If a STEM PhD holder applies for a Master's in another STEM major, would this be an advantage or disadvantage in the eye of the admission committee?

  • 9
    Is there a reason you are considering a masters over a postdoc?
    – noslenkwah
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 14:48
  • 2
    Reposting my comment because I didn't realize it had gotten cut off: Can you be more specific? Applying to an MEd or a speech path master's (or other professional degree) might get different answers than applying for a biology master's when you hold a psych PhD. Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 16:19
  • A friend recently did this. It's going to make it very easy to get in.
    – Marcin
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 16:54
  • 1
    need more specifics: Which country you are in? What are specifics of PhD and Masters degrees? What is desirable outcome after getting master? AFAIK, masters are mostly paid degrees (you pay), so more available than PhDs Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 22:01
  • @ noslenkwah it's another major than my phd, so i'm not eligible for doing a postdoc in a new field
    – feynman
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 14:44

7 Answers 7


Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman!

Sorry, but you walked into that joke. Actually, such an application would occur so infrequently that it might result in a few chuckles. But I don't think it would have a lot of effect. But certainly not a big advantage.

In fact, people, including myself, will wonder why a person would bother. After all, the applicant can study and learn effectively and evidenced by the doctorate, so what is the need of a formal program. It might be a disadvantage in some places where the available slots are limited and people would feel they should be given to someone who needs the training more.

On the other hand, if a lab needs particular skills that you have, they might be interested, just for that.

Thus, it is impossible to say in general as local needs/beliefs will dominate such a situation.

  • 11
    I have seen a number of people with multiple Masters on their CV. - The advantage can be getting additional knowledge in a related subject quickly. A Masters takes 1 (UK) to 2 (rest of Europe) years, while a PhD takes at least 3 (UK, 4 years limit) to potentially 6+ years. - In addition, it can be easier for people to do a part time Masters than a part time PhD to extend their knowledge. It also avoids the repetition of the introduction from an undergraduate degree.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 19:50
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    @DetlevCM Perhaps the most prominent example I recall is Michael Griffin, the former head of NASA.
    – user71659
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 22:34
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    @DetlevCM You're comparing a master vs a PhD or undergrad while Buffy is asking why someone who has shown the ability to learn information on their own would need any formal program at all to pick up new information. You can find the books, papers and exercises without troubles online so giving a limited spot to someone who doesn't really need it, instead of someone who has yet to learn all those essential skills might be considered bad use of resources by some (and yes, there are certainly some immaterial advantages to studying in a formal program that you won't get from self-study, I agree)
    – Voo
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 23:48
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    Major cases: to be a licensed engineer you must have a degree in engineering. So if you get all your degrees in a non-engineering field and then decide you need engineering licensure, you have to take a Master's. This also applies to some science fields like geology, you need a degree in the field.
    – user71659
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 6:45
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    @user71659 Licensing or similar bureaucratic requirements would be the key reason I can think of. My wife suspended her PhD program at ABD status to get a master's in education because she decided to teach high school. She tentatively plans to resume her PhD after she has her full license, but the Masters became an urgent and separate requirement once she made the decision. Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 17:13

If you ever want to leave academia, it could be seen as a disadvantage. It suggests you are a "perpetual student" rather than someone who actually wants to do some (real-world) work.

The main point of a PhD is not that you learned some (random) snippet of new information while doing it, but that you demonstrated you can learn new stuff on your own with minimal supervision.

That is what you should expect to be doing for the rest of your working life, either inside or outside academia, but expecting to keep getting more "awards" for doing that is rather like a kid in school expecting to get another gold star for every good piece of homework they turn in - most people grow out of it.

  • 12
    Very opinion based and narrow minded answer. See the other answer for a bigger horizon
    – Hakaishin
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 10:55
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    In view of the above comments, let me try to give a slightly more constructive (or at least more detailed) critique of this answer: This does not really answer the main question on what the admission committee would think, but sort of challenges the premise of the question whether doing a Master's after a Phd is a good idea in the first place. Considering the value of that decision seems out of place here: the answer to it is highly dependent on the motivations for obtaining a Master's and therefore needs more context than is given here, or at least a much broader perspective. Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 10:12
  • 1
    @ alephzero of course a phd can learn anything on their own. but most of the time employers prefer candidates holding a related degree than being able to self learn, dont they.
    – feynman
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 14:50
  • 1
    @ Discrete lizard i need to jump into another field where there're more jobs. academia is too crowded
    – feynman
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 14:52

Not a direct answer to your question, but a personal experience. I got a PhD in EE and am now one semester away from finishing my masters in CS. Three years after my PhD, I changed careers from EE research to a data science. My EE PhD provided me background in linear algebra, partial differential equations and numerical computations. The primary motivation for me going into MSCS was to develop intuition in certain areas which I wasn't exposed to, but became important in my new career: combinatorics, statistics, probabilistic modeling, optimization, operating/distributed systems, and computer networks to name a few. Following a masters curriculum guided me on what areas are (roughly) considered important and also brought a (forced) discipline to my studies.

If an application of MS followed by a PhD crossed my desk, I'd laud your discipline, but also probe on why you went that route. You need to have a good answer for that.

  • @ RDK very good answer. seemingly ur EE phd and CS MS look quite similar. then u had an argument to support the necessity of doing the CS MS
    – feynman
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 8:25

In terms of competency, I can't imagine why it would be seen as a disadvantage. If anything - it shows that you are capable of successfully completing an academic program.

The only scenario I could imagine where this may be an issue is if the Master's program is affiliated with some scholarship program, where the scholarship terms & conditions require that the applicant does not hold an advanced degree. If you're applying for a non-scholarship program then I can't imagine why they would reject your application - you are willing to pay good money and are likely to successfully graduate.

Another issue might be if you're applying to a STEM program that's very far from your PhD degree (say, from theoretical physics to zoology). If your bachelor's degree does not fit the prerequisites for the program you may have an issue, and the PhD won't help (but probably won't hurt).

Good luck!

  • 3
    "Huh so the guy finished their PhD and then instead of working in their chosen field and applying their knowledge they decided to instead enroll in a different field, mhmm I wonder why". That's the first thought that would go through my mind if I saw that CV on the stack of job applications. So there's certainly some possible downside to it.
    – Voo
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 23:50
  • At the very least it would make me want to interview this person and ask them why, not outright reject them.
    – Spark
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 8:16
  • I'm with Voo. I can think of reasons to get a master's after a PhD, my wife is doing something analogous (suspended her PhD program at ABD status), but it calls for a real reason such as licensing requirements or moving to a radically different field with almost no overlap. Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 17:18
  • 3
    "it shows that you are capable of successfully completing an academic program." Didn't the undergrad degree, the PhD and possibly the master's from before the PhD already prove that two or three times? Why go back to prove it again? Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 22:48
  • 1
    I did sit in my department's admissions committee for a while, why do you ask?
    – Spark
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 16:25

Would not be any purpose of doing two different STEM MSc:s. After one you are supposed to be able to learn similar level stuff even faster on your own.

I could understand wanting to do an economy MSc to complement your STEM knowledge. Quite some people ending up as CEO or CTO of medium or large size firms seem to have double degrees: one in tech and one in econ.


It's a plus on the side of competency to complete it, but a concern on the side of whether you would actually enroll and finish the degree if you are accepted. But the school, year and discipline of the PhD, the school and discipline of the Master's, and why you are switching play hugely into it. Also, frankly, your standardized test scores and ability to fund your own education, just like anybody else. I'd recommend talking to an admissions person at the school you are considering, as well as a hiring manager in the field you are considering. (BTW, I'm a PhD in Management Information Systems who was in academia for several years but have spent the last 12 years in industry.)

  • @ Larry Seligman my english test scores all expired but i dont want to retake them again. if i argue i worked in english speaking countries for quite a few years, would that be convincing?
    – feynman
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 8:35
  • 1
    For me personally, it would not be convincing since doctoral programs are so reading and writing intensive. But that's just me. I'd recommend contacting the admissions department of the school you are interested in, as well as the department chair of the department of your interest. You should do that anyway; putting a face to a name is always a big plus, and for doctoral programs the department has most or all of the decision input. You can also give the department chair first hand experience on how well you can interact in English. Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 19:44

It really depends on the field of previous research but this is becoming more common due to more and more academics going into interdisciplinary research. It's not uncommon for folks from Biology to want to go into mathematical biology or even data science which requires more maths/computing. Therefore, if your previous PhD was in a different subject area to the masters you're applying to, that should be fine. Your research skills will definitely be valuable and may even help you get into a postdoc after completion of your masters. I've seen so many examples of academics with non-stats PhDs in the UK going back to study masters in statistics for example.

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