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I am currently at a crossroads, deciding between several MS program offers. I have the choice to do a research based masters, where I would take very few graduate courses but focus almost solely on research, and a more course based masters where I would primarily be taking graduate courses with a small thesis component. My goal is to leverage my MS experience to apply to US PhD programs. My field is applied physics.

Given these choices and my end goal, who would be more attractive to US PhD programs? A candidate with a few graduate courses under their belt but with 1-2 years of research experience (with a paper or two) or a candidate with no papers but who aced many graduate level courses?

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  • From my viewpoint, in mathematics in the U.S., this would be a tough call... – paul garrett Apr 20 at 21:22
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    From my viewpoint, in experimental physics in the U.S., this would also be a tough call...I suspect the research track may be slightly better -- most students are admitted for research potential, while courses may or may not transfer -- but I am not confident enough to answer, and it probably depends on the details and preferences of the MS and PhD programs in question. – cag51 Apr 20 at 22:03
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    From my viewpoint, in theoretical computer science, the answer is very clear: research, research, research. – JeffE Apr 20 at 22:07
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    From my viewpoint in biological sciences, the answer is very clear: research. Not just for admissions, but to find out if it's something you actually want to do with your life or at least a big chunk of it. – Bryan Krause Apr 20 at 23:37
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    I also vote research. Classes are a temporary part of your career. Research experience shows the schools you apply to that you have tried this and can excel at it (and indeed you can get a chance to try it for yourself before committing to a doctoral program). – A Simple Algorithm Apr 21 at 6:11
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I'd say the 1-2 years of research experience is the better option and here is why:

You are applying for a PhD position. Having research experience shows that you are already familiar with the challenges and you are not fresh. i.e. the department/lab/sponsor/etc. know that the learning curve is less for you. You may even bring or continue a project that you've already started. So, you may not need to start looking for a research subject either.

On the other hand, with all the MOOC, you can more or less learn or at least familiarize yourself with the some of the materials you need (I admit, this is not possible for every field or every course though).

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