Did the PhD Kill the Masters Degree?

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 Should you do a MS or a PhD? Does it matter?
And why is the Master’s becoming more rare as an option?

Over the years I’ve been in Academia, I have seen the number of students completing Master’s degrees dwindle steadily. I think this is a bad thing from the viewpoint of student development–but it is understandable as something driven by market forces and the structure of tenure.

A Master’s degree is intended to do two things: to prepare you to be a professional in a disciplinary field, and to learn how the tools of that field are used to solve problems.   Master’s come in lots of different sizes and flavors; they may or may not complete a research thesis, and sometimes complete a practicum.   A Master’s does not always have to lead to a PhD; in the past it was viewed as a terminal degree in its own right.

A PhD is a long research apprenticeship in which a student is expected to create new knowledge, including creating new tools and techniques and broadening the knowledge base of a field.  PhD students are expected to perform original research with minimal supervision.  It is not meant to be vocational or career-related training, as I have addressed elsewhere.

The problem is…over time a lot of things have changed from that basic system.
Somehow, a PhD and an academic professorial job became the only acceptable choice.   For both MS or PhD graduates, taking a job in “the real world” is seen as “selling out” or “settling.”  Even though the vast majority of people with graduate degrees work outside of Academia, there is an odd bit of denial on the part of faculty about that fact.

Master’s degrees are described in a lot of really revealing ways by academics:  as a “consolation prize” for students who can’t finish their PhD program. Students who just want a Master’s are told “You are smart enough for a PhD”, or that “you can’t get a job with just a Master’s.”  You see the implication here?

Less than.

Our current model of PhD student training produces Doctorates that are trained for jobs that….don’t really exist anymore.  Very few PhDs are going to be a professor at a Tier I research institution (and, fewer and fewer PhDs *want* to do that as a career!).   So, if what is needed by employers are people that understand research, but are primarily problem-solvers, that’s a pretty good description of a Master’s.

The Professional Masters of Science is a new program that is career-oriented, and breaks away from the traditional PhD/Thesis model of academia.  It combines business classes and leadership training with advanced coursework in a particular science or math discipline and project-based research.  For someone that wants to work in industry or government, it’s a great choice. A Master’s should not be looked down upon, but valued as a different path with value of its own.

Why is there such a push to skip the Master’s and go direct to a PhD? 

Simple return on investment.  Faculty get more return for their time and money on a PhD Student.  Master’s students do not produce as many papers as PhD students (or PostDocs). Their work on practicums won’t count as evidence of productivity for tenure and promotion.  Because Master’s projects typically run 2 years, they aren’t as fundable by national agencies (NSF, NIH) as a PhD.

You can pay a Master’s student’s tuition and living costs with a Teaching Assistantship, but that still leaves the issue of funding their research.  That can be a considerable expense, especially for the hard sciences.   Masters just don’t fit into the Grant/Publishing cycle that we now use to evaluate and run academia.

Right now, most students entering science graduate schools are routed directly into PhD programs.  Think about that for a moment.  At the age of 21—often with no employment experience outside academia—students will chose the research topic that will set the primary focus of their future research career.

Your PhD dissertation is your first major branding statement as a new professional:  “Bug Girl works on female-female competition in pheromone systems.”   That’s been true for me for over 20 years, and directly relates to what I did my dissertation on.  You had better make a good topic choice, because that dissertation is the base upon which you launch your career.

From a student-centered perspective, the Masters First –> PhD Second Path makes WAY more sense than direct to PhD from a Bachelors.  A Master’s lets a student complete a smaller thesis project, and learn HOW research is done, from planning to communication.  They know more about the field, the top players, and the hot topics than they did as an undergraduate.  When it’s time to make that choice of dissertation advisor and topic, it will be a more informed choice.

A Master’s can be a really important first step towards stretching a student’s research legs, if you will.  We are asking them in a PhD program to run a science marathon. Why would we not want them to go into training ahead of that event?

So–how do we balance what is good for the student, and what is good for the faculty mentor?  I don’t have an answer, unfortunately, and as long as funding for universities is in flux, I expect faculty will continue to route students toward PhDs.

For some undergraduates who were involved in undergraduate research, this isn’t a big deal.  I work with students that are smarter than me all the time.  Those kids will go straight to a PhD and be fine.  But not all students–for many different reasons–have the experience or confidence to jump straight into a PhD program.  There are many worthy students that need a little extra time and patience to grow as scientists.

My own Master’s degree was one giant string of research disasters, and yet somehow I still produced a useful bit of science that helped reduce the number of pesticide sprays on a fruit crop. I also had quite a few existential research crises that led me to try to drop out of graduate school at least 4 times, and each time my thesis advisor patiently talked me down.  I would never have made it as a straight-to-PhD student.

When I did get to the PhD program, I had grown enough confidence to take the project I was initially offered in a whole new direction after my first year’s preliminary data.  I had the courage to push back against my advisor and committee–and I’m really glad I did, because I found some cool stuff that was MINE in a way that would never have happened if I hadn’t gained confidence in myself by doing a Master’s first.

Academia is a world where your research is your identity (and your value).  It’s important to make a good choice, and an informed choice. You can do a better job of that if you’ve completed a Masters, IMHO.

And let’s stop talking about a Master’s degree as a sign of failure, and value it as a career-building step.  Not everyone has to follow the same path for the path to be a good one.

Bug Girl’s Graduate School Series:

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