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I am interested in a PhD in Data Science program that was recently started at my alma mater university.

I received my Master's in Health Informatics from this university, and following graduation I have been employed by the university as a Data Analyst, approaching two years now. The new Data Science graduate program has both a Master's and PhD level option. While I'm confident I would be accepted to the Master's program, I cannot in good conscience take on more student debt.

The PhD program however, has the chance of a tution waiver. I personally feel that I would excel in this program, but I am worried that the academic side of my application may look lackluster in comparison to applicants who have focused on data science their entire career.

My background was initially cognitive neuroscience, prior to switching my focus to data analysis while working in a lab, and later choosing to get my Master's in Healthcare Informatics. In this regard I feel like I may be outcompeted by CS/Data Science students.

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From your profile and context in your post, I assume you're in the US.

In the US, people typically apply directly to PhD degrees from their bachelor's programs; taking some time to do other things in between does happen and is normal. While those other things might include a masters degree, it doesn't need to.

You've worked in a university setting, have a masters degree in a related field, and have further scientific background. With that background, I don't know why you would want or need to add any industry experience; you have a good profile to apply for graduate school.

However, it's pretty limiting to restrict yourself to a single program. If you really want a PhD, you should apply more broadly. If you're only interested in this program, though, there's at least really nothing preventing you from applying. The application fee and effort towards a single application is fairly minimal.

If you're looking to move to industry to pay off debt or other reasons, that's a reasonable choice, though it's likely to be a bit of a shock going back to an academic stipend, and you'll be further in time from the academic connections that will help you as far as recommendation letters and understanding the field. If your end goal is to make money, a PhD will probably not help you much compared to a Masters + experience in industry. Think about why you want to do a PhD.

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