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I was accepted into an MA in economics at a very prestigious school without funding and a PhD in politics at a reputable state school with full funding/stipend. My intended research in the PhD program is political behavior/behavioral economics, and the MA training would probably enhance my PhD research as it covers formal economic knowledge that wouldn't be covered in my PhD studies + more rigorous than the economics classes available at the state school. Would it be possible to complete both programs simultaneously, e.g. take a 1-year deferral from the MA, start the PhD, and then start the MA as a 2nd year PhD when there is more teaching/research and not as many classes left to attend?

Obviously, if I go through with this, I will make sure that both programs are ok with this, so my question is more about the feasibility of studying in 2 programs simultaneously and completing them successfully. The universities are within 2 hours commute from each other, so it is feasible from the perspective of commute. The MA is not as research-focused, so it's basically attending classes and taking exams.

As a side note - yes, I have a major FOMO about not having a fancy diploma from a prestigious university. It's just that, given the competitive state of PhD admissions, it seems dumb to give up on a top-30 PhD program that aligns perfectly with my interests (and seems quite eager to have me too).

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    I'm doing a PhD and an MSc simultaneously, both part time alongside a full time job and in different subjects. So, it's possible. It's not easy though. Apr 18 at 10:19
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    @ScottishTapWater it is not even comparable, because you have a full time job supporting you, the other things are (by definition) taking less than your full-time. On top of that, please clarify if your PhD is funded. Not funded PhD are way easier to manage: in the end it is simply an agreement and a professor supervising you. (and of course, you are saying it is possible without even having finished, so it is not such a strong anedoctal point, let alone the survivorship bias that necessarily would be relevant if you finished them xkcd.com/1827 )
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 18 at 14:10
  • @EarlGrey - I did say it's not easy... but no, it's not funded which does indeed make it easier Apr 18 at 14:53
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    @ScottishTapWater I did not want to sound too negative. My remark was aimed to the fact that being a researcher (a PhD student is one) is a full-time job and additionally a hobby: if you are frustrated with your job, it is very hard to slack off because your hobby coincides with your job :D . At least you have two possible distinct sources of frustration ;) ! Good luck with your endeavour
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 18 at 15:03

5 Answers 5

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If your combination of graduate programs will let you pursue some combination of deferrals I suppose it's not illegal to complete both programs in some interleaved fashion, but you absolutely should not expect to work on both at the same time at any point. I fear you are trying to come up with this solution mostly to avoid making a decision between them; I don't think that's a good approach.

If I understand your proposed timeline correctly, it seems like you think that for the PhD degree you'll have a busy first couple years with classes, and then once those are over it's easy sailing and you can complete your masters requirements while you do your research on the side.

I think this is entirely misunderstanding the demands of a PhD and research. It's a lot of work, a full-time job for most, more than a full-time job for many (whether by internal or external pressures).

I think you are also misunderstanding the value of courses applied to PhD research. PhD research is so specialized and boundary-pushing that courses do not really help the PhD beyond a certain point. It's not likely you're going to have a higher-quality PhD because you completed a few extra masters courses; your PhD is going to be pushing past what any courses can possibly provide and if it's not then it's not a proper PhD. I think this is a really great diagram of what a PhD means that I originally saw on a different answer here:

original credit: Matt Might:

enter image description here

The masters degree creates a bit of foundation, but a bit more foundation there does very little to help with that push at the boundary. If you want to continue in an academic career, you'll be competing with people who spent all their time pushing that boundary and their time learning on reading papers specific to their particular area of the boundary and other adjacent areas to help solve their specific problem. You can't replace that with more masters-level courses.

If you want a career outside of academia specifically, this site is probably not the best place to look for advice, but it's possible the masters degree with a fancy name will serve you as well or better than a PhD. If it comes to picking one or the other, that decision will have to depend on your personal career goals and you'll want to get advice from places besides just here. I do not think it's likely that the benefits will come from increased rigor at a fancy named school, though; reputable state schools are just as likely to have rigorous coursework. You may be even more likely to be taught by an actual professor rather than a fellow graduate student, but this will vary by course and school.

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  • Thank you for your answer, that is exactly what I needed to hear to be content with my decision. Most of my circle knows little about academia and how much value the school name may add to your prospects as a researcher, so I was seeking advice from insiders. My thinking was that more degrees = better prospects, and I am certainly influenced by people talking about how "unless your PhD is from a top 10 school, you won't have a job." It's helpful to know that this MA won't add much value to my research (or at least that I can attain the same value by taking econ courses at my home institution).
    – Kira K
    Apr 18 at 21:51
  • @KiraK I think even at top 10 schools, people going into PhD degrees should not necessarily count on an academic career afterwards. But it's likely that the program you're accepted to has some statistics available to you about where recent graduates are ending up. That's probably better information to rely on.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 19 at 16:54
  • the university that offered me the PhD has a pretty impressive placement record + very productive research output, which would probably be helpful in the future. The MA school was a bit more concerning regarding the placement. Yes, they list all the fancy companies the grads worked for since the program was introduced, but it's vague regarding how many people find a top-tear job in the 6 months after graduation (and I only found a handful of those successful grads on LinkedIn). Also, their PhD in economics program admitted 6 of their MA grads in the last 6 years which seems bad
    – Kira K
    Apr 24 at 21:37
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This is likely a bad idea:

  • You say your MS is without funding. Does this mean you're paying tuition? If so, that's a lot of money, and your field is not particularly lucrative after graduation.
  • PhDs are a lot of work, and so are master's degrees. Doing both at once is a lot. A two-hour commute is also a lot: two hours each way five days a week is 20 hours/week; that's another part-time job. Even one-hour each way two days a week is a nontrivial amount of time.
  • As Bryan's excellent answer points out, an extra master's probably won't help you that much. Academics care about your research more than your credentials, and non-academics will care about the fact that you have a PhD and your useful skills. Neither will give much weight to your master's once you have a PhD in the same field.
  • Your PhD program might not be "fancy," but it sounds like it's a serious program, so I would expect it to be competitive. Further, the second year is really make-or-break for your reputation. It would be better to spend 60 hours/week on your research for that year, rather than 30 on your research and 30 on your master's (or more likely, since there will be difficult exams, 15 on your research and 45 on your master's).

Now to your point...

the MA training would probably enhance my PhD research as it covers formal economic knowledge that wouldn't be covered in my PhD studies + more rigorous than the economics classes available at the state school

I suspect your state school offers economics classes, and as a PhD, you should have the necessary skills to close any rigor gap without taking formal classes.

If you think I'm wrong, I would suggest you discuss this with someone in your field -- either your new advisor/graduate director, or someone at your current institution, if you're still in college. But I wouldn't just frame the conversation as "is this allowed"; instead, I would describe why you think this is a good idea (the economics part, not the "fancy names are fancy" part) and ask if they agree.

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  • I am guessing the difference in economic rigor between the top 30 school that happens to be a state school and the fancy school will not be much. Heck, they may have a lot of collaborations. For instance in the Research Triangle, Duke, UNC, and NC State Econ departments do a decent amount of stuff together. Students can take classes across campuses, etc.
    – Dawn
    Apr 18 at 4:24
  • Thank you! Yes, the MA is very pricey and I would have to rely on loans/financial aid to fund it. It will be a lot of money, but, realistically, I could get a job that pays accordingly given my location and existing network (whether I want that type of job is a different question lol). However, as Bryan pointed out above, this won't help me much, and based on your answer I see that I'm overestimating the value of "fancy name." I was a bit scared to bring it up with GSD right after being admitted because I don't want to look like an ingrateful brat, so I'm very grateful for your input.
    – Kira K
    Apr 18 at 21:59
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I did this. I would not recommend it. I had a full time job, kids, a wife, and was enrolled in an MS program at one school (online, at least) while completing a PhD dissertation at my alma mater.

It was difficult, and that did not include a separate commute or courses at my PhD school, which thankfully I had already completed.

I would definitely not do what you are suggesting. The benefits from a PhD from a top-30 school are likely to exceed those from an MS from a top-(<30) school, so I would do that.

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On one hand, if you can survive a MA at a prestigious university without funding, i.e. with your money and loans, it means you are rich or rich enough to get a loan, it will be easier to get a job to pay back the loan through your connections and your alumni (what do you pay a lot of money for, otherwise?). If you can afford it and you are willing to indirectly preserve the current state of affairs, with students put under mental stress by the combinatoin of debt and social pressure of clinging on the circular reputation benefits produced from big names university and their alumni associations, put your FOMO to rest and go ahead, you will get a job, research and progress will be taken care by badly-paid immigrants led by psycopathic professors.

If, on the other hand, you are at or below the median wealth class, it is worthwhile to consider that a PhD is a funded opportunity, at least you can survive in a world of badly-paid workers led by psycopathic professors. As a plan B you will likely be accepted without funding by the prestigious university in 2 years from now if things with your PhD goes south, and you will find the exams much easier (you know, in 2 years of PhD you will be exposed to many more topics you can possibly adsorb, so your brain will become very efficient) and as you exit your PhD you will be a bit more independent from alumni and family wealth to get a job (or you will be in the academic lottery).

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  • I can survive the MA thanks to my DINK household if I take out those loans + I'm a spoiled kid with no student loans (scholarship) and a comparatively well-paying job that provides access to professional networks so it will be a terrible but manageable situation. Reading the responses to my question made me realize that it's not worth it, and your comment about the "world of badly-paid workers led by psychopathic professors" made me appreciate how lucky I am to have an opportunity to choose my research topics without worrying about paying back my student loans in the future.
    – Kira K
    Apr 18 at 22:16
  • @KiraK from how you describe your situation and aims, just go for an MBA, you do not need the pain of the MA.
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 19 at 6:06
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    Yeah nah, I find my corporate job pretty boring, and getting an MBA will probably lead to a similarly boring job with higher expectations.
    – Kira K
    Apr 24 at 21:40
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    Then the only advantage of MA (big name ---> reputation boost that leads to big placement in corporate job) is even less appealing, isn't it? If you are ambitious: please consider that a very good PhD will open up the path to being a professor at big name uni ... not the other way around ;)
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 25 at 9:54
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You state yourself that it seems unwise to give up a place on a fully-funded PhD at a top 30 institution, so it seems you have answered your own question. However, you cannot simultaneously complete each degree. You will not, or should not, have enough time to complete both forms of study at the same time if you are doing it correctly. In fact, universities are very strict in terms of admissions and they usually have regulations in place to prevent students from undertaking too many hours to prevent needless academic failure. Typically, you would not be able to study at two institutions at once and must complete one before proceeding to another course. This rule is in place for a reason as you would more than likely fail. Therefore, you must make a decision.

Alternatively, you could ask to do an integrated PhD course in which you need to complete an MA and pass all of your assessments before proceeding to the PhD if you lack confidence in your ability to complete the PhD, or you believe your previous study is not relevant enough to your current subject area.

As for giving up an opportunity to study at an elite school, a top 30 institution for your subject area will still be very beneficial for your employment opportunities even if the institution is not ivy league or Russell Group (don't know which country you are from). On the other hand, if you are determined to do the master's at the elite university and feel you are not ready to move onto a PhD then you can reapply to a programme after or near its completion. It wouldn't decrease your chances of securing another place if you do well.

You are the only person that can make this decision for yourself, but you must first consider your motivations for study and make an appropriate decision which would benefit you the most rather than studying for this master's, or PhD, for superficial reasons.

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