Advice: Doing grad school abroad and getting a masters instead of PhD

In summary,The background of the person is that they graduated from a physics school in the US last year with a BS in physics. They did an internship and then their senior research project was binary classification of neutrino events. They are currently working in an engineering role at a photonics company, but are interested in going back to grad school. They are interested in pursuing a PhD, but are unsure if they want to do it in the US or abroad. They are concerned about whether a masters in physics from a foreign university is worth it and whether they would be able to get a job in physics after getting it. They are also concerned about whether a masters in physics is even worth it if they want to get a job
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My background: I live in the US and I graduated last June with my BS in physics. Went to an alright school and was an alright student (3.52 overall GPA, 3.49 major) with minors in math and CS. I did 2 internships, but my first one I basically did nothing, and my second was basically translating code from basic to python. My senior research project was creating an algorithm that used machine learning methods to make a binary classification on neutrino events which I think turned out pretty well. I am currently working in an engineering role at a photonics company, but am interested in going back to grad school. I want to go because I really enjoyed doing my senior research project so I may want to work in a research-related role. I also find physics very interesting, but admittedly I was not a good student for my first 2.5yrs of college and then covid happened which didn't help. After we returned to in person teaching I started to take things more seriously, and my grades in the classes I took during my last few quarters were generally higher than my earlier ones. However, I feel I started too late to take things seriously, so I missed out on some fundamental understandings of core classes (Quantum, Thermo/Stat Mech), and I am only really close to the professor I did my senior research with. I have been self studying to try and improve my understanding for things I feel I missed, but I know there is no way to show that.

The issue: I feel like grad school is something I want to do, or at least attempt, but I am unsure if I would like to pursue a PhD so I would apply for a masters. I have heard it is easier to get into better schools as a masters student, which would work out for me because I am not sure if I want a PhD, but if I do end up wanting to get a PhD, getting a masters from a good school would probably help me apply to good schools for a PhD that I would probably have 0% chance to get in as things stand right now.

The other issue is that I would also like to go abroad, specifically Korea. I studied abroad for a quarter there and loved it, and have been talking to one of my professors I had over there about the possibility of me doing grad school over there. I know my life would be drastically different in grad school compared to a quarter abroad, but it is still some place I would like to go. I would also like to get into as good of a school as possible there (namely KAIST), but I am also unsure if I am a strong enough candidate to be accepted there as a masters applicant. I am considering doing a language school over there to try and increase my TOPIK level so I can improve my chances to receive the GKS scholarship, but I have some concerns:

1) If I do the language school but don't get the scholarship/accepted to a school, I will have spent all that time and money at the language school basically only to learn Korean. Learning Korean is something I want to do, but not at that time/money investment level lol

2) Will a masters degree from a foreign university really add much to the strength of my resume? I have read that it may help if it is from an internationally recognizable university, but otherwise getting a masters in the US would have made it easier to get a job after

3) Related to the previous concern, is a masters in physics even worth it? Obviously having to pay for it is a huge downside, but besides that I have heard mixed responses - if I want to get a job in physics I will most likely need a PhD, but if not then it may help me get jobs in industry

Those are basically my concerns, and am just looking to see if anyone has advice for me - whether that be about what schools I could/couldn't get into based off my undergrad career, whether getting a masters abroad is useful or not, and whether a masters in physics is useful in general. I greatly appreciate any feedback, and if I left out some key information let me know and I can update this post! Thank you!
 
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  • #3
nsypgorz said:
1) If I do the language school but don't get the scholarship/accepted to a school, I will have spent all that time and money at the language school basically only to learn Korean. Learning Korean is something I want to do, but not at that time/money investment level lol
This is an important point to expand upon. If you should decide to study in S. Korea, make sure that your perspective is that your time spent there has value in and of itself, not just as a stepping stone to something else. If that something else should not materialize, you don't want to beat yourself up with regret. I give the same advice to students who are contemplating a PhD in physics. The PhD program needs to have value in and of itself, because it will not necessarily be a stepping stone to a lifetime career as a research physicist.

If your plans are to return to the US, how flexible are you? Should you not complete a masters in physics, or later a PhD in physics, ideally you would want to leverage your proficiency in the Korean language and your knowledge of S. Korean culture. One obvious option would be to seek employment at a US branch of a major S. Korean corporation (Samsung, LG, Hyundai/Kia). [With the recent tax and funding incentives that the federal government passed, they are likely to expand their US footprint.] Another option would be a position in a US intellectual property law firm that has a major S. Korean corporation as a client. Would you consider options such as those? Or are you fixed on X as a goal, and you would be miserable if you do not attain X?
 
  • #4
Technically, he never said South Korea.

First, we can help you with a path to achieve your goal. However, your goals seem kind of murky and unfocused. That's something you're going to need to help us with.

Second, US PhD programs really don't take a MS into account in admissions - terminal master programs don't move the needle, and masters en route to a PhD are treated like any other change of institutions. Things are really more set up for BS --> PhD program.

I'd be wondering if it would be possible to work in Korea (hopefully South) for a year or two. Then if you go to grad school, your story is "I had a great opportunity in Korea that I couldn't pass up, but now is the time for me to return to my studies."
 
  • #5
How "open" (or "closed") are Korean companies to hiring foreigners? I really don't know.

The company I worked for sent a lot of American engineers over to Korea as part of a tech transfer (us to them) but I don't recall any of them being hired and staying there when their stint was up.

EDIT: maybe that was part of the deal, "you can borrow our guys but you can't keep them"
 
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  • #6
Vanadium 50 said:
Technically, he never said South Korea.
True. However, he did mention that his number one pick is KAIST, which is in S. Korea. BUT, if he is also considering options in N. Korea, then he has a more serious issue to deal with than the value of a masters in physics from a foreign university. :oldbiggrin:
 
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  • #7
Vanadium 50 said:
Second, US PhD programs really don't take a MS into account in admissions - terminal master programs don't move the needle, and masters en route to a PhD are treated like any other change of institutions. Things are really more set up for BS --> PhD program.
Could a strong performance in a MS program compensate (at least partly) for a poor performance in a BS program? That appears to be the thrust of several threads here. Or is performance in the MS program not evaluated at all? If it is evaluated (at least somewhat), does it make a difference whether the MS program is from the US (in which a terminal MS physics is not common), or from a foreign country in which a terminal MS physics is common? Thanks.
 
  • #8
gmax137 said:
How "open" (or "closed") are Korean companies to hiring foreigners? I really don't know.

The company I worked for sent a lot of American engineers over to Korea as part of a tech transfer (us to them) but I don't recall any of them being hired and staying there when their stint was up.

EDIT: maybe that was part of the deal, "you can borrow our guys but you can't keep them"
But do you know whether any wanted to stay and applied for employment there?
 
  • #9
CrysPhys said:
But do you know whether any wanted to stay and applied for employment there?

I really don't know.
 
  • #10
We get into the "Surely the MS will help" over and over and over here.

Lets start with the observation: if this were a high probability track to a PhD program, we'd see a bunch of students who have taken that track.

This is where it gets into "But what else can I do?" and I agree that's a problem. But the fact that one may want to go to grad school and fewer than half the applicants get in means that there is not a path for everybody.

Now, why is it unhelpful? I can only speculate, but some possibilities are:

1. It's easier to say "I'll enter a MS program, where classes are harder, and get better grades" than to actually do it.

2. Terminal masters programs are not so strong. You need to go to maybe 20 or 30 in the rankings to find a place that even has one (apart from undergrads getting a MS with their BS) and the one I am thinking of specifically says that they do not take students who intend to move on to a PhD somewhere.

3. If someone struggles at, say, Michigan, and then gets better grades at, say, Creighton (which has an excellentt MS program) will this be interpreted as "they got their act together" or "going downmarket seemed to help their grades"?

If someone says "I got so-so grades, so-so-letters and a so-so GRE score, and was rejected everywhere" what do we tell them to do? If someone say "I want my team to win the World Series, but are winning only 30% of their games as of September" what do we tell them? "Follow your dreams" is all well and good, but dreams are not plans, If the odds of graduate school are below 50% what do we say? Below 20%? Below 5%? Below 1%?

That's general. In this particular case, I think we need a clearer picture of goals,
 
  • #11
Vanadium 50 said:
2. Terminal masters programs are not so strong. You need to go to maybe 20 or 30 in the rankings to find a place that even has one (apart from undergrads getting a MS with their BS) and the one I am thinking of specifically says that they do not take students who intend to move on to a PhD somewhere.

3. If someone struggles at, say, Michigan, and then gets better grades at, say, Creighton (which has an excellentt MS program) will this be interpreted as "they got their act together" or "going downmarket seemed to help their grades"?
Yes, that's why I generally (with some exceptions) advise students to avoid a MS physics at a US school. And I also point out that a MS physics from a US school can actually be a negative. As you mentioned, many of the top US physics schools (with some exceptions) don't offer a terminal MS physics. If you do get a MS physics from one of those schools, it means that you started a PhD program, completed enough credits to satisfy requirements for a masters, but did not complete the requirements for a PhD (for whatever reason). This is what I've referred to as a MS physics consolation prize. So a MS physics from certain US schools can actually be a stigma on a record. Hiring managers in industry (and I suspect members of admissions committees) aren't going to spend time digging into the details of why a particular MS physics was awarded.

That's why I asked:

CrysPhys said:
If it is evaluated (at least somewhat), does it make a difference whether the MS program is from the US (in which a terminal MS physics is not common), or from a foreign country in which a terminal MS physics is common?

<<Emphasis added>> We will then get responses from non-US members along the lines of, "Then apply to Canada, UK, Germany, ... where often a MS is required to apply for a PhD program; it is the norm, there is no downgrade or stigma attached." What I don't know is how realistic this is. That is, how readily will worthwhile MS physics programs outside the US accept US students with a weak BS record? And, even if such a US student is accepted at a foreign university and does "redeem" himself with a strong MS showing, will it matter much when the student applies for a PhD program in the US?
 
  • #12
Vanadium 50 said:
We get into the "Surely the MS will help" over and over and over here.

Lets start with the observation: if this were a high probability track to a PhD program, we'd see a bunch of students who have taken that track.
Actually I've been seeing this quite frequently from students on Reddit especially in fields of Neuroscience, Counselling Psychology, and CS AI/ML where it appears that having a master's degree first is almost a necessity even for domestic applicants. I think that you need to consider that maybe the landscape of grad admissions is changing.

2. Terminal masters programs are not so strong. You need to go to maybe 20 or 30 in the rankings to find a place that even has one (apart from undergrads getting a MS with their BS) and the one I am thinking of specifically says that they do not take students who intend to move on to a PhD somewhere.
You mean US terminal master's programs are not so strong. I don't think you can make that assertion about master's programs from universities in countries where it is typical/requisite to get a master's before applying to a PhD such as what the OP is talking about. So now the question becomes for students applying to US PhD programs with international master's degrees, is it helpful?

I can't quantify that but anecdotally it seems fairly common for international applicants to US PhD programs based on what I'm seeing on Reddit (with the caveat that I know that posters on Reddit are not a representative sample). Often times their profiles are extremely impressive and they appear to be very successful in obtaining admission to top programs. I mean if you were a member of an admissions committee and had the following 2 applicants to evaluate, which would you choose:

BSc from a mid-tier US university
strong undergrad GPA
undergrad thesis
a few grad level courses
average to strong LORs
a couple of research experiences which might include an REU
an nth author publication
poster presentation

MSc from a highly ranked international program
a high master's GPA
undergrad and master's thesis
more grad level courses
strong GRE/PGRE/ELP scores
strong LOR's
more extensive research experience including an internship at a prestigious industry lab
several 1st author publications
conference presentations

The master's student far exceeds the basic requirements for admission to a US PhD but such is the nature of competition to top programs. US BSc applicants are competing against international applicants with master's degrees, often from prestigious institutions. The fact that they will most likely not receive any credit for their master's degree and need to repeat coursework in the PhD does not appear to be a deterrent to international applicants. In fact one Physics professor at Cambridge in his advice to master's students tells them that they should apply to the US for a PhD after completing their master's degree.

Now how much leverage the OP would have from a master's from a top university in South Korea, I don't know.
 
  • #13
Just to reiterate, the terminal Master's being discussed are Physics degrees.

In the US, terminal Master's in Engineering is quite common, and a worthy element in hiring decisions for "industrial" positions.
 
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  • #14
gwnorth said:
In fact one Physics professor at Cambridge in his advice to master's students tells them that they should apply to the US for a PhD after completing their master's degree.
But that still begs the question that I raised. What's the likelihood of a US candidate with the following credentials
nsypgorz said:
I live in the US and I graduated last June with my BS in physics. Went to an alright school and was an alright student (3.52 overall GPA, 3.49 major) with minors in math and CS.
being admitted to a MS physics program at Cambridge or other "highly ranked international program"?
 
  • #15
Yes, that's the caveat. So if a student can get admitted to a highly ranked international Master's program, would it materially improve their chances of being admitted to a top ranked US PhD program? Anecdotally I would say yes baring any specific restrictions against international applicants of certain nationalities due to national security concerns or source of funding.

It would seem that some relatively higher ranked master's programs in the UK are a little less selective than you would expect based on their rankings with regards to admission for international students due to the exorbitant tuition fees they charge. You won't get funding but if you're prepared to pay out of pocket they may be inclined to take a less competitive applicant.
 
  • #16
Sure, but how far off the reality path do we want to go? There are 170 or so PhD-granting institutions in the US. If someone with a marginal portfolio applied to all of them and said, "Oh, and by the way, I'm full pay", they will probably get someone to bite. If they sweetened the pot with a big donation, someone would definitely bite.

I'm just not sure how helpful this advice is.

Similarly, I'm not sure how helpful the advice "All you have to do is find a foreign program that's more prestigious and less selective to take you" is.
 

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