I recently had an interview with a professor regarding a PhD opening in their research group, for which I applied and successfully interviewed. The professor has offered me the opportunity to pursue a PhD at their university, which is located in the USA. While the university is excellent, I have always had a personal goal to attend a university ranked in the top 100, and eventually progress to a top 20 or even higher-ranking institution. However, since a PhD will be the final degree in my academic career, I am keen to have an affiliation with a prestigious university such as Caltech, MIT, Stanford, and others.

My question is how I can approach the professor to inquire about the possibility of funding for a master's degree only. I want to clarify that my interest in pursuing a master's degree elsewhere is not due to any concerns about the research quality or the professor's group. In fact, I greatly admire their work. My main concern is fulfilling my aspiration of being affiliated with a highly ranked university.

  • It could help you achieve you goal. It could also (and I find this much more likely) be a way of sabotaging your academic career in the pursuit of an essentially narcissistic goal. The goal of having a successful academic or professional career is a fine one and it might -- or might not -- be that aiming for a top 20 institution is the best way to achieve this in your particular situation. The desire to be "affiliated with a highly ranked university" for its own sake, however, strikes me as a clearly narcissistic one. Jul 20 at 23:13
  • To be clear, I don't mean this as an insult -- it's normal to have narcissistic desires of various kinds. I simply mean that it would probably do you well, in terms of both professional success and just general life happiness, to re-examine your deeply held self-image as "someone-who-will-have-gone-to-Stanford". Jul 20 at 23:13

2 Answers 2


Preliminary comment: Thinking in terms of ranking is usually not a good idea. You should think of the best place you can be for your specific area of interest. That may be the best groups in a field and yes, they may be at a top-ranked university, but then again, they may be further down that ranking list. Just generically aiming for high-ranked places is not going to advance your career unless you can be motivated by prestige only and you do not care what you do.

Now to your main question: can you ask for MSc studentship only? You can ask, but it is not a good move. If you get offered a PhD and downgrade your acceptance to a MSc, it shows limited committment and interest on your side (and correctly so, given your thinking in terms of ranking), and it's a waste of time by the prof to educate you in a field, only to see you leave.

In fact, many profs would like to upgrade some of their MSc students to PhDs when they are good. The opposite direction is not attractive unless the student is weak.


I don't think that this would be received well (but I also don't think anyone will take it personally). Just be prepared to either have the professor say no or even rescind the offer altogether. Masters are usually not funded, at least not fully. Why would a PI waste funding on someone who will only be around for 1-2 years and will never really do work on the level of a PhD candidate? On top of that, PhD funding is often specifically earmarked - it isn't a free pool of money. I guess if you really don't want to be at a particular university it doesn't hurt to ask since you don't lose anything (other than a guaranteed funded PhD).

So on some level, you have to do whatever you want. If your goal is "go to a top 100 (or top 20) university", shoot your shot. I personally think that rankings are crap and almost always very biased, but that's not really relevant here.

I would caution you about chasing names and prestige in general though. By all means try to go to the best, "highest ranked" university you can. But be aware that many "mid-tier" university are, practically, just as good as the best. There are obviously advantages to having a brand-name degree, but if the program you are considering is solid and fits well then it will probably allow you to get where you want to go. I doubt you will advance that far on degree name alone - you still need to do good work.

That being said, I think the most important consideration is your situation. Do you have any offers from better universities? Do you think you have a realistic shot at a "top tier" university? Why bother to do a master's at this university at all? Why do you feel that you need to go to a highly ranked school?

Your answer to those questions might help you make a decision. You have an offer from a university you describe as excellent with an advisor you "greatly admire". In my experience it is very easy to get greedy when you have a "safe" option in hand. Basically just be realistic.

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    One correction: we can put MS students on grants like a PhD student. There are no additional restrictions. It's more the matter of your other points. Why invest in someone who will never become as productive as you require? The most expensive and least productive years for students in research are the first two. I have found two PIs who paid for MS students in 13 years, and it was because they were already admitted and were deemed "special". Jul 19 at 12:03
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    You seem to have hit all of the important points. I also doubt that it could happen or that it would be advantageous if it did.
    – Buffy
    Jul 19 at 12:43
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    @yourfriendlyresearchadmin I was actually supported by grant money during my masters! But at the time, I was really the only master's level student who received any money and, as you say, I was already admitted (I don't know that I was special though haha). I was referring to university funded spots. I least at my last institution, the department was able to provide funding for some PhD students. This was straight from the school's coffers and did have some restrictions i.e., you couldn't just decide to use it for a master's student. I realize this might be institution specific.
    – sErISaNo
    Jul 19 at 18:26
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    @sErISaNo -- it's not only institution specific, it's school, and department specific. It really is up to whoever controls the purse strings. Where I work, that is the PI, who may have discretionary funds or grant funding. If they don't want to use it, that's the end of the conversation; there are no larger dept funds for this. At my previous institution, PIs had very little discretionary funding, and it was more likely that students were admitted as PhDs and just left with the MS because it wasn't working out (I worked in Chemistry) -- however, it wasn't planned to be an MS upfront. Jul 19 at 21:05

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