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Programs PhD program information?

  1. May 14, 2009 #1

    I've read these forums for a couple of months, I'm sort of a nerd, so i enjoy working out problems even if i never post solutions to them. :).

    Anyways, I do have a question.

    I was wondering about the difference between masters and PhD programs in physics and mathematics. I've heard several of the faculty in the physics department mention that a masters in physics is sort of a consolation prize. So are there phd programs that you go to straight out of undergrad, or is that something they're lying to me about? the same question goes for math.

  2. jcsd
  3. May 14, 2009 #2


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    I wouldn't call a master's degree a consolation prize.

    A master's program is the shorter of the two graduate programs. It generally takes about 2-3 years to complete, and may or may not involve research. Some are completely course-based while others have a research component. At the end you have a graduate degree, but its value in academia (pursuing a position as a professor for example) is limited. It does however certify an advanced understanding of the field which can be valuable in industrial and teaching positions.

    A PhD takes longer (4-6+) years, and requires more research. Ph.D. students are often expected to be more independent than master's students.

    Some schools will allow students to jump right into a Ph.D. program, while in others you enter as a master's student and based on your performance in the first year or so, you can 'upgrade' to the Ph.D. program. The advantage of doing a master's degree first is that it allows one to try out a field without making a 4+ year committment to it. The advantage of doing the Ph.D. straight out of undergrad is that it can be faster.
  4. May 14, 2009 #3
    Some schools/departments do not have a master's program, only a Ph.D. However, these schools often allow students to petition for the award of a master's degree after a certain point in the program (usually after completing coursework and qualifiers). At such schools, the master's degree is usually viewed as a "consolation prize" for students unable to complete their Ph.D.

    A master's degree still represents a non-trivial amount of work though.

    EDIT: I'm originally from computer science.
    Last edited: May 15, 2009
  5. May 14, 2009 #4


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    Based on what I've heard: the usual path is to go from an undergrad degree directly into a PhD program, and in fact most graduate programs in physics only offer the PhD program. If you want to make a career in physics, you apply to grad school to get a PhD, not just a master's. So in that sense, a master's degree would be a "consolation prize." Of course, again, that's based on what I've heard...
  6. May 14, 2009 #5
    This is what i thought to be true, and of course, a masters degree represents many years of work, i didn't mean to trivialize it at all, i simply meant that it isn't something that is often attained anymore.

    Are these things true for mathematics programs as well, or are the answers here mostly based on physics programs?
  7. May 15, 2009 #6


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    There are basically two kinds of master's degrees (in the U.S. at least). At some/many schools, you can "pick up" a master's degree along the way during a Ph.D. program, usually after you've completed a certain number of hours of coursework. That's how I got my master's. It's sometimes considered a "consolation prize" in the sense that if you end up not finishing your Ph.D. for some reason, at least you still have the master's degree.

    There are also "terminal" master's degrees, which often focus on a specific application area (e.g. medical physics), have specific course requirements in that area, and which often require you to complete a thesis or some kind of project in addition to your coursework. If you wanted to continue to a Ph.D. after one of those, I think you normally have to apply for the Ph.D. program and be considered in the same pool as people coming straight from a bachelor's degree.

    My experience is with physics programs. The pattern may vary in other fields.
  8. May 15, 2009 #7
    Hmm that's strange, I think here in the UK you mainly apply for a masters degree (although you can do the three year one aswell) and apply for a PhD from there, not sure though.
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