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I am roughly in the following situation (field: physics/mathematics, location: Europe): I have enough credits to finish my undergraduate degree this year if I want to. I can also choose to stay as an undergrad for another year. I have done almost all undergraduate courses at my university that interest me, so I would be doing graduate courses 90% of the time. With some extra work, I could obtain a master's degree at my university. However, I could also apply for a PhD program immediately after finishing undergrad next year, without getting a master's degree first.

Not counting research experience, is it advantageous to 'formalize' one's graduate courses by getting a master's degree, from the viewpoint of career opportunities?

I am not sure about this because on the one hand, a master's degree may give other people a better indication of one's ability, but on the other hand admissions committees and such may be more demanding from students with a master's degree.

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    admissions committees and such may be more demanding from students with a master's degree — This is absolutely the case in the US. – JeffE May 27 '14 at 5:23
  • Do you plan on doing a PhD after this possible Masters? If so, why not just go for the PhD right away? – Leo Uieda May 27 '14 at 12:00
  • @LeoUieda I would like to do a PhD at a top school, and I need recommendation letters for that and apply in October in order to join the next year. Meanwhile, I could apply for a Master's as late as this summer and still get in. – Onsager May 27 '14 at 19:51
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Not counting research experience, is it advantageous to 'formalize' one's graduate courses by getting a master's degree, from the viewpoint of career opportunities?

For industry, yes, it is advantageous to get the Master's degree if you're doing basically the same work. The Master's degree is generally considered a terminal professional degree for many industries, so there's some value in getting that rather than just a Bachelor's degree.

For academia, no, it's typically not advantageous. Most US-based PhD programs will require you to do core coursework roughly equivalent to a Master's degree regardless of whether or not you already have one. (I do not know enough about European programs to comment on them.) They will also typically present you with an opportunity to earn a Master's on the way to your PhD. Thus, getting one before you start a PhD program at another university is, perhaps, redundant. The only exception is if you are planning to switch your focus a bit. For example, you might get a Master's in Public Health and then start a PhD program in Computer Science focusing on applying computer science research to public health problems.

You also mentioned that you were interested in a PhD, but wanted solid letters of recommendation so that you could have a reasonable chance at a top university. The best way to do this may not be through coursework. Obviously, coursework is important, but you may find that working with a research group as an undergrad allows you to more closely interact with a faculty member and get a more personal letter of recommendation. Professors write letters of recommendation for students based on coursework all the time, but it's more rare for them to write one for an undergraduate with whom they have worked on research projects. Also, this would allow you to determine whether or not you enjoy research and learn a bit more about what you would like from a graduate school. Research is quite different from coursework. It's more of a career than a school experience.

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    Most PhD programs [in the US and some other countries] will require you to do core coursework roughly equivalent to a Master's degree regardless of whether or not you already have one. In other countries, the situation is very different. (The OP is in Europe) – ff524 May 30 '14 at 15:45
  • Thanks! I've updated the original post to reflect this. – Aaron Massey May 30 '14 at 22:02
  • Indeed, for example in Denmark and Finland the master's degree is the standard(at least for now) Like 95% go for master's degree, in fact you are admitted to both undergrad+grad and I think the PhD programs look favorably to those with master's because the structure is different to US PhD. – Samuli Lehtonen Jun 13 '15 at 19:46
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In Europe, the answer depends on your field and what kind of PhD you apply for but generally (and especially in the UK) a candidate with a masters is more competitive when applying for the PhD and will be more likely to progress to interview.

The reason for this is that with a masters degree you are expected to have completed an extended piece of project work and small thesis. This reassures the admissions committee that you understand the undertakings of a PhD and what it will require and have developed those skills (beyond book learning). The biggest benefit of the masters in the eyes of the PhD admissions committee is not the extra and fairly broad knowledge (a PhD is, after all, very specific) but the experience of planning and undertaking an independent project and writing/presenting a high quality report on it.

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