Path to Grad School: Some good reasons to become a Master of Science (MS)



For undergraduate students who want to go to graduate school, there is often a special allure to jumping straight from the BS to a PhD program.

This is sometimes encouraged by potential graduate mentors, partly because they get much more productivity from a PhD student than a MS student.  This can also be encouraged by undergraduate faculty mentors because they themselves have a PhD and a good job (de facto) and so think that skipping to the PhD is going to work well for their bright and talented charge.

And it DOES work well in some cases, but there are some good reasons to consider doing an MS.

For the sake of this post, what I am talking about here are Thesis-based MS programs that have a stipend and tuition waiver associated with them.

There are many such opportunities, funded by TA-lines for instance, and though they often have stipends slightly lower than a PhD stipend, taking this path has some significant positives.

Reasons to become a Master of Science

(1) You will find out whether or not you actually want to do a PhD.

For an academically-focused student, one great thing about a Thesis MS program is that it is like a trial run. Many students discover during the MS that the last thing they want to do is a PhD!

Even folks with all the right credentials, the intelligence, the drive, everything just right, can discover that life as an academic scientist is not their cup of tea.

Graduate school is not just harder undergraduate studies. It is a totally new experience. Field work is great but then there is reading literature, grinding data analysis, sorting samples, reading more literature, grinding more data analysis, writing, writing, writing, oral presentations, writing some more, re-running the analysis, writing some more…etc.

The best undergraduate on Earth may be miserable as a graduate student, and many students who have a marginal experience as undergraduates go on to be fantastic in graduate school.

If you think you want to be an academic, but then during the first 2-3 years of graduate school discover that you really don’t, if you are in a MS program you are finishing up anyway!  No problem.  And the MS fits really nicely on a resume.

On the other hand, getting several years deep into a PhD program and discovering this is not the path you want to be on, could have a negative career impact.

If you leave before the PhD is finished, you will not have a degree in hand for the effort, meaning that you will have a B.S. and then a load of other graduate classes but no way to neatly package them for a potential employer.

If you do grind your way to a finish, but want to get far away from academic science, you could end up overqualified for the kinds of jobs that you actually want.  This is a real thing.  If it turns out that what you really want to do in science is be a technician, or do other hands-on work, not scholarship/academics, a PhD behind your name can be a barrier.

For example, if you finish up a PhD, and end up applying to entry level positions in an agency, you will probably be competing with other folks with a BS degree.  Maybe a BS or MS is the highest degree in the whole organization!  You apply for an entry-level position with a PhD on your resume and your application could end up getting set aside under the heading “what is this?”  I am not saying this is fair or advocating for that position, but I know this happens.

So if there is this risk inherent in starting as a PhD student, why not start as an MS student given that…

…(2) if you decide to do stay in research and do a PhD, having an MS is an advantage anyway because you will ultimately have a better scientific record when you enter the job market.

If you do an MS first it will result in pile of good stuff on your CV for later when you need it. Hopefully this will include publications from your MS- that come out during your during your PhD (a very nice thing!).  You will also have other MS professional develop activities, maybe some conferences, etc.  This means that you will compete better for future jobs.

(3) Students who have done an MS are often better Doctoral students.

It is very often (not always, but often) the case that students with Master’s degrees do better work, get more grants, publish more, and generally excel at a higher rate during  doctoral programs than those who come straight from a B.S.

In my experience, students with an MS are less likely to leave a PhD program.  They are more likely to publish early and often, and go on to success. And, critically, when (not if) the PhD project hits rough water, a person with an MS under their belt generally is better able to navigate.  I know of one lab that graduated many PhDs where there was a trend where PhD students who entered the program with an MS finished the PhD in 4-5 years, where those straight from the BS finished in 6-7 years.  The MS folks often had MS-related pubs when they graduated AND equally or more productive PhD projects.  So as they graduated, the MS-first people were quantitatively much stronger than the BS-only folks.

One line of evidence in support of this is the fact that many PhD programs these days are asking for applicants to have an MS prior to starting.

(4) Your professional network will be vastly expanded.

It is cliche to talk about the importance of networking, banal even, and yet the bottom line is that having a strong network is a huge career advantage.  Doing an MS, and then doing a PhD, especially if you move to a different institution is an amazing network booster.  You will meet a whole set of new faculty AND graduate students AND undergraduates. Yes, some undergraduates you meet will eventually be part of your network!  It allows you to have folks from differing perspectives writing your letters of recommendation (crucial). In the future, people in your network will invite you, and be invited by you, to give seminars.  They might be reviewing your papers, launching collaborations, or writing a support letter for you when you apply for promotion.  Investing in your network is critical to career development and doing an MS can be a part of that strategy.

Arguments for skipping the MS (are mostly weak)

Of course, there are plenty of sensational scientists out there who skipped the MS!   Also, if the undergrad has a rich research experience during the BS a lot of the benefits above are already conferred.

Even so, for academically oriented students, I have yet to encounter a durable argument against doing a funded and Thesis-Based MS.  Here are a few:

-The most common one has to do with timing.  It goes something like this: “If you do an MS you will be two or more years later getting your job!” The problem with this argument is that you will have to compete for jobs when you finish your PhD, and for most desirable positions there will be at least 50-100 applicants, and sometime >150. There is no point in racing to join in this competition unless you are ready to win, and skipping the MS will yield a weaker, not stronger, CV.

-I had a friend once who argued that you can develop your pub record during your postdoc-  just add two more postdoc years and you get better training and are making money.  That makes sense, but there is also competition, sometimes fierce, to get into a postdoc slot to begin with.  And, those slots are increasingly rare.

-Probably the best reason to skip the MS is if someone straight out of the BS finds a great mentor match, but the only option is PhD.  The value of a mentor/student match probably outweighs all of 1-4 above.  Love of a project may conquer all, c’est la vie!

My experience becoming a Master of Science was fun and transformational and continues to positively influence my career > 15 years later.  Students in my lab who have done an MS, I believe, found that experience to be incredibly valuable, whether they continued forward to pursue a PhD or left to do other things.

Overall, if you are considering graduate school and have defaulted to PhD programs, I would recommend at least challenging yourself to logically refute 1-4 above.  You owe it to yourself to at least engage the question and weigh your reasons for skipping.


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK