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Second Masters or PhD

  1. Nov 22, 2013 #1
    Hi I would be grateful for some advice

    I graduated two years ago from Cambridge with a Pass (nowhere near high marks) in PartIII and I finished my Bsc with first class honours. I've tried getting a PhD placement at several universities in the UK with no success. I am thinking about trying again this year, applying in Europe as well, and was wondering if I should redo a Masters somewhere so that I may improve my chances of securing a PhD placement later on or should I persevere with the grades I already have.

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 22, 2013 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    You should seek this advice from your old MSc supervisor.
    Advising you properly requires knowing more details about how you think and work.
  4. Nov 26, 2013 #3
    Also seek advice from the places where you failed to get a placement. Ask for detailed reasons why you failed to get the placement, and what you might do to stand more chance "next time", if there is any chance of a next time!

    If you are seeking to do research in "sexy" areas like quantum gravity, it might be there is nothing you can do, bad part III is unlikely to cut it, and even if you get a good MSc elsewhere that failure is still a stigma, the current crop of high flyers in part III are still likely to trump your bad part III + MSc. You may need to look at pursuing research in areas where supply is less than demand, or at making lots of money in banking :)
  5. Nov 26, 2013 #4
    thanks for the reply and perspective

    Although I agree that a bad partIII + MSc (a good one I hope) will not trump the part III distinctions, they still are a limited number of those each year joining the pool. My hope is that a good MSc from a good European institution with an interesting thesis can amount to a merit and significantly improve my chances overall. As for area, previously I did apply for string theory placements, now I'm leaning towards fundamental quantum mechanics which I don't think is the sexiest of areas. Banking is a last resort.

    All the best
  6. Nov 27, 2013 #5
    Of course fundamental quantum mechanics is a sexy area! Look at all the popular books on that darned cat, and multiverses. In my day (back in the 1980s), with my 'average' MSc, I tried to lean towards fundamental quantum mechanics, when I realised "cosmology" was a no-no, but without any luck. But I had much luck when I started to "lean anywhere" in physics or computing. I really shouldn't be let loose in the lab, but am not a bad programmer, so I avoided applying for lab posts, but didn't have any difficulty finding a PhD studentship that involved numerical modelling, and a bit of applied maths. OK, it was magnetohydrodynamics, which isn't obviously sexy, but it has hidden charms.

    Also, be careful about thinking that a Cambridge degree will trump a degree from other universities. It might get you into banking more easily, but not into other universities more easily. Think about it. If other universities counted a Cambridge part III as better than an MSc they would be belittling themselves! So you are not just competing with average part III students, but also with every other average MSc student from every other university in the world.

    My thirty years of studying and working in UK Universities tells me that taking a second MSc, and even getting a distinction, is unlikely to help. Professors with one MSc (i.e., 99.9% of them) will think, "I'd have got a distinction if I'd had a second chance, what's he trying to prove..."

    So I think it's time to bite the bullet, take a cold hard look at yourself, realise you aren't (first wrangler) Michael Atiyah, realise that you can't choose exactly what you want to do, and take any studentship/job within reason, (i.e., anything but banking... :))
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2013
  7. Nov 27, 2013 #6


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    I agree with this. When we are looking for PhD students we do not automatically rate students from Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial etc higher than students from smaller universities. In fact, the reverse is sometimes true in the physical sciences (as opposed to social sciencies, if you want to become a solicitor it is hard to beat an Oxbridge degree). The reason is that the fierce competion for a place at the top universites has resulted in situation where many of the students who are accepted have been trained as good "test takers": they score high on exams and gets lots of A* but that does not neccsarily translate into doing well when the time comes to doing a PhD. I have personally had a few bad summer students from top universities (and summer students/MSc projects is how we usually recruit PhD students). The declining quality of science students graduating from Russell group universities is one of those topics people academics in the UK tend to perpetually discuss and complain about over coffee.

    I should perhaps mention that I am an experimentalist, perhaps things are different if you do theory (although I have spoken to many theorists that also struggle to find good PhD students).

    My advice in this case would be to actually have a look at the positions being advertised (say on findaphd.com) and see if you can find a project in another area which looks interesting. There are actually y plenty of openings (at least in experimental physics) and in many cases someone looking for a new student have to advertise for months before anyone even expresses an interest. I just talk to a theorist (working in QIP) who had just found a new PhD student: it had taken him year to find someone to fill that position.
  8. Nov 27, 2013 #7
    I've had more hard looks at myself since I left uni than I care to mention. I've even tried to abandon it all and do something completely unrelated. It seems that physics is the only thing I'm remotely good at.

    The only thing I may be trying to prove is that the Part III grades don't represent me and unfortunately apart from my good BSc they're all I have. The main reason though of going for another Masters is the fact that I don't feel prepared for research and I am under the (misguided?) impression that I need a proper masters to be able to continue my career.

    I appreciate your insight but do you really believe that a second Master's will do more harm than good?

    From the above comments it seems that a second (two year masters i.e. one that includes a thesis year) might be highly welcomed. It will make me more prepared I think. Am I misunderstanding?

    all the best
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2013
  9. Nov 27, 2013 #8


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    Firstly, are you planning to apply to a DTC (doctoral training centre)? Or are you looking for a "regular" position? If the latter, how many potential PhD supervisors have you contacted?

    I suspect you are to some extent overestimating the need for having great grades. The UK is very different from the US. Yes, grades matter but as long as you meet any formal requirements (some -but far from all- universities will only let you start if you have have a first) there is still a chance that you can convince someone that you are a good candidate, especially if you have e.g. a good MSc project to show them. If you meet all requirements it is really up to the supervisor if he/she want to hire you.

    One of my students "only" had a BSc when she started (but with good grades), but we arranged it so that she got an extra year, doing a 4 year PhD means that she has been able to take the relevant MSc courses. The reason she got the position was that she had done a very good final year project which has impressed one of my collegues and he recommended her.

    Also, I might be wrong, but doesn't e.g. Imperial run an "american style" 4-year DTC for PhD students where the first year is essentially an MSc?
    Have you considered that as an option?
  10. Nov 27, 2013 #9
    Unfortunately my BSc project was the only bad mark I had and I chose not to do one at Part III (mistake in retrospect) so I have only my grades. I have considered the 4 year PhD's and had applied to some with no success (Durham). The main attraction of an european master's is the dissertation at the end.

    Are there any ways apart form a good project I could impress a potential supervisor (personal statement/ research proposal tips)
  11. Nov 27, 2013 #10

    George Jones

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    I am curious: in England, what does '"american style" 4-year DTC' mean? Does this mean, as was the case for your student, that courses are taken, as well as research which generates a Ph.D. thesis? In the US (and Canada), I think that average time taken for a physics Ph.D. is six years.
  12. Nov 27, 2013 #11
    I've been out of the loop for a few years, but, glancing at jobs.ac.uk, I don't see that things are all that different. For instance, the following doesn't require an MSc (or a 1st!):


    I often feel I should have gone straight into doing a PhD after my good BSc instead of scraping through an MSc that I (mostly) didn't enjoy. Don't you feel somewhat like that after scraping through your part III? Doing a masters might be another "scraping through" experience. Going through that experience once was bad enough, surely, why do it again?!

    Why do you think you are not now prepared enough to do research at PhD level? OK you had trouble with Part III exams, but a pass, plus a 1st in part II, is good enough evidence that you can handle research level mathematics. Did you go through the part III exam afterwards? Are you fairly sure you can fully solve part III problems with a bit more time, book work, and "asking around"? I'd be surprised if the answer was "no". If the answer is "yes", then you're ready!

    The exception to not bothering to take an MSc, as the other poster pointed out, are PhDs where you are *expected* to take another MSc to gain some specialised knowledge. Like the Hull post says, "PhD students at the University of Hull follow modules for research and transferable skills development and gain a Masters level Certificate, or Diploma, in Research Training, in addition to their research degree."

    P.S. Note comments like "The project is preferably in one of the two areas given below,..." should be read as meaning you are *much* more likely to get the studentship if you are willing to pursue the listed areas of research.
  13. Nov 27, 2013 #12


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    I think mal4mac's idea to ask why they didn't accept your application is a good idea. probably they won't always reply (just like with a job application), but you might as well ask. Maybe they are put off because you graduated two years ago. Be enthusiastic, then they have no reason to suspect that this is just some fall-back option for you. (sorry if I sound condescending, but I think this is the stuff they look for, and I know that not everyone naturally gives off an enthusiastic vibe - me included).

    also, apply to many, in the areas you're most interested in. you could even just look at university departments which you would like to do your phd in. Even if they aren't advertising, you can look up some of the staff, find the person that looks most suitable, and send him/her an email, saying you're interested in working in that area, and being supervised by that person. Just like with an ordinary job, you just need to apply to lots of places, to increase your chances.
  14. Nov 27, 2013 #13


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    These DTC's give a 4-year funded thing where the first year is a masters, and then the next 3 years are the phd. usually the masters and phd are fairly related, but the research from the masters does not typically go towards the phd. Some people do the masters and then don't do the phd. so they end up getting paid to do a masters. hehe, sneaky!

    edit: also, I think they've started calling them CDT's ... which is just confusing.
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