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Can I do multiple masters degrees simultaneously?

  1. Aug 14, 2010 #1
    Is it possible to do 3 masters degrees at the same time if they are all mutually relevant and the courses overlap enough? I am finally going to college after 3 years of being out of high school. In that time, I've learned enough about undergrad physics, chemistry and math so I'm safe for the next 4 years. I'm also expecting to continue that pattern so that I don't fall behind.

    In grad school, I have my eyes on 3 graduate research programs which are relevant to my long-term research goals. I want to be a theoretical astroparticle biophysicist. (yes, I just made that up by putting the words together descriptively) It's the study of how life evolves in the universe under the influence of the fundamental laws of physics. It's not just dealing with how life evolves on planets like Earth but also takes into consideration any theoretical alternative biochemistries and other physical interactions that allow information to be maintained and regulated in a thermodynamic system/ organism. For my masters, my three programs are intended to be:

    1. Theoretical Biophysics - studying the physics of biological processes such as protein folding, gene expression, etc in both humans and animals

    2. Theoretical Physics - Studying the most fundamental laws of physics, quantum gravity, statistical mechanics, string theory, M-theory and all of the mathematics that accompany it.
    The dude who runs this is my type of prof since he's into all physics. I'll go with this one if I have to choose since I am also into physics at its most fundamental level. There isn't much mention of astronomical field work in this one.

    3. Planetary Science - This group focuses on the formation of planetary systems in general. Since Earth is the only astronomical body currently known to produce life in any form, I may as well start there and then work my way up to more far-out areas such as life development inside of stars and dwarfs made of degenerate matter in later years. I need this one because it is the only one of the three that extensively utilizes astronomical methods and apparatus.

    Well, there you have it. Is it possible to pull this off in a timespan of 2.5 to 3 years? Do universities even allow such things? I'm more interested in getting my hands on the facilities to do my actual research than getting documented degrees in all 3. If I'm allowed to do this, I'll stick with the original two groups in biophysics and theoretical physics while advancing to a high energy astrophysics group for my PhD.
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  3. Aug 14, 2010 #2
    Considering what you said I don't see why you would want to study those except for statistical mechanics. They are not the fundamental laws but proposed theories. You want to study the standard model, a lot of quantum field theory and lastly all the statistical mechanics you can get your hands on.
    Of course it is, the question is if you can do it during the next 2.5/3 years and it is only one way to find out.

    Also those three you mentioned there have roughly no overlap at all.
  4. Aug 15, 2010 #3


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    Agreed, there is no overlap in those fields at all.
  5. Aug 15, 2010 #4


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    No, you can't enroll in more than one masters program at a time. However, you can study all those topics in many physics departments - my university lumped biophysics and astrophysics into the physics dept so you could take courses in all of those areas, and many other schools do this as well. If you can pick a single topic, you could find a few advisers to help you. But what you're describing isn't really masters research; you'll need a PhD. And just a PhD in physics is fine.
  6. Aug 15, 2010 #5
    OK, I'll just enroll in one program. Really, they don't overlap much? To me it seems like they do but I guess that the overlap depends on the way how a person uses it. (and the group may use it in a non-overlapping way) Also, I misread the website for the university. All of the appropriate courses are in one program like you said. (master of physics) The three that I listed were three different research groups within the physics department. Well, I guess that you pretty much answered my question in the most helpful way.. Thanks.

    Also, you mentioned that the type of topic that I want to do isn't masters research. (it's really PhD) What's the difference between masters level research and PhD research?
  7. Aug 15, 2010 #6


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    A single master's degree generally takes about 2-3 years to complete (in North America anyway). And the way that it generally works is that you (a) complete advanced course work and then (b) complete a master's thesis project. When you are accepted, you are accepted into a department. Your sub-field is defined by the coursework and project you choose.

    Generally, students are not permitted to work on multiple projects in parallel (the exceptions being cases where the projects are very closely related and are essentially branches of the same project). Nor as a student should you want to do this. There is too much potential to get bogged down and not get any of them done. You could attempt to do them in sequence, but generally, once a degree in the field is awarded, you can't register for another one.

    There are several differences.
    1. Originality. While a master's project should have some original content, you don't always have to get it published in order to graduate. PhD projects require more originality and it is generally expected that it will result in publications (or at least, results that will be publishable if you make a contribution to a large collaboration). The rule of thumb that I've observed is 1-2 publicatons for a master's degree, and 3-5 for a PhD, but that could very well be unique to the fields I've worked in.

    2. Time. Master's projects tent to be more tightly constrained and should be able to be completed within 2 years of full time work. They should be well-defined from the begining with a specific end-point in sight. PhD projects are more open-ended. They should be completable within 3-5 years of full time work and the end-point will likely not be as clearly established at the onset.

    3. Independence. Master's projects are often defined by the supervisor with student input on the details. With PhD projects, the student is generally expected to have more input on the direction of the project. The supervisor will often define a starting point and assist with a project outline, but the student is expected to demonstrate an increasing level of independence as the project progresses.
  8. Aug 15, 2010 #7
    From what I can see, you basically took three fields that you sort of liked and painfully constructed some sort of Franken-specialty that includes all three. This is not, however, how science works and certainly not how I'd choose a specialty. Just because you're in a physics master's program (which I'm surprised exists, since my undergrad offers a B.S., a PhD, or nothing) doesn't mean you can't take grad-level chemistry courses as well and it may even be better for you since you'd only take the ones you're interested in.

    Also, I don't mean to cast doubt on your intelligence or aptitude but are you sure you should be making academic plans so far in the future that are based on doing well in three majors that you haven't even halfway completed yet? From your post it doesn't sound like you've even completed your first year. So don't count your chickens before they hatch and such.

    It really pains me to see people handicap their education this way. Sure you CAN get a PhD in biology and physics but should you? Two PhDs only impress the ignorant and laypeople and spreading yourself that thin makes it highly unlikely you'll excel in either field. Remember, your peers are going to be people who dedicated their life to their subject, not the bored pre-med crowd that you may encounter in undergrad.
  9. Aug 15, 2010 #8
    Why are you surprised it exists? Such programs exist all around the globe - I can't think of a country or a university that didn't offer one - and I think it's more surprising your school (and those other schools in the US that are the same) do(es)n't offer it. I'm not disputing anything else you've written, but this really struck out at me.
  10. Aug 15, 2010 #9
    The way it was explained to me is that a master's is woefully insufficient for a career in research and if you only got a B.S. in physics to go into industry or an engineering field, you'd either jump in right after undergrad or enter another grad program. Perhaps my school is the odd one but it does sound as though hawkingfan wants to do research and a masters will not prepare him for it at all compared to a PhD.
  11. Aug 20, 2010 #10
    Hey, I'm back after a busy week...... (sorry for the long delay with replying) About painfully constructing some Franken-specialty, I wouldn't really say so. I've always thought about the actual underlying physics of life processes and what causes it at the most fundamental level. (and the possibility of life existing in radically different forms elsewhere) Up until I saw a recent episode of Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking on extraterrestrial life, I had no idea that others were also taking such ideas seriously.

    As for majoring in 3 undergrad fields, I think that grasping the material taught in the classroom won't be much of a problem since I already studied and understood it myself during my out-of-school years. (MIT opencourseware does wonders) The biggest problem will most likely be the work load with assignments, undergrad research programs, and any other distractions. I guess that I'll just have to wait and see what happens before finalizing what happens in my grad years but it's never too early to start planning if you know your interests.
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