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Why do schools in the US tend to offer direct entry into PhD programs?

  1. Oct 27, 2015 #1
    I knew different countries had different approaches to graduate education: there are those countries that provide research masters with only one year of coursework and the other year is dedicated to research (Canada, Germany, Japan, Russia, UK) and also where direct-PhD entry for undergrads isn't common, if it exists at all (in Canada's particular case, direct-PhD entry from undergrad is associated almost entirely with psychology).

    There are those countries where masters offer much less research experience (Belgium, France, Switzerland?) or otherwise amount to a two-year continuation of undergrad (Netherlands, Poland, Austria?) and hence do not fund masters much, if at all.

    But the US seems to be an oddball in this respect: it is perhaps the country where direct-PhD entry with just an undergrad is the most common, probably far more common than everywhere else in the world. The only explanation I could come up for why that would be the case, at least as far as STEM disciplines is concerned, has to do with funding issues.

    Research-funding industries, as well as government funding agencies (NIH, NSF, DOE Office of Science, to name some of them), realized that they would get much more out of their hard-earned money out of doctoral students than from masters students and, as a result, very little willingness to fund masters, and offer them, since students didn't want to incur extra debt for masters anymore. But how credible is that explanation?

    Are there other explanations you either know about or you can think about?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 27, 2015 #2


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    I don't find that credible at all. Most NSF/DOE funding covers a maximum period of 3 years for a particular project. This is NOT long enough for a typical physics PhD student (average is 5 years). So if they are trying to get the most out of these students, then they are not funding them for long enough.

    Besides, there are also many students who are not funded via these research funding, such as those who went through their entire graduate years as TAs.

    The simple explanation here is that universities in the US consider graduate level work to include both courses and research, whereas other parts of the world, the "courses" are often in the M.Sc part, while the "research" is in the PhD part.

    BTW, also note that while other parts of the world offer B.Sc degree in law, medicine, veterinary medicine, etc., the US, instead, only offers those degrees as graduate degrees, i.e. one needs to have an undergraduate degree in something first before enrolling in those areas as a post-baccalaureate degree student. So, in this areas, the situation is reversed.

  4. Oct 27, 2015 #3
    But you wouldn't get as much for your research money out of a masters student, on a per-dollar, per-unit-of-time basis, compared to a PhD one... and that's precisely why British, Canadian and Russian universities (don't know for Germany or Japan, especially since Japan insists very, very little on graduate study compared to the other four countries I named that seem to treat research masters students as being equally integral to research as doctoral students) pay lower stipends to masters students vs. doctoral students.

    Yet all these countries consider grad students as integral to the entire research enterprise.

    That would probably be either a focus on well-roundedness on American colleges' part or an indictment of uneven American high school standards... and maybe one and the other are not mutually exclusive. But this is another topic for another day.
  5. Oct 27, 2015 #4


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    They do? Where did you get your statistics from?

    Or maybe they consider Masters students as not being able to concentrate fully on their research since they have to also take classes. Either way, I can't see how you can make a causal connection and derive at your conclusion.

    In the US, the stipend/assistantship given makes no difference if you are a Masters student or PhD. So obviously, the funding agency here doesn't share your "per-dollar, per-unit-of-time" production output.

    You also seemed to have neglected the simple reason that I had given. To me, that makes more sense than your speculation.

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