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Notes:

  • I want to do PhD
  • I understand that ranking doesn't say much and that the professor and the research is what is important
  • AOI - Area of Interest
  • This question is not personal nor opinionated and can be useful to a variety of students stuck in a similar or comparable decision point.

Due to having a low UGPA (2.8), I applied to MS programs (USA) in BME (neuroengineering) in hopes of boosting myself to a PhD program that does research in my exact AOI (Unis - stanford, jhu, rice, harvard). Luckily during my application, a professor that I talked with asked me to switch to PhD since he was interested in my profile. At the end I got an offer from the university for PhD and fully funded (note that this university is ranked >150 in usnews). The only issue with this PhD opportunity is that the advisor is new (though decently connected) and does not have translational research.

Now I have also got a MS offer from a top 50 university, not funded and private (so I need a loan). Now my question is this- should I take the easy, financial free option which does research in my AOI but doesn't have much prestige and enough funding to do translational research. Or should I take the hard path and go into that competitive university (top 50), secure a high GPA and do good research to get recommendations from leaders in the field; but this option will be tough and will either be successful or will lead to failure. While the former will lead to success but will be at a much lower level when compared to the success that I get from PhD after masters.

  • Not a duplicate, but closely related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/29504/… – Allure Mar 12 at 2:59
  • Is it common in your field to get a master's before the PhD? In some fields, getting a slot at a top PhD program is significantly harder once you have a MS (they prefer to get people straight out of undergrad). – cag51 Mar 12 at 3:54
  • I don't think it's common nor uncommon, having masters is never mentioned as a prerequisite for any program tbh. People generally do masters either because they aren't sure about a research career, want to get better jobs, want to cover up bad undergraduate scores, or want more research experience. – Roshan Mar 12 at 4:45
  • So your question is: Do I take the high risk high potential payoff or the low risk lower payoff path? The answer is: it depends on how much risk you are willing to take. So why should this question not be closed as personal? – Maarten Buis Mar 12 at 7:50
  • True, I can't counter that. But what about explaining if I could actually get into a better school assuming that I perform well in Masters cuz of my low uGPA and what exactly I need to do during masters to reduce this risk. I was expecting someone to help me weigh the pros and cons for each rather than explicitly stating the known. I will probably re-frame the question. Thanks. – Roshan Mar 12 at 8:33
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You said that the funded PhD offer matches your field of interest. To me this already looks like a clear win over the unfunded Masters degree.

The only point that could direct you towards the Masters is funding. So question 1: How necessary is significant grant funding for the research in your AOI? Question 2: How much funding does the advisor at the PhD institution have? Does he already have what is needed for your PhD research or is it more like, we will apply for a grant to get money for your research? I don't know neuroengineering but for example in maths, once your salary is guaranteed, further funding is mostly irrelevant. If you find that doing a good PhD at the lower rank institution requires some success/ luck with getting funding this might tip the scales towards the higher ranked institution. But note that funding is not guaranteed there either.

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  • Will taking the risk at an unfunded MS for a PhD be worth it in terms of environment and research quality at a top institution say top 20 when compared to one ranked 180 but both being R1 institutions and having good researcher? – Roshan Mar 13 at 11:21
  • @Roshan Whether the lab next door to your is turning out amazing research or not is largely irrelevant to your own research. Additional expertise outside your lab may be required but you usually need some very specific knowlegde so the top lab next door is not helpful. – quarague Mar 13 at 12:02

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