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I am currently enrolled in a master’s program in the Middle East, which does not seem to be possible to finish / worth finishing for various reasons. The main problem is the lack of research facilities that would allow me to generate data for my thesis. The facilities that do exist seem to prioritise students from the religious majority. As a Christian, you do not get that many opportunities in the Middle East, and there is no protection against discrimination.

So I applied to a master’s programme in Europe. Shortly afterwards, I received a personal message from one of the professors asking for my motivation to restart the master's and not run for a PhD.

My question is: How open I should be about the reasons why I will not finish the master’s I’m enrolled in already? I am not sure if I should mention the religious reasons – I do not want to look whiney, but this is the reality of being a Christian in a predominantly Islamic country. Can mentioning religious discrimination negatively (and significantly) affect the professor’s decision in accepting me, despite how real it is?

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    Since you say " The main problem is the lack of research facilities that would allow me to generate data for my thesis.", can you explain why you can't scope down your thesis to something modest but implementable (and also discuss the limitations of data-gathering in detail in your thesis), and what your supervisor advises about that? – smci May 3 '18 at 10:15
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    ''As a Christian, you do not get that many opportunities in the Middle East, and there is no protection against discrimination.'' I don't think so... – Krebto May 3 '18 at 15:01
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    @Krebto: do you mind expanding on why you think the OP's assumption is wrong? – Taladris May 4 '18 at 3:22
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    "As a Christian, you do not get that many opportunities in the Middle East, and there is no protection against discrimination" are you sure about this? I finished my masters in Abu-Dhabi, UAE (middle east, majority are Muslims). Everyone knew I am a Christian (as well as some other people around me). Have not seen there anything you are complaining about. – Salvador Dali May 5 '18 at 22:13
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    Maybe because Emirates actually have resources and facilities and the spots are not so limited. I was top of my class both at Bachelor and Master courses. There is no explanation for the problem other than faulty system and corruption. – Anonymous May 5 '18 at 22:42
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My advice is to state facts not conclusions.

For example, you should not say:

It's impossible to finish my degree here because they discriminate against Christians.

Instead, you could say:

I finished all my coursework, but I have been unable to get a spot in a lab -- there are only 10 lab spots for 40 students. Further, two different professors told me they would give priority to Muslim students (I am not Muslim). Given this, my best option seems to be to restart at a different university.

By the way, I also wanted to comment on this line:

asking for my motivation to restart the Master's and not run for a PhD

In some fields and some countries, it is common to go straight from undergraduate to the PhD without getting a master's. This professor may be asking specifically why you want to try again to get a master's, as opposed to enrolling directly in a PhD program.

Edit: inspired by @arp's answer, I'll expand my script to address the possible confusion about master's vs. PhD

I applied for a master's degree because I will be leaving [current univ] without a master's. I finished all my coursework, but I have been unable to get a spot in a lab -- there are only 10 lab spots for 40 students. Further, two different professors told me they would give priority to Muslim students (I am not Muslim). Given this, my best option seems to be to restart at a different university. I would certainly be open to pursuing a PhD at [new univ] if that is an option, but my understanding is that I will need to complete my master's first.

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    This is a very good answer. One does not appear whiney when one does not whine, but instead sticks to the facts and lets the readers draw their own conclusions. – xLeitix May 3 '18 at 14:48
  • Thank you. This is also helpful. Master's degree is generally a prerequisite for applying for PhD in the country of the desired university. – Anonymous May 3 '18 at 14:52
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    @Anonymous generally does not mean always. If you have gone through the masters but did not obtain the title for side reasons, perhaps the university is happy to treat you as if you did get the masters. – Ander Biguri May 3 '18 at 15:01
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    @AnderBiguri: in case the (new) country in question is Germany (which is one of the generally require Masters for PhD), then the generally boils down to allowing the student to enlist for a PhD, but typically with the additional requirement of (re)doing the relevant Master's exams... – cbeleites May 3 '18 at 17:45
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    @Anonymous Along the lines of what Ander is saying, this can vary not just by country, but also by field. For example, in the U.S., it's very common to go straight from a B.S. to a Ph.D. in, for example, Physics, but it's rather uncommon in many other fields. – reirab May 4 '18 at 15:58
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There's a lovely answer by @cag51. If you're comfortable with that approach, go for it.

In case you're still feeling a little queasy and would prefer to be a bit more private about the situation -- I'll make a stab at a vaguer approach:

I finished all my coursework, but I would be more comfortable continuing my studies in an environment less fraught with political and religious tensions. Research opportunities are very limited in my current university.

This way, you don't point any fingers and you don't identify your religion.

If that's still too personal for your taste, you could stick to the minimum:

Research opportunities are very limited in my current university.

How much one wants to disclose about difficult times one has gone through is a very personal decision.

I learned from Fred Rogers (who made the children's television program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood) that no one should ever feel obligated to share more than one is comfortable sharing.

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    Very helpful and diplomatic phrases! – user153812 May 3 '18 at 5:11
  • Yes, this is very nice. Thank you so much for the tips. It's not about being uncomfortable with disclosing it, but more about how appropriate it is to mention something like this. Especially when I suppose it's not 100% politically correct. – Anonymous May 3 '18 at 14:48
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    @Anonymous - What I usually do is wait to make a fuller disclosure after I know the person a bit better. For example, if I'm face to face with someone, I can gauge their reaction to my initial explanation, and that helps me choose how much more to say. I've learned that if I wear my heart on my sleeve with all and sundry, I may feel hurt if I get a cold, heartless response. So, I guess I have learned to adopt a bit of a turtle shell for some things. // Back to your situation: as the other answers show, full disclosure is a valid option. You get to decide. – aparente001 May 3 '18 at 15:58
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    This is a good answer, but I am just thinking that saying research is limited and leaving it at that might be problematic. The assumption of the new university might be that the limited research opportunities are given based on ability, and under that assumption leave the impression you couldn't get a slot due to lacking ability. I think it is necessary to let it be known that the research slots at that university were not filled based on ability. – Thomas Carlisle May 4 '18 at 11:28
  • @ThomasCarlisle - I've thought about the point you raised, and here's what I'm thinking: If a particular student in this situation prefers to avoid disclosing religious discrimination experienced (I don't know if this is the case, I'm just saying "if"), then I think it best to simply leave things ambiguous. What we do know is that apparently OP's university admitted more students to a thesis-required program than they had available lab slots to accommodate. To justify a transfer, it's enough to point that out. (Analogous to citing "poor fit" without airing dirty laundry ... – aparente001 May 4 '18 at 11:52
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There are two separate questions here, and the professor asked one, while you are answering the other.

(1) You are not finishing your Master's program because research opportunities [for non-Muslims] are limited in your current location.

(2) You are choosing to restart a Master's program instead of directly applying to a PhD program because direct PhD programs are not common in your region and you had not considered that as one of your options.

Or

(2a) You are choosing to restart the Masters program instead of applying directly to a PhD program for (some academic reason).

(This answer mostly combines and sharpens previous answers, but wanted to highlight the mismatch between the professor's question and your answer.)

  • This is an important point that a few people have brought up (including me!). I updated my answer to more directly address this angle of the question. – cag51 May 3 '18 at 18:16
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Mention it openly, but try not to be emotional and just state facts about the system you are in. Being discriminated against in their countries is a very common issue among researchers who go to study/work abroad. It adds to your motivation so it is unlikely to be viewed as something negative. Explaining your motivation is important for something with a long commitment such as masters or PhD. Don't write too much into it unless asked though.

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    I agree with this. Religious discrimination in the Middle East is hardly a secret, and professors are likely to be sympathetic. – Barmar May 3 '18 at 15:09
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You do not need to worry about looking "whiney" in this situation. You have been asked explicitly about your motivation for leaving your present Masters program, so it is reasonable for you to be frank in stating the reason if you are comfortable doing this. If they ask the question, presumably they are willing to hear the answer.

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The professor asked why you want to re-start your Masters instead of pursuing a PhD. You should consider the possibility that they will allow you to pursue a PhD track directly and without completing a Masters first. Perhaps you should see if this is possible and take that option, provided that they accept the premise of why your Masters is not completed.
On a note related to disclosing perceived discrimination, I don't see any issue with disclosing it, as long as your tone does not conflate discrimination that is fact and discrimination that is assumed. I live in a country where Christians frequently make frivolous and obviously false claims about being persecuted, when they are the dominant demographic and are not persecuted. But if you live in the Middle East, then a professor in Europe would probably readily believe your story.
I assume that you chose a valid thesis topic, attempted to pursue it, and were rejected. If pressed, you may want to demonstrate that your thesis topic was valid, and that it would have been approved at the institution that you're applying to. I say this only because there may be people who failed to complete a thesis specifically because they were determined to pursue a subject that is dishonest or without academic merit.

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    Welcome to Academia.SE and thanks for your answer! As you will see, many of the other answers raise many of the same points you do. In such cases, it's usually encouraged to add your additional information as comments on existing answers. – cag51 May 3 '18 at 23:16
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    @cag51 If the additional information constitutes an answer (i.e. has brand new content), then it should be posted as one to enable it to be up and down voted. Answers-as-comments aren't subject to quality assessment in the same way. If it is more like a suggested improvement to an existing answer, then a comment is appropriate. This answer does appear to provide content that doesn't appear elsewhere. For example, it addresses the possibility that the professor wonders whether or not the failure to complete is the fault of the applicant. – JBentley May 3 '18 at 23:58
  • @JBentley - thanks for your input. I agree with your policy, but don't see any brand-new content in this answer. To your example - it goes without saying that the professor is wondering whether the failure to complete is the fault of the applicant; that's the whole reason OP is asking whether they should mention the religious issues. Peace! – cag51 May 4 '18 at 0:40
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    @@cag51 & @JBentley, Some SE sites (do not know if Academia is one of them) require a higher reputation to post comment than they do to post answers. A new user then has no choice but to post an answer if they want to participate even if it would be more appropriate to post a comment. This is pure speculation now, but perhaps that is what is going on here. – Michael J. May 4 '18 at 20:47

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