Master of Something

Since last week’s post, you’ve decided to go to graduate school. Congrats!

The big question now is which degree are you going to pursue? I don’t mean the subject area you going to study (please see last week’s post to remind yourself that you should have a passion for what you’re studying before your start), but whether you’re going to get an MS or go straight for the PhD*.

There are pros and cons of each approach. Spoiler alert:  I got an MS before I started my PhD, but a lot of my friends did not. So hopefully I’ve got enough perspective on both sides. No guarantees.

The MS isn’t “easier” than the PhD in terms of work, because you have so much less time in a MS program to accomplish an awful lot. I found that my MS was WAY harder in terms of hours working every day than my PhD. There are a lot of ways to view the “MS” vs. “PhD” dichotomy. So I’m going to frame this post as a flow chart.

An MS could be a good option if one of the following applies to you:

The MS is if you are kind of interested in a subject, but aren’t sure you want to commit to graduate school forever. You’re super excited about a certain subject, like the sex life of ants, the eating habits of grizzly bears, or the genetics of salmon. You’ve decided to go to graduate school, but aren’t sure you’ve got it in you to get a PhD. No worries! There’s a degree for that.

The MS is if you want to gain expertise, but you don’t want to go into academia, for which you need a PhD. Let’s say you need to develop  your expertise in an area, either in base knowledge about a particular subject, e.g., machine learning or in research techniques, e.g., statistical analysis. You start learning about it on your own and decide you want to learn more.  An MS is a great way to gain that knowledge in a formal setting (and make clear on a future resume that you’ve developed that expertise, preferably with honors). If that’s what you want/need, then an MS is great.  So stop to think, “Do I really need a PhD in this subject?”  Generally, unless you’re going into academia, the likely answer is “no.”   That makes an MS a great option.

The MS is if you are sure about graduate school, but unsure about what you want to study and need more time to figure it out. You’re super excited about a certain subject, like the sex life of ants, the eating habits of grizzly bears, or the genetics of salmon (yes, deja vu all over again), but you’re not sure what aspect of those subjects you want to study. Are you interested in field work? Are you interested in experimental work? Do you hate statistics and get the urge to throw your computer out of the window when R boots up? If you don’t know how you might respond to these situations, and you’re worried about it, take some more time to figure it out. I’ve found most of the people I know who have a MS come into their PhD more focused and with a better set of skills. They’ve already done the graduate school transition, and know what to expect.  They’ve crystalized what they want to study, so they are ready to go out of the gate.

The MS is if you want to get your PhD, but your undergraduate GPA is really low. Did you spend too much time finding yourself in college, plunging energetically into the social scene, prioritizing partying? Did you discover your love of research only after this extended adolescence had taken its toll on your GPA? Getting an MS can help. In general, it can be easier to get into an MS program for biology than a PhD program. There is less risk to the professor, because MS students don’t stick around as long (2-3 years instead of 5-10 (yes, I know someone who did a 10 year PhD)).  Moreover, if you have an MS in hand, some schools are more likely to overlook your undergraduate deficiencies. You’ve demonstrated that you can do the graduate school thing, and so people are more willing to see that you’ve left your misspent youth behind you.

What if you’ve enrolled in a PhD program, and you find that things aren’t quite right?

The MS may be a good solution if you start your PhD and then decided after two years that graduate school is not for you. There is no shame in realizing this. Seriously, in the previous post, I mentioned that graduate school isn’t for everyone.  You may not discover that before you start but when the romance has faded and you take a hard look, you need an exit strategy.  It may that you decide that you really don’t want to be an academic (see above), and so the PhD stops being the entry ticket to that life career.  You may just decide that you’d rather stop going into debt and start making money, but you want something to show for your time in graduate school.  Then getting an MS might be an option.  (It actually may be a good idea to discreetly explore how viable this is before entering a particular PhD program.  Life happens.)

The MS is if you start your PhD, but after a few years you realize you and your advisor really aren’t compatible. This is a big one, that I don’t think people use enough (entirely anecdotal evidence). We’ll talk next week about picking a PhD advisor, and how important it is that you have someone with whom you are compatible. If you get a few years in, and realize that you and your advisor just aren’t working out, this doesn’t have to be the end of your career. Leaving might be a good choice, and if you leave with an MS, it could open doors to other, better, situations. Importantly, the professor benefits from this situation as well. It’s good for them to get their students to finish (this is a statistic many departments/universities track on their professors), and if you’re not going to work well with them long term, then they lose nothing by you finishing earlier. If you’re miserable with your boss, but you still want to keep pursuing academia, explore this option as a solution.

*This post is American system specific. In the European, Australian, and New Zealand systems, one is REQUIRED to have a MS before pursuing a PhD. I’ll likely talk about the pros and cons of these systems in a later post.


2 comments on “Master of Something

  1. bchaller says:

    Great post. “discretely” -> “discreetly”, though. Feel free to delete this comment after correcting. :->

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