I am referring to US graduate schools here. I am now having schools that I like very much, but I am not sure whether I can withstand the competition towards PhD admission so I am thinking about also submitting an application for the less competitive master degree program (if admitted, I could apply to PhD in the same department after graduation as an alternative route to research). Is it bad to do so? The reason I am worrying is that I have seen people say that submitting 2 applications like this will convey a sign to the committee that you don't know what you want to do in the future. See the answer of this post

  • I actually did this for my 4th and final attendance of a graduate program (yes, I have a rather checkered academic history) as I was pretty sure I would have no chance otherwise (and it was an applied subfield, so I was able to say in my application letter that I was seeking applicable job skills). My intent was to do this as a fall-back, but mainly pursue Ph.D. courses and qualifying exams as a Ph.D. student, which I did (very successfully, due to recent life-changing experiences). What makes this interesting is that when my supervisor reported my successful completion of (continued) Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 10:50
  • my "2nd level Ph.D. exams" the department's graduate studies director called me into his office to say that according to the records he had, I was an M.A. applied math student, which no one realized because of my classroom/seminar work. He said someone should have caught this sooner, but he'd take care of it. In my case, I had a solid (but unusual) background in pure math before this, but no applicable job skills other than teaching (which I'd done a bit of at several levels), so my application letter was quite convincing I think (plus, I did plan on doing the M.A. if I failed the quals). Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 10:59
  • @DaveLRenfro If I get you correctly, you are admitted as a Master student but you are "promoted" to a PhD student, right? Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 12:51
  • Do you have any evidence that the MS program is less competitive? Note that the MS program and the early part of the doctoral program overlap heavily, if not completely at most US universities. Same faculty, same courses....
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 17:04
  • I actually had an M.A. in math (pure math option, if it existed; I don't remember) from another university 3 years prior to beginning this program, and thus I was essentially entering a "different program" as this was an M.S. (just checked now) in applied mathematics. I had previously also been in two different Ph.D. programs (but not "admitted to candidacy" in either), and as such I felt (correctly) that very few programs would at this point take a chance with me despite certain past achievements. (continued) Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 17:51

1 Answer 1


Based on the tag, I will give a US-specific answer.

Often, but not always, the difference between the masters and the first part of a PhD is that the PhD program comes with funding.

If your intent is to get the PhD eventually anyway, I would not recommend considering an unfunded masters. This is essentially the same as starting a PhD without funding. Reasons not to do that are discussed in Is it worth self-funding a PhD to attend a top 10 university?.

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