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I'm at the cusp of selecting a MSc programme in Europe before re-applying to American PhD's and I'm at a loss how to decide which MSc position I should take.

I'm strongly convinced I want to do a PhD with a person at Columbia U., UT Texas and some elite schools. All of these people have a shared interest (narrowly defined field of research) and I'm wondering how I can improve my chances down the road to study with them.

First off, a PI's at one of the schools I've been accepted to is working in the same field; goes to the same conferences, visits the PhD PI's and, is probably on quite good terms with them. I could not verify this any further without asking too obvious questions. So to me it seems like an advantage, however this MSc programme is not well established and hence doesn't have the 'prestige' like the other programmes I applied to.

I'm tempted, perhaps because of my upbringing, to contact the PhD PI's I'm interested in and straight-up asking them if they'd recommend any of the MSc programmes. Would this seem overbearing? I can't really tell and the cultural differences make it more ambiguous.

  • Have you considered picking a masters program that fits your interests, rather than tuning it towards one certain institution. Going abroad, showing flexibility is never a bad thing, you might also like it in Europe and might even consider to stay... – Martin - マーチン Mar 27 '14 at 5:04
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There are a number of major issues here:

  • In the US, you normally do not need a master's degree to be admitted. Keep in mind that in the US, the PhD program normally begins with a coursework phase, which roughly corresponds to the European master's degree, before the research phase.

  • Additionally, in the US, admissions are normally done at the departmental level, rather than at the level of an individual PI. The PI might have some say in admissions—particularly if she serves on the admissions committee—but there is no guarantee that you'll get admission to the school of your choice.

  • Moreover, in many schools and programs, particularly those where the advisor-graduate student "matching process" takes place after enrollment, advisors are normally not allowed to make commitments to particular students prior to enrollment. Additionally, the advisors generally have to show the ability to pay for the graduate students they take into their group, but also have the freedom to select any of the graduate students in the class.

So, you may be spending two or more years pursuing a master's degree that may not be needed, so that you can take a chance on whether or not a particular advisor has both funding and open positions, and also wants you over the other students interested in joining the research group. There are a lot of places where things can go wrong here.

So, my recommendation would be to talk to the programs, find out if you need a master's degree before applying (or if they'll exempt you from the coursework you've already had). You should also note that tailoring your application too narrowly to the interests of a single advisor is not always advantageous in a US graduate application, because if the advisor who you're trying to appeal to isn't interested, the other faculty will probably pass as well, and you'll end up without an offer of admission.

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  • I know I don't need an MSc, it's just that I didn't get accepted to the PhDs this round of applications. I will apply this winter, now that I beefed up my CV with 2 publications, a conference and a somewhat prestigious summer school. I want to use the MSc to improve my profile: I graduated from a liberal arts college and don't have a stellar GPA (3.75). – Piotr Sokol Mar 26 '14 at 22:20
  • As I said, though, trying to appeal to one faculty member at a US school isn't always a viable strategy. You're probably better off excelling at a good program rather than trying to exploit a PI's connections to get into another advisor's group at a different university. – aeismail Mar 26 '14 at 22:30
  • Well, not aligning it is not a useful heuristic. Is it at least ok to email the PI and ask him directly for advice b/c I want to work with him later? – Piotr Sokol Mar 26 '14 at 23:06
  • Expressing interest in someone's work is never a bad thing—just try not to turn it into a sales pitch (which some professors don't like, and may actively discourage). – aeismail Mar 26 '14 at 23:33

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