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Courses Getting a masters vs Simply taking Graduate courses as an undergrad

  1. Jan 2, 2012 #1
    With the amount of Graduate courses I currently plan on taking (I'm a second year undergrad), adding a couple of more will fulfill the requirements of an MA in Physics at my school. So if I plan things out properly and stick to the plan, I'd be able to get bachelor degrees in Math and Physics, along with a Masters in Physics, all by the end of my 4th year (4.5 years max). My question is, does doing the masters degree offer me a significant advantage? It definitely seems to me like a good option, but I don't know how graduate schools would view it. Here's what I wanna know in particular:

    Would they consider my application in the same pile as a regular undergrad with only a bachelors?

    Why or why not is it preferable to just taking graduate courses for undergrad credit?

    With a masters, will I have to do the graduate courses at the place of my PhD program again, or would I be able to go straight to research?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 2, 2012 #2


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    It's a little odd that this is the second question of this type to come up today.

    What country are you in? The way that you're phrasing the question seems to imply that a master's degree is simply a bachelor's degree with a few more courses. My understanding is that in a few European systems this is the case. In north america, a master's degree is a graduate degree, which means you have to be accepted into graduate school before you can even take the courses.

    Occasionally you can take a graduate course as a senior undergraduate student, provided you have permission. But planning to complete the master's coursework concurrently with your undergraduate work is an extremely unlikely scenario because you generally need to have finished your senior undergraduate courses as prerequisites. Not to mention there's the little matter of a master's thesis.

    Your graduate school application will look a lot better if you do really well in the courses you take at your appropriate level and bolster that with some research experience if you have some spare time. Anchoring a graduate level course(s) because you took it before you were ready will not make you look any more attractive.
  4. Jan 2, 2012 #3
    I'm in the US. My college offers a joint (8, 9 or 10 semester) BA/MA program in mathematics. I'm not sure whether the Physics department offers such a joint program or not, but I may be able to work out a plan by talking to my adviser.

    At the end of this year I would have undergrad Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics 1 and 2, E&M 1, Intro to GR and PDE's under my belt so I think I'd be prepared for grad level courses after that. The Masters program I'm looking into is only an MA, not an MS, so it doesn't require a thesis.
  5. Jan 2, 2012 #4


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    You have not mentioned the price of taking the masters, but in general it is always better to have formal recognition for what you have done than not to. E.g. if you should leave school, you will find it a job advantage to have a masters.
  6. Jan 2, 2012 #5
    I haven't looked into the financial aspect of it but I don't think it would be a problem if I finish everything within 4 years.
  7. Jan 2, 2012 #6


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    the point is to compare negatives to positives. if there are no negatives, why not do it?
  8. Jan 3, 2012 #7
    Well yes, that is why I made this thread.
  9. Jan 4, 2012 #8
    In the UK the masters degree is, usually, also a graduate degree, and it involves one year of (really!) hard work - or at least mine did :) Usually you need a good BSc to be accepted into a masters programme. There is no such construct as "graduate school" in the UK.
  10. Jan 4, 2012 #9
    If there are no negatives, do it.

    If it's a financial burden, just don't. It won't matter much if at all for PhD admissions at least in the US. The actual work you've done is much more important than the formal degree you possess.

    If I'm wrong about this last point, forgive me, but it really seems to matter very little. A joint BA/MA program is a nice thing and maybe it helps a bit with looking more attractive as a tutor or something for a company, but if you plan on an academic career and getting a PhD, it shouldn't matter.
  11. Jan 4, 2012 #10
    I guess my main concern is how graduate schools would view it in terms of coursework. Would they be impressed by the amount of work I've managed to do in 4 years or would they object to the fact that I've already completed the coursework for a PhD at some other school and they'll ask me to repeat it?

    Phrased another way, would someone who's completed a masters (like a joint BA/MA) and then applies to a PhD program be viewed as a "transfer student" or like a well-prepared "incoming freshman" if one uses the terminology of undergraduate admissions.
  12. Jan 4, 2012 #11
    Likely a well-prepared incoming first-year, or something in between. This is school-specific. There are a few possibilities:

    1) That they'll let you take an exam based on prior knowledge to pass out of the courses required.

    2) That they'll force you to take everything anyway.

    3) They have no course requirements.

    I think what's usual is option 1, plus having to take some courses (but not necessarily any specific ones). It's usually the case that the main requirement is to pass qualifying exams on certain topics the graduate program deems foundational.

    A Master's degree, as opposed to merely taking the corresponding courses, should not in any way impact how willing the PhD program is to let you skip requirements.

    The reason is that PhD programs have school-specific qualifying exams that are an important stamp that you passed *their* competency check. Thus, even if you came in with 100 graduate courses, I think they'd want you to pass the qualifying exams to show you still know the material at the start of the PhD program.

    They would be impressed while viewing you as a candidate for admissions. Afterwards, they still want you to pass their competency checks.

    There are cases where both coursework and qualifying exams are required, and in these cases you may be simply able to take the exams, and forget about the coursework if the school has evidence of your taking similar courses in another school.

    Bottom line: check the websites and ask the program you plan to attend before going there.
  13. Jan 4, 2012 #12
    Might I add that it appears your question is probably with something like the system of non-U.S. schools in mind, whether you are aware of this or not.

    In the UK, it is my impression that a Master's degree specifically must be received (or a clear equivalent) before the PhD. This might serve for students to avoid onerous course requirements and jump straight into what they want to do.

    For whatever reason, U.S. schools do not have this philosophy. I don't even think the Master's takes foreign students longer; it seems they specialize sooner in undergrad, and thus take only around 3 years. The Cambridge Part III gives me the impression (which may be misguided) that Master's programs are around 1 year typically.
  14. Jan 4, 2012 #13
    I see, thanks for your response. So in theory would be it be possible that I take and pass all the qualifying exams in my first year of the PhD program and then I'll get rid of course requirements?
  15. Jan 4, 2012 #14
    Part III is a program I'm highly interested in, however the funding situation for a non-UK/EU citizen doesn't seem to be too good. It seems if I am to take that route, I'd have to self fund for Part III, and then maybe a few options would open for a subsequent PhD program. Do you have any information about that?
  16. Jan 5, 2012 #15
    I think there are some scholarships you can look into that help with funding a lot, but sorry I am not terribly familiar.

    Even if you pass quals, you will probably have to take some courses almost anywhere, but you won't have to take the introductory ones in the subjects for which you pass. This means you can choose advanced, interesting courses for your first year and almost definitely move to research later.
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