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Doing master's first or going directly to doctorate?

  1. Apr 14, 2012 #1
    I'm currently in my second (of three) year of undergrad physics. My goal is to obtaining a doctorate so I can do research in physics.

    I'm wondering, then, whether I should get a master's degree first or if I should get my doctorate directly? I'm assuming going directly doctorate is a harder path and requires better scores. But in terms of preparation for the future, does taking a master's first have advantages?

    Any input greatly appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 14, 2012 #2


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    I think the best choice is to go directly to a PhD if you can and if it is your ultimate goal. The only reason I see for stopping at a masters is to take a break and work before resuming your education.

    I will add that you should, keep in mind as you work on the doctorate where an in what field you wish to do post doc research. You can go farther with a PhD from Bob's college and a good post doc position than a PhD from the most prestigious university and no post doc research. (Of course the prestigious university helps in getting the good post doc.)

    I personally got a masters first (in Mathematics) and then later a PhD in physics. I wish I had known earlier where I wanted to be so I could have been out of school and working on my career at a younger age.
  4. Apr 14, 2012 #3
    Do you live in the USA? Because, if not, it's actually quite likely that you *have* to do a MSc before you can get a PhD.
  5. Apr 14, 2012 #4


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    Yes, in the US (subject to institution and state regents policies) you can go the direct PhD route. I recall some fellow grad students who were on a direct PhD track when I was working on my masters. They still had to take the master's level pre-requisite course-work but could save about a year in terms of meeting degree requirements. Different schools may have different policies and even different departments with in the same university.

    Of course a direct PhD program will have stiffer selection criterion. It is much easier to get into a PhD program with a MS under your belt.

    I also recall a case where a student "ran out of steam" in a PhD program and converted their credits to graduate with a MS. (This at Ga. Tech in the Physics Dept., but I think that they also already had an MS in another field so this may be less relevant to the case in point.)
  6. Apr 14, 2012 #5


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    While you can apply to a PhD program with a bachelors degree, you are NOT skipping the masters work. You'll spend the first 2-3 years of your program doing the masters coursework, and often taking a qualifying exam and/or doing a masters thesis, before moving on to the PhD. Some programs officially give the masters degree, others don't, but either way you will be taking the masters courses. It's called earning a masters en route, and you can't skip that. It's the standard course for a PhD in physics; most people do the masters and PhD at the same school.
  7. Apr 14, 2012 #6


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    My understanding is that this is the normal route to a physics Ph.D. in the US. That is, one normally enters a Ph.D. program directly after the bachelor's degree, and one does a couple of years of coursework (give or take a bit) before focusing on one's dissertation research. Along the way, one can pick up a M.S. degree "in passing" so to speak. In my case it was simply a matter of filing an application form after completing a certain number of hours of graduate-level coursework.

    Programs that lead specifically to an M.S. in physics (in the US) normally are not intended to lead into a Ph.D. program, but are instead focused on specific fields for non-academic careers, or for high-school teachers who want to upgrade their credentials.

    There are surely exceptions to this, given the decentralized nature of higher education in the US; but this is the general pattern, as far as I know.

    In other countries, the normal pattern is different, which leads to confusion and inappropriate advice, when people ask questions like this without giving us some idea of where in the world they are now, or at least where they hope to study.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2012
  8. Apr 14, 2012 #7


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    In my case, if I picked up a master's degree "in passing" I would be rewarded with an all-expenses paid trip to beautiful, tropical, Vietnam! On the other hand, I have run across undergraduate students who thought that a professor who had both a Master's and a Ph.D. was better than one who had only a Ph.D..
  9. Apr 15, 2012 #8
    I, like many here, picked up a master's as a side benefit of being in the PhD program. You will do all the necessary coursework for it as part of the PhD, and at my school, if you choose to write a master's thesis, you get an additional 9 hours of credit towards the PhD.

    Additionally, it' much easier to get paid to do a PhD. If you're only a master's student, you're likely to be paying your tuition and not receiving a stipend, while a PhD student is much better off financially. However, this assumes you'd like to do your masters and PhD at the same school.
  10. Apr 15, 2012 #9
    Thanks for the input guys, greatly appreciated.

    Seems like the norm to PhD in the US is going directly.

    So would it be weird/inappropriate for me to get a master's in another country first before applying for PhD in the U.S?
  11. Apr 16, 2012 #10
    It would make life more complicated for you. You would probably have to retake master's level courses all over again.

    The other thing is that direct to Ph.D. is standard for math and physics. There are fields (education, business, and many engineering fields) where people usually get the masters, go to work, and come back for a doctorate.
  12. Apr 16, 2012 #11
    if you want to commit 5 years to something you know you want, then get the PHD.

    if you're not sure or if your grades are a bit weak then go ahead and go for the masters. There's alot of funded M.S. in Physics out there, just not at the best schools. if you get a very high master's GPA and a publication, there's a good chance you could go to the university of your choice for a PhD in a related field.
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