Higher education is to the US as Bieber is to Beliebers. In other words, each has a lot to give to the other (Read Why International Students are good to the US economy).
Maybe that is the reason that USA still attracts a large population of international students to pursue the heavy weight degrees of PhD or Masters/MS. Nearly 65% of the million plus international students flock their respective US embassies for admissions to graduate school, the rest getting into various undergraduate programs.
In spite of what may only be described as the twilight years of immigration policies, indicating a possible slow down of international student admissions (Read Is enrollment slowing down?), the number of GRE test bravers was still in the neighborhood of a million, in 2015-16. And most of these applicants are clearly in team MS.
Take the numbers from the Council of Graduate Schools for the year 2015. 538,617 students graduated with an MS, that year, compared to 78,240 that graduated with a PhD. And the individual field percentage distribution between the two degree levels is shown in the image below.
Source: Graduate Enrollment Degree Fall 2015 Tables B.24 & 25(link)
A PhD degree, in the US, is designed to cover at least two years of course work, followed by research towards a PhD dissertation. Nearly all schools allow students to obtain a Masters as long as the requisite number of credits are satisfied. In essence, a PhD program in the US is an MS-PhD program.
If a student is unable to or unconvinced about continuing with his PhD, he can, in principle, get an early release with an MS degree, if the credit requirements are fulfilled.
So, if you were a first time applicant and undecided on whether your future holds a research career, with a PhD, or employment right after an MS, you may need some help in finding out which path would be right for you – a straight up MS degree program OR an MS-PhD program with the option of bidding ciao when the going gets tough! In this article we will lay down the pros and cons of each class of the two MS degrees – MS vs MS en route to a PhD.
MS vs Combined MS + PhD program
Which one to apply for an MS degree?
MS en route to PhD, the MS-PhD way
The popularity of the MS-PhD degree is evident from its increasing statistics, from the 1950s to the current decade. STEM field PhD graduates have gone up from 9,000 to about 55,000 (NSF.gov). But this just tells us a part of the story. A large percentage of enrolled PhD graduate students quit during the course of the program.
You see, the structure of a PhD degree is designed to transform a student from the well rehearsed course work, and exam, curriculum to a more adult form of education whereby the onus of finding research worthy problems falls on the students themselves.
The interactions with faculty, in any doctoral program, is of the nature of working with academic colleagues who may or may not have the solutions to many of those problems. And sometimes students may find it hard to deal with the stress of research, lack of solutions and clarity about the course of their graduation (Read PhD Stress and Disillusionment Management).
In fact, the PhD Completion Project, studying the attrition and completion rates, for the period 1992-93 to 2003-04, compiled by the Council of Graduate Schools shows the following broad field based finito rates.
|Ten Year PhD Completion Rates for Selected Disciplines
Source: Council of Graduate Schools
|Mathematics and Physical Sciences 55%
|Life Science 63%
|Social Science 56%
Many drop out early with an MS degree under their belt. And sometimes for the better, depending on the field and specialization they belong to (Read Is your Phd worth it?).
Integrated masters program (MS + PhD) vs Regular MS: Pros and cons
Well, as mentioned before, a PhD student can qualify to receive an MS degree upon completion of a requisite number of credits. The actual requirements may differ between schools though.
Let us list out the pros first.
- Getting into an MS-PhD program gives you the opportunity of pursuing two degrees at the same time. So if you are undecided about your affinity towards research, this is a perfect means to find out how much, if any.
- If you are indeed into research, an MS-PhD gives you the immense advantage of a head-start in your research experience. And in the PhD world, it is the difference between graduating in 5 years vs anytime between now till retirement!
- You get paid a monthly stipend on account of an almost assured teaching assistantship. Even your tuition expenses are covered by the graduate school. In regular MS, you will have to pay for your own tuition and find some on-campus job to sustain your living expenses.
- It saves you the expense, and time, in reapplying for a PhD program, if you ever wanted to continue studying. In a regular MS, you’d have go through application procedure to get admitted officially.
And now for the cons.
- Though no school would ever say it out loud, but they do frown upon students who join the MS-PhD program with the intention of walking out with an MS degree. In fact it is an ethically grey area to take a free ride through the course work without even an honest attempt at continuing with the PhD program. Admission committees may not even want applicants who are convinced that they don’t want to continue on their PhD track and yet enroll in the MS-PhD program for the above advantages. However, they are aware of the attrition rates and as long as there is an honest attempt, they will be largely fine with it.
- Recommendations may become an issue if your adviser takes an offense to your early departure, in the middle of the research.
- Work demand may be a bit too much if you have to complete the course work, in a set amount of time, while managing teaching and research on the same clock. Regular MS students are usually spared the added research work and have a more regimented schedule, making it easier to prioritize tasks.
- Internships may be hard to come by, within the first two years, as compared to a regular MS student.
- Employers may look unfavorably at candidates who essentially quit from their PhD programs, with an MS. You will have to be prepared to explain your circumstances.
Overall, it is essentially your judgement call as to what would suit your needs. A regular MS is clearly the right answer if you are absolutely sure of having nothing to do with research. An MS-PhD is definitely the right answer if you are absolutely sure of wanting to do research.
As for all the in-betweeners, find out where your scale tips and decide your best course of action. An MS-PhD will give you the taste of research to convince you either ways while a regular MS will give you the option of planning your next move once you graduate.
The world is your oyster, which you with your application will open…paraphrasing the Bard
Here are some useful links.
- How to choose the right MS specialization
- How to get into PhD in the top universities abroad
- Fully funded PhD, with stipend in Europe
Author bio: Rakhi Acharyya is a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America.