So, You’re Thinking About a Master’s Degree: The pre-PhD perspective
By Michael Whaby
For many PhD programs, completion of a Master’s degree is not a requirement. So, what are appropriate circumstances to even consider completing a Master’s program if you are considering a PhD? Truth is, the decision is unique to each person’s circumstances—definitely not a one-choice-fits-all.
Evident from the figure above, I pursued a Master of Science (MS) degree in biomedical science with very little prior research experience (~6 months). In my mind, the little research experience that I had was enough to ignite interest in graduate school, but not enough to commit to or be competitive enough for a PhD program. I was also in the midst of a big career choice change—switching from dentistry to research—so I wanted more time to make sure I wasn’t just having some crisis.
I was lucky to be accepted to a very unique Master of Science (MS) program that allowed me to take advanced, collaborative classes, obtain more research experience and do so within one year. Most of the other students in this program were medical school- or dental school-oriented. This provided students with diverse interests to collaborate and learn about each other’s different paths as well as the application processes of the various schools they would be applying to.
These are some attributes that attracted me to that particular MS program:
It was one year—I didn’t want to commit to two years if I was “just feeling it out.”
It was with students that wanted to go to medical and dental school, almost exclusively. If I could be surrounded by people that were working towards dental school and still be convinced that I wanted to pursue a PhD, then I figured that I was making the right decision.
It was at a larger university than my undergrad university. This gave me a whole new perspective on research in academia, and it really took some time to adapt. This really helped with my transition to a PhD program the following year.
It provided unique mentoring, coaching and application guidance. All things that made a very stressful time less stressful.
These things aligned with my goals. But like I said, there were almost no other PhD-oriented students in that MS program. So, this path clearly isn’t for everyone. There are many important questions you should ask yourself before deciding which career path to choose—there are always more options than you think. And, finally, there are some clear pros and cons to consider when contemplating a Master’s degree before a PhD.
Some important questions to consider
Almost every PhD interviewer will ask you, “Why do you want a PhD?”
It’s a question you should probably consider well ahead of time. The career path of a PhD is not necessarily as clear-cut as some other advanced degrees (i.e. MD or DMD) may seem. Many PhD students want to become professors, but the majority of them do not. So, when considering a PhD, it’s very important to at least be aware of the careers that a specific PhD will qualify and prepare you for.
A question that I feel like people sometimes ignore: Do you really need a Master’s degree?
Some students have publications and extensive research experience in undergrad. With a good GPA (and GRE score, if required), these students definitely can get into good PhD programs—it’s even possible without publications and extensive lab experience. If your application looks good enough and you can do well in the interviews, then it might be a good idea to just apply for a PhD.
Another question to consider: How will a Master’s degree give you an edge?
This could be a follow-up to the previous question. You might not need a Master’s degree, but there are definitely some advantages of completing one, and I’ll list some of those advantages below.
And I’ll name one more question: If you didn’t do a Master’s, what else could you be doing to advance?
You could definitely get research experience without a Master’s, in either academia or in industry. Say you know that you don’t want to stay in academia after receiving a PhD, it would be worthwhile to get some experience outside of an academic institution. For aspiring entrepreneurs, you may want to consider an MBA. Bottom line, just know that there are other options that will give you more experience and training that could also help to prepare you for a PhD—and some of them pay well (wink, wink).
Below, I’m going to discuss some advantages and some disadvantages of pursuing a Master’s degree before a PhD (assuming that a Master’s is an option—remember, sometimes it is required). And please have mercy on me; there are many more pros and cons beyond what I can and will discussing here:
Advantages of pursuing a Master’s degree before a PhD
In terms of classes and research experience, a Master’s degree will provide advanced training in a specific field.
The opportunity to be more independent with research as well, especially for a thesis-based Master’s degree, offers self-developmental skills crucial to advancing in a PhD program.
A Master’s degree can help narrow the focus of research and can often be a head start to a PhD. Accordingly, the additional time devoted to a Master’s degree will not only provide further training but will also help to solidify the decision of actually pursuing a PhD.
This additional time in research also opens more windows for opportunities to publish research—having publications before entering a PhD program is a huge advantage.
Master’s degrees will also offer more opportunities to present research, both formally and informally. Communication skills, believe it or not, are invaluable in science.
Another advantage that I feel is often overlooked is networking. In a graduate program like a Master’s degree, there are so many ways to make connections with people within and outside of your field of study.
Immediate access to other graduate students and professors—pick their brains to gain valuable insights on what life could be like before and after receiving a PhD.
Lastly, completing a Master’s degree may offer some confidence and comfort when applying and interviewing for PhD programs.
Disadvantages of pursuing a Master’s degree before a PhD
Maybe the biggest disadvantage of most Master’s degrees is that they are not funded and can be very expensive—I say most because there are some Master’s programs that do provide funding opportunities.
You may or may not consider this one a disadvantage: Much of the training received in a Master’s program will be repeated in a PhD program. Considering the first disadvantage mentioned, is it really worth the time and potential financial debt?
To add further to the first two points, as I mentioned before, there are often many opportunities for paid experience outside of academia that can offer unique training not offered by a Master’s degree.
Another potential disadvantage of a Master's degree: You can make great progress on a project, but with the limited time in a Master's degree, you may have to leave it behind and start anew if pursuing a PhD in a new lab/institution.
PLEASE take this information with a grain of salt. I barely scratched the surface for all of the factors to evaluate when considering a Master’s degree, so I urge everyone to take my perspective, as well as many others, and see how it aligns with your own perspective, goals and unique circumstances.