JeffE's answer here indicates that holders of a master’s degree are held to higher standards when it comes to graduate admissions. The stated requirements for some graduate programs (example from UC Berkeley) also outright exclude applicants with doctoral degrees. These seem to be saying that holding a higher degree prior to application is a disadvantage (a fatal one in the case of a PhD). This also applies to private universities: Stanford apparently has the same restriction (at least in computer science); same goes for MIT.

I don't understand why:

  • If there are two applicants, Alice and Bob, who have achieved largely similar things, it seems logical that both should have a roughly equal chance of being admitted. However, based on JeffE's answer, if Alice has a Masters degree while Bob does not, it's Bob that gets admitted instead of Alice. JeffE's answer even indicates that if Alice has achieved slightly more than Bob, it's still Bob that gets admitted.

  • If graduate admissions is looking for students that are capable of succeeding in its program, then Alice should be more likely to succeed than Bob since she's already had some experience of graduate study. This should be even more the case if Alice already has a PhD – if she can do it once, she should be able to do it again.

JeffE's answer indicates that since Alice has had more opportunities than Bob, she should also be held to higher standard. However it should also be true that Alice has already achieved what Bob has yet to and in fact might not be able to achieve. Further, JeffE's answer seems to be saying that Alice should do the academic equivalent of financial engineering and pass her graduate-level courses & thesis without getting a master’s degree even if she qualifies for it, which sounds silly.

As for applicants with PhD degrees, my first guess would be that this is because multiple PhDs is not a good idea, and the university is acting in the applicant's best interests. However if this is the case, then this is effectively telling the applicant "I know what you want better than you do", which also sounds silly. UC Berkeley's requirements also seem to be saying that if someone with a CV worthy of a tenured position were to apply for a PhD student position, the university will say "no" even though it's clearly better in their best interests (in terms of research output) to say "yes".

Presumably I'm misunderstanding something because if this behavior were irrational, it would already have been changed. What am I missing?

EDIT: I wonder if things are different in programs where the student is involved in research directly without spending time on coursework?

  • Please do not use comments for answers or speculations as to what the answer may be; the comments have been moved to chat. Please read tihs FAQ before posting a new comment. – Wrzlprmft Aug 10 at 13:57
up vote 5 down vote accepted

What we are looking for, or at least I'm looking for, when talking about graduate admissions is your potential as a researcher.

I'll touch on the PhD portion, which I think is actually more obvious, and then move onto the Masters.

PhD: As Nate Eldredge notes, one of the concepts behind a PhD is that you should have learned how to engage with a field, interact with the literature, learned new methods, etc. And you should have learned how to do it beyond what's taught in classes. Applying for a new degree program, unless it is in a vastly different field, suggests that you have tried to move into a different area and have failed enough that you think you need to go back for coursework and supervised learning. That's not a good sign.

Masters Degrees: The thing about a Masters is that, in some ways, you've already taken a "swing at the bat" - which means that you've had the chance to show your potential - so you need to have done so.

If there are two applicants, Alice and Bob, who have achieved largely similar things, it seems logical that both should have a roughly equal chance of being admitted. However, based on JeffE's answer, if Alice has a Masters degree while Bob does not, it's Bob that gets admitted instead of Alice. JeffE's answer even indicates that if Alice has achieved slightly more than Bob, it's still Bob that gets admitted.

In this case, they actually haven't achieved similar things. If Bob has gotten the same output despite not having Masters level coursework, access to faculty at the graduate level, etc. then they haven't achieved the same thing.

If graduate admissions is looking for students that are capable of succeeding in its program, then Alice should be more likely to succeed than Bob since she's already had some experience of graduate study. This should be even more the case if Alice already has a PhD - if she can do it once, she should be able to do it again.

"Getting through my degree program" is not actually what I'm looking for. For some reason, if Alice is reapplying to a PhD program, she has gotten through with all the tools she needs...and then wants to go back for more tools. That's not a good leading indicator of her potential as an independent researcher in the future.

However if this is the case, then this is effectively telling the applicant "I know what you want better than you do", which also sounds silly.

They probably do. If nothing else, UC Berkeley is working with a much larger experiential data set.

UC Berkeley's requirements also seem to be saying that if someone with a CV worthy of a tenured position were to apply for a PhD student position, the university will say "no" even though it's clearly better in their best interests (in terms of research output) to say "yes".

An extremely unlikely edge case that might prompt an exemption to their policy, but policy is not written for once-a-generation savants.

  • Wow, and my first thought if someone with a PhD applies for another PhD student position would be that he/she has failed to get a job, and although PhD positions aren't well paid, it's better than nothing. – Allure Aug 10 at 7:36
  • @Allure Failing to get any job at all is a bad sign in and of itself. Not necessarily one's fault, but at best then we're talking about paying them for another 5+ years to take another go at it, and at worst, paying them just long enough for them to find another job and leave. To be blunt, "I gave you the tools and you didn't get a job" should be evaluated with a much less lenient eye than someone who hasn't had those tools yet, which is what the OP's question gets to. – Fomite Aug 10 at 7:40
  • Well perhaps the applicant wants an academic job, couldn't find one, and is willing to take a lower salary to stay in academia; perhaps he has a two-body problem; perhaps he just likes the university work environment (cheap food, free internet, flexible hours ...). Besides even if you don't approve of his motives, as long as his CV checks out, you are effectively getting a postdoc for the price of a PhD student, which should be a great deal. I can understand the reasons, but the premise seems rather misguided to me. – Allure Aug 10 at 21:29
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    @Allure In all of those cases, they should have talked to me about the potential of being a staff scientist, or perhaps a postdoc. Because I'm not getting a postdoc for the price of a PhD student - I'm getting a PhD student whose likely to quit. Just because one has a PhD doesn't mean they get to skip the course requirements - I'm not going to get useful work out of them for several years while they cool their heels and look for jobs. I'd rather pay more for an actual postdoc. – Fomite Aug 10 at 21:33

Berkeley offers the following rationale for their policy:

The Graduate Council views academic degrees as evidence of broad research training, not as vocational training certificates; therefore, applicants who already have academic graduate degrees should be able to take up new subject matter on a serious level without undertaking a graduate program, unless the fields are completely dissimilar.

Although this is rather vague, it does suggest that they believe that when one already has a PhD, it is pointless to enter another graduate program in a similar field, as one has already demonstrated "broad research training" and shouldn't need more. And since PhD program spaces are a limited resource, and involve a considerable investment of faculty time and university resources, they don't want to spend it in ways that they consider pointless.

That's my interpretation, anyway.

  • 5
    Yes it is reasonable that a finished MSc could more easily start taking PhD courses on their own than a finished BSc could, but the PhD programme is not just (not even mainly) about the coursework. It is about learning to become an independent researcher. – mathreadler Aug 9 at 6:30

If there are two applicants, Alice and Bob, who have achieved largely similar things, it seems logical that both should have a roughly equal chance of being admitted.

Not at all. PhD admission is primarily based on potential for future success as an independent researcher. Between two people with identical research portfolios, it is natural to judge the person who built their portfolio faster and with fewer opportunities to have stronger potential for future success.

If graduate admissions is looking for students that are capable of succeeding in its program, then Alice should be more likely to succeed than Bob since she's already had some experience of graduate study.

You've moved the goalposts. If Alice produces more concrete evidence of research potential than Bob as a result of her graduate study, then she meets the higher standard expected of applicants with graduate-school experience! On the other hand, if Alice does not produce more concrete evidence of research potential than Bob, despite her experience of graduate study, then Bob is a more attractive candidate.

Merely having been a graduate student is not by itself evidence of research potential; research rarely resembles coursework.

  • Thanks for the answer. Do you mean that if Alice meets the higher standard expected of applicants with graduate-school experience, she is also the more attractive candidate than Bob (because her graduate-school experience means she should be able to get into research sooner)? – Allure Aug 10 at 21:36
  • @Allure Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on how much more evidence Alice has accumulated than Bob. As a general rule, at least in strong US computer science departments, PhD applicants with master's degrees need to have publishable research results, if not actual publications, to be taken seriously. – JeffE Aug 10 at 21:42

Whether it is made explicit or not, I would imagine that most graduate programs try to evaluate candidates on the basis of future potential. Probably most programs should be more clear about this.

So, for example, if one has been allowed to take qualifying exams endlessly, for 20 years or so, and eventually passes all of them... what does it mean?

It's like age or weight classes in various sports. The possible fact that a 30-year-old can bat 1000 in T-ball aimed at 5-year olds does not earn a spot on a major-league team in the U.S.

Although there's very little age-ism practiced in the U.S. in PhD admissions in mathematics... the point is not "maxing out on prelim exams", or anything similar. It is infinitely more about people on an upward trajectory...

If by "succeeding in its program," you only mean finishing a PhD, then your premise that a graduate program is looking for students capable of succeeding in its program is quite flawed.

The impression I got from my graduate program is that they consider outcomes like mine failures, and I have a tenured position in a department with a PhD program, albeit a low-ranked one, and publish a paper or two a year.

If they had a choice between Student A, whom they thought was 100% likely to end up in a position like mine, or Student B, whom they thought was a 20% chance to end up in a top-30 research department with an NSF grant and an 80% chance to drop out after 2 years, I'm pretty sure they'd take Student B. In fact, if there was Student C, whom they thought was a 2% chance of eventually winning the Fields Medal and a 98% chance of dropping out in the middle of their fifth semester, dropping the ball on their teaching duties, I'm not sure they wouldn't prefer Student C to both.

If you have already had graduate studies and did well but not brilliantly, you've proven that you won't be a disaster, but you've also shown you are less likely to be wildly successful.

  • I don't agree with this comment, but I upvoted it because it expresses clearly a perspective that may be useful to consider. – Tom Church Aug 12 at 4:54

PhD students do useful research work. Supervisors will want a PhD student who successfully completes a project. A candidate who already has a PhD may be more likely to quite prematurely. I've seen it happen.

When I did my PhD, a new colleague PhD student joined. He already had a PhD from a developing country, from a university that is perhaps not very well known outside his home country. He considered that a PhD from a more established university in a more developed country would be more valuable.

Fast-forward two years, he suddenly left when to take up a postdoc position in yet another developed country. His supervisor was not happy, and I expect will think twice before accepting again a PhD student who already has a PhD.

In addition to the other excellent answers (from people who have infinitely more experience with the process than I), consider: It seems to be the case that for successful researchers, there is unique academic credit/prestige assigned to the PhD awarding department and advisor. Examples: (1) Richard Lipton's blog. (2) Joel David Hamkins' blog. If a person has multiple PhD's, then who gets that credit? At best this credit would seem to get split and diluted. At worst, one or the other is at risk of being forgotten entirely.

  • I don't see why that is worse than any successful person having lots of different adult teachers and inspirations around when they were kids. Who helped him the most to become that great? Well, who knows..? Probably does not even know that himself. – mathreadler Aug 10 at 14:49
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    @mathreadler: I added the word "unique" and links to examples if you wish to confirm what I'm saying. Other teachers or inspirations are not cited in the academic research culture. – Daniel R. Collins Aug 10 at 15:06
  • Ah so you are worried about the academic credit and not who actually helped the guy (wanting) to become a great scientist. Okay. – mathreadler Aug 10 at 15:22
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    @mathreadler: Mind that Daniel R. Collins’ is not describing his own concerns but those that others may possibly have. – Wrzlprmft Aug 11 at 7:55
  • @Wrzlprmft yes I know, what he really wonders is who of the professors should get the credit for pitching the student on to his corporate masters. – mathreadler Aug 11 at 10:20

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