Did the PhD Kill the Masters Degree?

 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.

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16 thoughts on “Did the PhD Kill the Masters Degree?

  1. For any student with a technical degree who might even be considering a career outside of academia, I believe that an MS is extremely valuable. This is especially true for those who might end up working with companies that have government contracts. One criterion the government uses when evaluating contractors is the proportion of employees with advanced degrees. Since winning a contract is, obviously, a key goal for such companies they have a strong incentive to hire as many “degreed” employees as they can. And since MS holders typically command a lower salary, this gives them a tremendous competitive advantage.

  2. “Faculty get more return for their time and money on a PhD Student.” I have heard this as well. That is why I was told, as an undergraduate who wasn’t sure if she wanted to get a PhD, to apply to the doctoral program anyway, because I could always quit with the MSc if I wanted (and in the end, that’s was happened). I’ve given the same advice to undergrads thinking about graduate school because it seems, in my experience, that PhD students are favored – they get all of the best TA positions and such because they “need” them more. But I’m not sure if quitting a doctoral program with a Master’s leaves some sort of stigma. It didn’t seem to hurt me (actually, it helped since the PhD program I subsequently applied to required a Master’s).

    “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.” THANK YOU. This is precisely what happened to me! At 22 I was interested in everything, and it was very difficult for me to narrow down those interests to a single topic (I eventually did, but by that point I was so disenchanted with the whole situation that it wasn’t able to sustain me). If I had done the Master’s first it would have allowed me to gain some expertise and narrow my interests in an environment that was much less “high stakes.”

    “You had better make a good topic choice, because that dissertation is the base upon which you launch your career.” This is also such good advice. And it means that you should fight for what you really want to do (as you said, “I had the courage to push back against my advisor and committee…” Sometimes that’s something you need to do, because other people will try to tell you what to do – usually they have your best interests in mind, but we are experts on ourselves and ultimately need to make the final decisions, not allow our advisors or committees to make them for us). I’m finally, FINALLY breaking into the field that really interests me (incidentally, the field that made me leave science for education in the first place!). If I’m going to spend another couple of years working on this PhD, I’m going to make sure that I love what I’m doing and am happy with the brand that it leaves on me.

    “But not all students–for many different reasons–have the experience or confidence to jump straight into a PhD program.” Agreed. I was involved in several research projects as an undergraduate, including a 10-week REU program that resulted in a first-author journal publication, and I TAed two courses. Even with that preparation I was woefully under prepared for my doctoral program (it didn’t help that I came from a family where I was one of the first to go to a four-year college; I had nobody to compare notes with or tell me what to expect).

    “I also had quite a few existential research crises…” This resonates the most with me. My crisis didn’t occur until 4 years into my PhD program, when I had completed all requirements but my dissertation. I wish I’d had a chance to figure out what I really wanted to do before then, say during a Master’s program. But it all worked out in the end. My first PhD program served as the “Master’s experience” for the second PhD program. It’s just that sometimes I wish that I’d done the Master’s in the first place; might have saved me a couple of years!

    “Not everyone has to follow the same path for the path to be a good one.” Absolutely agreed. And that is something I really did value about my first PhD program: in one of my first classes, several faculty members told their stories of how they got to be where they were. And most of those stories were quite meandering! I was amazed that almost none of those highly-esteemed faculty had gone straight through school (as I was doing). I think undergraduates need to hear those stories and realize that they are very young and have a long, long time to figure out what they are going to do with their lives. They should try to get as much experience as they can doing things that interest them.

    Great post, great advice. I agree with every word.

  3. BG – I have also heard it said that a PhD is considered less than a medical degree. I heard a story once where a PhD student was told, “Oh, but you’re smart enough to be a doctor!”

  4. I didn’t do a Master’s, and I had a much harder time in the beginning of grad school as a result (though I did have substantial undergraduate research experience). I didn’t do a Master’s for two, fairly common, reasons: 1) It is harder to get funding for a Master’s – even through RA and TAships, so often you have to have some money to pay for it yourself; 2) In my field Master’s are typically 2.5-3 years, on top of a 5.5-6.5 year PhD. Having a Master’s does not tend to shorten the length of your PhD much – and I really did not want to be in school for 9+ years.

  5. Miriam–that is a really good point. The cost of MS + PhD is not insignificant. I suspect the reason that the average time to PhD has gotten longer, though, is that so much of the first two years is graduate orientation/training.
    (I have no evidence for that BTW, but that hasn’t stopped me from pontificating about academia before )

  6. Good post Bug Girl. There will be some early maturing, exceptional students for whom a Masters would not be an especially good investment, but for most science students a BS=>MS=>PhD would give them maximum flexibility and opportunity to grow – and on average provide the best return to society on our investment in education. Or at least that is my hypothesis. I would like to see some data.

    My MS took 2.5 years (although I also worked ~ 0.75 time while getting it) and my PhD took 3.67 years – which in total isn’t much over the current average of 6 years for a PhD. I’m not sure why a PhD in a biological science should average 6 years – 4 seems more reasonable – but I suspect the poor job market is one reason. However, I spent 5 years working as a technician in (more or less) my areas of interest before starting my Masters, so I thought I knew what I wanted to do and went after it. The realities of what projects were funded intervened – but some of the changed trajectories gave me skills in areas that I would have otherwise ignored and actually got me my first postdoc.

  7. I just finished my thesis-based MSc (insect taxonomy), and fully intend to continue my research as a PhD candidate as soon as I receive government funding. I’m not sure how graduate programs work in the US, but as far as I know, most biology MSc’s in Canada are thesis-based (although there seem to be more and more course-based programs cropping up) and require the production of original research for completion. I’m preparing 2 peer-reviewed pubs directly from my thesis, and published 1 collaborative paper related to my methods, and 1 extra manuscript in my “free time” during my 3.5 years as an MSc student.

    I had the option to transfer into the PhD program at the end of my first year, but because of funding uncertainties, I decided to finish my MSc and complete my PhD afterwards. Looking back, I’m happy I chose this route, despite the extended time and financial burden that it will cause, mostly because I’m much more confident in my research abilities and am looking forward to developing and planning the research project for my PhD. Had I transferred to the PhD program, I may have saved a couple of years, but wouldn’t be as well prepared to fund, manage, and maintain my own research program as a post-doc or junior faculty member.

    Great series of posts Bug Girl, and the discussion following each has been just as enlightening!

  8. I got yer data here, Dave :) Current average for PhD completion is 6.4 years (2007 data). Longer for earth sciences, for some reason. You can see the average times here: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/full/472276a.html

    It has been increasing slowly, but not as much as I had expected.

    And I’m glad that folks are finding these posts useful. I have a feeling this discussion will be the most lively!

  9. Yes, really interesting posts, thanks. As a pretty advanced professor, though, I feel like I am less and less certain about the best way to proceed in graduate study, and about the advisability of getting a Master’s first, or having that be the goal. I’ve seen all of the boxes in the matrix filled in: students who came to a PhD program without a Master’s and did well, came in with a Master’s and did poorly, came without and did poorly, came with and did well.

    The biggest lesson for me as an advisor is to not assume everyone will be like me. I was out of school for 3 years before deciding to go back and go straight for a PhD, and I am not even sure why I didn’t consider a Master’s first, other than impatience. It all worked out fine, but I am wary of people over-generalizing from their own experiences. My students have fallen into each of the boxes above. I have also had students finish with a Master’s, and mostly I don’t encourage it, not because I think they were “settling”, but because in my field it would be hard to get a decent project done in just a couple of years. We’ve had lots of Master’s students take 4 years, and by that time, geez, you may as well stay on and do the PhD. But maybe that’s not the best attitude.

  10. I agree! What I object to is the one-size-fits-all model, where some choices are seen as “less than”.

    I hope for recognition that different students have different needs, just as you said.

  11. My experiences with tertiary education have been in the US, Canada, and Australia, but the latter may be of interest to the discussion. In Australia, undergraduate degrees tend to be specialized in particular fields and usually take only 3 years. The students who do well as undergraduates can then do an Honours thesis year – almost entirely research with little classwork (but usually including an off-research topic paper). Honours is like a quick and dirty Masters – you only have 9 months (although many start the research the summer before), so the projects need to be well designed. A First Class Honours thesis is almost a prerequisite for further postgraduate study – i.e. a PhD. Getting less than a First makes postgraduate support very unlikely. Masters are treated as strictly terminal degrees and are fairly rare and usually only students that got less than a First, but were persistent (or funding came from some Gov’t directed research scheme and they couldn’t find any interested Firsts).

    I supervised 6 Honours students over a ten year period. All did well and half went on to successfully complete PhDs (one with me, two at other universities). The others decided there were more important things in life than research. So, in my experience at least, the Honours was a good way for both a student and a professor to decide on the merits of the student undertaking a PhD – and considerably less an investment of time and money than a Masters in the US or Canada.

    Unless things have changed recently, the Australian PhD is only funded for 3 years with a 6 month extension if approved (and this could sometimes be extended another 6 months, but you needed clout). After that you or your adviser needs to come up with support – and there is strong administrative pressure to finish up and make the departmental stats look good. However, the Australian PhD is almost entirely research – if you need to learn a new technique or field, then you need to arrange to find someone willing to teach you. Class work is not encouraged.

    Over the same 10 year period, I took on 8 PhD students – all with either First Class Honours or a Masters from a North American university. Five of these completed their PhDs in about 4 to 5.5 years and all now have jobs. One never finished and probably never will (but has a job in his field). One decided to switch to an education degree and one took a medical break and then never came back. So, 62.5% were able to finish in less than the US average, but this was with a preliminary research degree and institutional pressure for fast completion (and no course work burden). If I averaged in the non-completion, then I don’t think I could claim any meaningful difference from the US average – which surprised me.

  12. I’m one that’s glad that I didn’t go straight into a PhD program at 21. Instead, I worked for several years as research staff at a university before starting a Master’s program. Because I worked for the university, it was possible for me to work full-time and attend school part-time. Also, I was able to incorporate my research into my work program. After completing the MS in 2 1/2 years, I took a 1 1/2 year break before starting my doctoral program, which I completed in 4 1/2 years.

    Each step helped me prepare for the next and I am grateful for the knowledge and experience I had going into each new phase of my career. It made things so much easier and more productive.

  13. My brother who followed his career through PhD to Postdoc to research to editor of a major biochemistry magazine etc., tells me that MA is worth diddly squat. It’s a shame that I only have an MA!

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