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.