I am a Canadian undergraduate student intending to get a master's degree, but not intending to get a Ph.D.

A Canadian graduate student told me that master's degree in the US are really only designed for people desiring to get a Ph.D.

Is there any truth to this statement? Do masters degrees in the US put significantly more emphasis on preparation for a Ph.D than in other countries?

  • 2
    Best way to check is to find out whether your Master's degree requires a thesis or not. A course without a thesis usually implies a terminal degree whereas with thesis could mean both. (See the MEng example pointed below)
    – user107
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 5:51

7 Answers 7


This is a partial representation of the truth. On the one hand, departments are always looking to retain masters students as PhD students; it's better for the department (better numbers), it's better for the professors (more research from PhD relative to masters), and it's better for the university. On the other hand, simply looking at the numbers you'll see that most masters students do not go on to become a PhD student [1]. I think it's safe to say that most students who go through masters programs enter with a goal in mind (academia or industry) and finish with that same goal in mind.

I don't know how it works in other countries, so I can't compare that. Also, regarding whether they put more emphasis on PhD preparation than in other countries, I don't know how to quantify that.

  • 4
    "Departments are always looking to retain masters students as PhD students"? There are lots of institutions that offer masters degrees but have no PhD program at all. Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 16:42
  • 3
    In some fields and universities, masters students provide a pool of talent to do the day-to-day work on long-term department projects, and they know from the start they are probably only going to stick with the masters programs. For instance, in CS, there are research groups that have developed simulators over the course of a decade, and many times it is the masters students who find a niche to improve the simulator that is more project than research, and they don't have to worry about getting side-tracked away from long-term research. Commented Feb 16, 2013 at 4:08

There are two very different kinds of computer science master's degrees:

  • Professional master programs involve taking lots of classes, but have no research requirement. These are almost universally considered (academically) terminal degrees. The actual degree is usually not "M.S.", but something similar like "M.Eng." (Cornell) or "M.C.S." (UIUC).

  • Research masters programs require at least a modicum of original research, usually leading to a thesis. These are generally (but not universally) considered preparation for a PhD program, because of the research component. The actual degree is usually "M.S." In some departments, the MS program is equivalent to MCS + thesis; in other programs, the MS program has different (usually smaller but more advanced) course requirements.

It is very important to know which type of master's program you are applying to.

  • 4
    I just want to emphasize that the magic term here is terminal masters, and it's perfectly viable to simple google around or directly ask schools if they have a terminal masters program.
    – Henry
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 13:34
  • 1
    @JeffE I don't think the original question is specific to computer science. Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 20:08

Also keep in mind that this is very field-dependent as well as program dependent. There are no hard-and-fast rules.

In a lot of fields in the natural sciences, an M.S. is the standard working degree, and so in many fields people traditionally do a stand-alone M.S. regardless of whether they plan on going on to a PhD.

As an example, in geoscience, M.S. degrees are one of two types:

  1. Those handed out automatically en route to a PhD (usually after passing quals/prelims).
  2. Those that consist of a stand-alone project/degree.

The big difference with other fields is that the stand-alone, industry-oriented M.S. is the one that requires a thesis. The other is rather meaningless unless you get a PhD from the same program as well.

Both are common precursors to a PhD (it's very common in geoscience to do an M.S. on a fairly different project than your PhD). However, the first type isn't seen as its own degree, and is often looked down upon (e.g. "he/she dropped out with an M.S." vs. "he/she got their M.S. at XYZ").


Its extremely field and program dependent. For example, in my field, Epidemiology, there are (I'd argue) actually three types of Masters degrees. Annoyingly, they're not named consistently, so you have to read a program's description to figure out which is which:

  • Preparation for PhD degrees (MSPH, MPH): These degrees are intended to be stepping stones towards a PhD in the field. Emphasis is on advanced classwork and research, they may actually be joint admissions (get your MSPH and then your PhD), etc.
  • Post-doctoral terminal degrees (usually MPH): So you already have a doctorate degree of some sort. PhD, MD, JD...and find yourself doing public health work, and in need of a somewhat more formalized treatment of the subject. These are very classwork heavy, often with classes that don't entirely overlap with the PhD-type classes, depending on the audience. They often don't have as heavy a research component to them.
  • Masters-as-Final-Degree (MSPH, MPH): Tons of public health work doesn't need a doctorate, and everyone knows it. Data manager or statistical analyst for the government, industry or academia? That's a Master's level position. Most local/state public health work can and is done by people with Master's degrees as well. These often emphasize more practical experiences - internships, practicums, etc.

So many master's degree programs are oriented toward the PhD track, but there's a considerable number in some fields that are designed for people who don't want to head into academia, but need an advanced degree for one reason or another - going into industry, government service, etc.


If you look at the description for Cornell M.Eng program in computer science, you'd find it describes itself as:

The M.Eng. program in Computer Science is a one-year (two semester) professional development program designed to enhance professional skills in practical computer science. The program is particularly suited to students seeking advanced credentials for employment in industry

So, I would have said it depends from program to program, but I won't - most MS programs in computer science in US have the same (unstated) goals, and while candidates entering the PhD program find it convenient to have already had a MS degree (reduces course credit requirements), the majority of the graduates take up jobs in the industry. Some MS programs have a thesis option, wherein it takes an extra semester to graduate but provides a platform for tasting research - if you opt for that, then you may consider this as a preparatory semester for a doctoral program.


There are many kinds of masters programs.

  • Often students intending on going into industry in a technical field will get a masters degree. Many schools have masters programs specifically designed for such a student; they are usually focused on coursework rather than research.

  • There are degrees like the MBA (Master of Business Administration) that are designed for business people who have no interest in academic careers, and do not lead to a doctorate.

  • In some fields the masters degree is terminal, and doctoral degrees are rare or nonexistent. For instance, in the fine and performing arts, the masters (MFA) is the highest degree offered by most institutions.

  • A masters degree is typically the minimum requirement for faculty at two-year community colleges; some students in masters programs are headed for such a career.

  • In many states, high school teachers are encouraged to have a masters degree in their subject. Some universities have masters programs in fields such as mathematics, history, or English, that are specifically designed for prospective or working teachers in these areas, and are not preparation for a Ph.D.


It's the other way around. That's because America is a nation of "doers" at least compared to Europeans.

MANY U.S. Master's degrees are terminal degrees. Think of a Master's as a "two year graduate" degree, just like an associates degree is a "two year college" degree.

Americans don't like to spend more time on education than necessary. There are Master's programs that lead to PhDs. But something like 40 percent of students in "non-terminal" degrees are foreign, not American, born.

You seem to fit the "American" mold.

  • 1
    I don't think throwing out a bunch of stereotypes without support helps the OP. And what is that last sentence supposed to mean? Sounds like an underhanded insult to me.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 8:27
  • @xLeitix: My remarks come from someone who has finished a Masters degree and dropped out of a PhD program. The last sentence means, "You are one of us." Coming from me, it's a compliment, not an insult. The fact of the matter is that America issues a larger percentage two-year associates degrees, and more "terminal" (two year) Master's degrees than most developed countries. You may interpret this phenomenon differently from me.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 18:58
  • 1
    – Aru Ray
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 13:24

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .