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I'm considering a PhD or Master's in engineering in the US, and I haven't really decided which makes the most sense for me. There are many questions and answers here that mention leaving a PhD program with a Master's and how it's not a "failure" or "dropping out", but it occurs to me: what effect does this have on a person's adviser/professors?

What about references, future relationships, etc? Is it taken negatively or as an insult, or cutting ties, to bow out with the lower degree?

What prompted this question is that a few programs that most interest me state explicitly that there is very little funding available for Masters students (so you are mostly expected to pay your own way), but full funding and additional opportunities are available for those admitted to a PhD program. The way they are worded, they seem extremely interested in good PhD candidates, and not at all interested in Masters students.

I'm not considering seeking a PhD solely to get a Masters/funding, because that's just outright dishonest and I wouldn't stomach such deceit. But, what might the ethics be of not being certain whether you want a PhD or a Masters, but applying for a PhD program?

If one's adviser and/or program and/or professors are explicitly harmed by having someone complete their Masters requirements, then I'd be much more hesitant to even consider a PhD application unless I was certain that's what I wanted. If being unsure is considered normal and the "harm" caused by bowing out of the program with a Masters not so great, then that would certainly ease things the other direction.

To be clear, these departments also specifically suggest you pick Masters OR PhD, and generally discourage you from applying to both. Thus my quandary!

  • 3
    Not to be a hop-on, but an interesting secondary question related here is "Does bowing out of a PhD with a Masters affect future pursuit of a PhD". – Matthew G. Jan 10 '14 at 18:07
  • Talk to some potential advisers and ask for advice on deciding if a PhD or Master is better for you. You claimed that funding is not the motive, and yet the only difference you talked about between the two degrees is, well, funding. You may need to know more about the two paths. Be up front about your worries of losing steam or interest. If the adviser likes you enough to bet on you, then at least if you really end up leaving, the process will not continue to haunt you. – Penguin_Knight Jan 10 '14 at 22:40
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My background comes from Biology so I don't know the details of engineering graduate programs. However, a graduate student is a significant financial investment for the graduate program and advisor. For the student it is the time and emotional investment. Graduate programs that offer funding i.e. stipend and tuition waivers to PhD students do so because it will take the student 4-7 years of full-time+ work to complete their courses and dissertation work. They are typically expected to devote all of their time towards their degree and are discouraged from outside employment. Thus the stipend to cover living expenses.

A MS program is typically 2-3 years and varies in requirements from program to program, ranging from just coursework to coursework plus thesis.

The learning curve is steep for someone who has no previous research experience and the time and money that is spent getting the student up to a productive level is significant. In our program, PhD students typically advance to candidacy around the time that a MS student would be finishing the program. Before this time the PhD student and the MS student are working under comparable conditions. This is also the time that if a PhD student were to not be meeting minimum expectations then they would be denied candidacy and exit with a MS degree.

There is less pressure for a PhD student to begin a project that will result in their dissertation early on because they have more time. MS students must find an advisor immediately upon entering the program and thus begin generating something meaningful if they are to complete and defend a thesis. The body of work is much smaller than a PhD student and is typically just a demonstration of their advanced breadth of knowledge in the field.

Many advisors in my program view MS students as an extra pair of hands and receive less attention when it comes to mentoring. Their projects will often be small offshoots of a bigger project that a PhD student or post-doc is working on. You must understand that they are treated differently from the beginning not because of discrimination but because research projects take a long time to develop and often meaningful results do not come until a few years of work, which is too long for a MS student.

For you particular situation, I would say if you are unsure about which program is right for you I would say take some extra time to figure that out. Whether that means get a job in the area you are interested or something else. Just be sure if you sign up for a PhD that you really want to do it. It is a difficult and really trying path, not for the half-hearted. Even for those who are extremely passionate about their work will question their place there and consider quitting during the bad times. Going into a graduate program with a clear focus and interest (PhD or MS) will make things go much smoother. Do not expect to show up and someone tell you what to do, or you may spend 6 months to a year just floating along trying to find your way.

Now selfishly speaking you are right, you could enter the program as a PhD student and feel it out, but in my opinion I would discourage you from doing that. You will likely waste your time and take longer to get your MS than you would if you went in from the beginning knowing you wanted an MS. You also risk soiling relationships that you could otherwise depend on to help you later in your career. Who knows if the advisor you picked will be angry that you left the lab with a MS when they were expecting a full 5-7 years of work out of you. The people I know who quit their PhD program often quit because the tough times made them realize they liked the idea of having a PhD but didn't really understand what it was going to take to get one. Make sure you know exactly what to expect.

Lastly, whatever you decide, pick an advisor very carefully. Advisors like bosses all have a range a personalities. Some are jerks that will call you during dinner time or saturday afternoon asking to meet with you. Some you will consider filing a missing persons report because you haven't been able to get ahold of them in 2 months. Make sure whoever you end up working with goes well with you.

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I think it's ethical to apply to a PhD program if you have a good-faith belief that you want to get a PhD. You don't have to be 100% sure, so it's okay to have some lingering doubt, but I wouldn't apply to a PhD if you're just 50/50 on the fence between MA and PhD.

You should also research the precise nature of the programs you're applying to. I don't know how it works for engineering, but for MA/PhD in general, some programs have the MA as a clear "milestone" on the way to the PhD: you do coursework and write an MA thesis, and after you finish you move on to do the PhD. In this kind of program, the PhD is basically the MA plus more, so it can be easier to transition from MA-only to PhD if you later want to (since you won't have "missed anything" by doing the MA), and also easier to gracefully exit with an MA even if you begin by aiming for a PhD (because you won't have wasted any time on "PhD only" activities). In other programs, MA and PhD programs are different from the start, which makes the up-front decision more important.

In the same vein, learning more about the specific programs may give you more information about what the differences between MA and PhD options are within each program, which may help you make your decision.

I would ask faculty and/or students in these programs about these issues. In particular you might want to get a sense of the "culture" around switching between MA and PhD, which is likely to be specific to each department.

  • In my experience if you tell the admissions team that you are not 100% sure about a PhD than you have no chance of getting admitted. – StrongBad Jan 12 '14 at 15:05
  • @DanielE.Shub: There's some truth to that, but I think it's only really true if you ask and then immediately apply to the PhD. If you ask and then, say, apply the following year with a good app, you can convince them you really decided a PhD was right for you. – BrenBarn Jan 12 '14 at 19:09
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    @StrongBad: but that's just an instance of salesmen (in this case selling yourself as a candidate) being socially expected to lie. The problem is that someone admitting to only being 90% sure is presumed to really be much less sure than that. I'm 100% sure that nobody is genuinely 100% sure of anything ;-) – Steve Jessop Aug 7 '14 at 9:29
  • @StrongBad: In my experience that's not necessarily true -- it depends on the school and the professor. Some schools urge you to apply for a MS+PhD combo if you have any remote interest in a PhD (so they say apply to MS only if you're certain you don't want a PhD). In my case, I explicitly told a professor who interviewed me (over the phone) that I am interested but not 100% certain if I want to pursue a PhD, and it didn't hurt my chances in any way. YMMV. – Mehrdad Aug 7 '14 at 10:47
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I have been in a situation similar to the one you are in now and am currently seeking a phd in engineering, so I hope I can provide some insight.

To answer your question "what effect does this have on a person's adviser/professors?", my answer is, of course, the greatness of the effect varies by situation, but in general is significant. Different programs are different: in some programs you find an advisor immediately, in others you rotate labs for a period, and in others you do not select an advisor until sometime after your first semester. If you immediately have an advisor and begin working on research the first semester, as opposed to selecting an advisor/lab and beginning contributing to the research effort in the second year, then the effect on the advisor is greater. Depending on the project, it make take a lot of time for you to actually become useful in a lab, and this time relies heavily on resources (money spent paying you and training you on equipment, and the time of your advisor and of senior lab members getting you acquainted with the lab and the research).

I don't think you should expect positive references from your advisor if you leave the program immediately after having earning your master's degree. However, you and your advisor may be exceptional. It is just like an other personal relationship. The relationships you have with others in your field and program may not suffer; usually, that is because they have invested less time, money, and effort into you.

In engineering and most of the hard sciences (in the US), masters students have a stipend that at least covers the cost of tuition and phd students usually have the cost of tuition covered and additional stipend money. A program that doesn't at least cover the cost of tuition for masters students is highly suspicious to me, and in my opinion, not a place that has enough resources to best educate you. I'm now curious of what programs you're looking at... in the US?

The work involved in gaining a phd and a masters degree may be different. Some masters students are graduated after they pass a comprehensive test based on their coursework and are not required to write a thesis and work in research, therefore they do not publish, or help any faculty obtain grants. I can see this as a reason why masters students are offered less money.

Scholarships are available. Depending on your field of engineering: what is the value of obtaining a doctorate?

I agree with you: seeking a PhD solely to get a Masters/funding is dishonest. It's only January, simply applying for a phd is always okay if you're not sure which degree you want. You have months to learn more about the program and its expectations, and your own goals. When it comes time to decide whether to accept a position in a phd program, you should know that, from my point of view, not being 100% sure you'll finish the phd is normal for people, even people that accept. If you are a traditional phd candidate, coming immediately from four or five years in undergrad, you may be in your early 20's. It may be difficult to make decisions and to be certain of the next 5-7 years of your life.

With that said, working on a phd program without being nearly 100% committed may be very difficult for you. Your lack of commitment may be obvious to others that you work with. In the sciences, publishing and keeping a finger on the pulse of your field, is a time commitment many people do not expect or comprehend.

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What effect does this have on a person's adviser/professors?

This really depends on where the funding is coming from. For example in the UK you might get a 3 year grant for a PhD student since PhD programs are fixed at 3 years. If the student switches to a Masters the I cannot appoint another student, the grant "fails" and the PI (and possibly the department) may be unable to apply to that funding agency again. This can also happen in the US, but student fellowships and student duration is a little more flexible. Externally funded PhD students who do not finish are a real problem for PIs. For students who are internally funded the impact is generally less, but departments can still hold it against the PI since the money was "wasted".

Apart from funding, there is also the issue of the research. Some projects have a big ramp up times/difficult data collection. For some projects the work you do during the first year might make it impossible for another student to continue on the project.

What about references, future relationships, etc? Is it taken negatively or as an insult, or cutting ties, to bow out with the lower degree?

Yes and no. I wouldn't say it is an insult (although it matters where you go at the end), but leaving on good terms and getting a good reference can be hard since you didn't complete what you set out to do.

The way they are worded, they seem extremely interested in good PhD candidates, and not at all interested in Masters students.

Yes, many departments only want to fund PhD students. Of course it becomes difficult to convince applicants who want a Masters to not apply to the PhD program and get funding. Some departments offer different degrees for their Masters students (e.g., an MSc) and their PhD students who "drop out" (e.g., MPhil). The idea being this will dissuade students from applying for a funded PhD when all they want is a Masters.

I'm not considering seeking a PhD solely to get a Masters/funding, because that's just outright dishonest and I wouldn't stomach such deceit. But, what might the ethics be of not being certain whether you want a PhD or a Masters, but applying for a PhD program?

It is highly unethical to lie/mislead people during the admissions process. One of your goals during the admissions process is to convince the department that you really want to do a PhD. While some students are unethical and lie, many students really believe they "need" to get a PhD and still drop out.

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I think the idea of waiting and getting a job is problematic for many fields, especially "hard" ones like math or physics. I just wouldn't want my mind to be all fuzzy and have forgotten what I learned throughout college. This is certainly done successfully quite often, but if you plan on at least getting a Master's, I don't see the use in waiting and atrophying/backtracking. On the ethical question, I think you have to ask that to yourself and find what your moral code is (I am a nihilist). Maybe philosophy.stackexchange could help you with this! What is unclear to me is whether someone like you who feels somewhat unsure is even less likely at all to graduate with a PhD than someone who goes in thinking R1 Tenure or death. Your waffling MIGHT even be a sign of mental health (a GOOD thing) is what I'm getting at. I'd say screw it and act rationally, take what I could.

  • If you are good enough to get a phd in math or physics, one year in some job should not hinder your performance. Often in that year you begin to "self study" which gives you practice doing what actual scientists do. After a while you have to be able to learn subjects without courses anyways. Plus you tend to get a better idea of why you want a PhD after you have seen the alternatives and done a bit of self study in subjects that truly interest you. – WetlabStudent Jan 12 '14 at 14:54

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