an M.S. are entirely individualized, based on a given student’s experience, aspirations, and opportunities.

The things you need to take into account in this calculation are many, but they pertain to the student and not any generality that you might have to proffer. These include:

  • How difficult it is to get into a good lab for the PhD
  • Whether professional success in the subfield is associated with having an MS
  • Whether the student can afford the MS financially
  • Whether the experience of the MS would alter the decision to do the PhD
  • The specific program and lab that the student would go to for the M.S.
  • Whether the student has temporary geographic constraints
  • Whether the student has a realistic idea about what life is like in a PhD program
  • The presence, absence, or specifics of the student’s career plans
  • Whether the student’s probability for success in the PhD would be altered by having the experience of an MS
  • and I’m sure there are may more

You know your students well, or at least you should know them well. Dispense your advice on what they, in particular, need and what is in their best interest. Everybody is different, and the landscape is constantly evolving. What worked for us, just a few short years ago, can’t be used much to inform contemporary decisions.

16 thoughts on “Advice on whether to do an M.S. before the Ph.D.

  1. Great advice for those giving advice! I often take the approach of not providing recommendations, but going through the costs and benefits of the various options and pointing out questions they should think about before making a decision. The truth is that only the student can decide what path is best for them and our job is to make sure they understand the landscape they want to navigate.

  2. I have an old post on whether or not to go for an MSc or a PhD, and choosing a graduate supervisor and program more generally

    That one includes a link to a post on the same topic by Joan Strassman at Sociobiology.

    And Meg did a nice post with advice on applying to grad school for prospective grad students and their mentors, based on her experience sitting on an admissions committee:

  3. I’m only in 1st year of my Undergrad, but I at least think that I’ve already found the little bit of Zoology that fascinates me (broadly Sexual Selection, but maybe something along the lines of conflict and co-evolution etc). I’ve been looking up every blog or website I can find that will give me some insight into pHDs, postdocs and beyond. I like to think I can objectively say I’d like to do a pHD, and if its all successful I will attempt to get a post-doc and see where that takes me. I’ve seen during my research that this field is ULTRA competitive, so I’m under no illusions that it will require a combination of very hard work and good luck.

    I agree with your post Terry. I’ve seen lots of people posting generic advice (largely based on their own experiences) on the internet which may or may not be helpful. There’s no doubt that the advice should be tailored to the person who’s seeking it, taking into account things like what impact a Masters will have on their future aspirations, their current skill set and their individual circumstances outside of studying.

    So anyway, I’ve been chatting to one of my Profs and asked for his advice on what I should be doing during my Undergrad to facilitate this little plan of mine and I thought I’d share it because I think its useful. This is from an English perspective, and I know the process is a bit different in the U.S/Canada. His advice was simply ‘If you can get a pHD without doing a Masters, you don’t do a Masters’. Though he went on to say that getting a pHD is ridiculously hard these days, so a Masters is almost inevitable.

    Obviously being a 1st yr undergrad, its not something I have to worry about too much right now, so he went on to give me the following advice on what I should be focussing on for now:
    1) Getting as high a mark in Undergrad as I can (I guess that one’s pretty obvious!)
    2) Getting Lab Experience as an Undergrad (I’m working in the lab this year and planning on doing a summer research project next year)
    3) Trying to do an Undergraduate research project (we do them in 3rd year – I don’t know if its the same in N.America) that is publishable. He said there are the people and resources here to make this achievable.
    4) Trying to publish at least once during my Masters (if I have to do one) so that by the time I’m applying for pHD’s I should have at least 1 (hopefully 2) publications to my name and a good deal of experience in the Lab.

    I’ve also been chatting to some current pHD students during my Lab pracs and there’s not really been a consensus. Those who did a Masters aren’t sure that it was worth it, those who didn’t wished they had. They’ve said that not doing a Masters meant that they were thrown in at the deep end at the start of their pHD and that its made things harder. I think for me, I’ll end up applying to both at the same time and some of it will depend on whether there are achievable pHD opportunities that interest me when I graduate. A pHD is a long term commitment and the one thing the current pHD students have made absolutely clear is that you HAVE to be enthusiastic about the project to make a success of it.

    One question I do have: the work that’s done at my current University matches very closely what I’d like to research in the future and the people that work here are world-leaders in their fields. There’s a whole group of academics here that focus on what I’m interested in, and by the end of my course I’ll have got to know all of them pretty well. If a pHD became available here when I was graduating (either from my Undergrad or a Masters degree), would it be bad if I did my whole University education in one place?

    • It’s not necessarily bad, if that’s the best place for your grad work. Being sure to get out and collaborate with others elsewhere is more important than where you are really getting your degree. But hey, you’ve got a few years. It would be weird if your interests didn’t evolve greatly over that time. Both you, and the whole world, will be changing a lot.

      Your four pieces of advice are great. One that I’d add is: travel! Find an opportunity to do research in some awesome place far away under the excuse of research. Now that’s a generic piece of advice I do give to everyone.

      Thanks for writing so thoughtfully. I’m looking forward to seeing how your blog evolves!

      • Thanks for your reply Terry. I guess you’re right. Its a character trait of mine that I have to plan everything 5 years into the future and sometimes I just need to sit and wait and see!
        Travel is actually a great piece of advice to add. I’ve done a bit, but the more you see the more you want to see!
        Thanks for the kind comments about my writing – I’m worried I’ll rapidly run out of steam. I don’t have much to talk about! We’ll see how it goes!

        • I think that if you have occasional, but high quality posts, then by the time you graduate you’ll have a bunch of followers. Write when something important to strikes to you. And decide exactly what the blog is about. It can be about you, but make it about an aspect about you, and one that speaks to a particular audience.

  4. It’s also important to note, that while some programs at research universities may have a MS program on the books, they rarely accept students who apply to it directly, and it may really just serve as a fall back for students who decide they don’t want, or can’t complete the Ph.D. track. I know, I served on an admissions committee for such a program for two years. The thinking goes there are only so many slots for T.A.s and they would rather give them to students committed to contribute to departmental research through Ph.D. dissertations. Not saying I agree with the policy, but can see the logic.

    • Really good point Chris – MS students are 2nd class citizens in a PhD-granting department. That’s a big drawback for that route. That’s why some (how many, I have no idea) people who want a terminal MS pretend to do the PhD and cut short with a consolation Master’s after 2-3 years, just to get it paid for and get the resources they needed. I don’t advocate the strategy but the system makes it viable.

      • Really Terry? Wow. I’ve never heard of such a thing! Clearly I need to get out more…

        I can tell you that at Calgary, we have proper MSc and PhD programs. Substantial numbers of students apply to both. MSc students aren’t second-class citizens in any respect, official or unofficial. For instance, it’s not as if PhD students get preference over MSc students for TAships (PhD students of course have longer periods of guaranteed funding, but that’s completely different) Clearly the practice at Calgary isn’t universal–but I hope we’re not unique! And I don’t think we’re unique–Rutgers for instance, where I was a PhD student, was more or less like Calgary as far as I can recall.

        • I think it’s a general principle, though not universal, in the US that if you do an MS, you might need to actually pay for it. Whereas doing a PhD, you should always be paid. This is the case in at least Evo/Eco. Professor Schadt and I both did our PhD at the same place, and that was the case with the Master’s program there. You could get a TAship often, but you were lower on the pecking order, and also few students are accepted because they wanted PhD students more (for reasons discussed elsewhere). I’d be curious how this varies with other PhD-granting institutions in the US.

  5. In Brazil, it is still mostly expected that you do your Master’s before you get into a Doctoral program. Many of the good PhD programs expect at least one publication, and it might be hard to get it as an undergrad, depending on your field and/or institution. On the other hand, pretty much all worthwhile graduate programs in Brazil are offered by public universities or government institutes, and are therefore free. And, PhDs here take 4-5 years to complete, so 2 years for Masters and 4 for PhD might well average the same as the standard US PhD (which I hear tends to be longer).

    There are also ways to upgrade your Masters into a Doctorate, after you start the program, if you wish. I particularly like this idea, as instead of starting as a PhD candidate, and then “downgrading” (which will likely feel like a failure, and may be seen as such by the dept., like you mentioned), you can start small, and upgrade later, if you (and your supervisor) feel you are ready. I guess that is also common in Canada; I have a friend who did that at UVic, and (I think) it worked well for her. How about the US?

    By the way, one other small advantage of having the MSc while you’re a PhD candidate is being able to work as an adjunct (sessional lecturer in Canada, substituto in Brazil). It sure saved me when funding ran out during the last year of my PhD.

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