I'm looking to do a graduate course in computer science in the US and was particularly attracted to several non-terminal MS CS programs, which you'd enroll as a PhD student, but acquire the MS en route. Some of these MS-PhD programs have better financial support by the institution compared to the terminal MS program. For example Harvard offers all of its PhD students full financial support.

My question is: If I'm enrolled into say Harvard's or any other PhD program looking to get MS en route. After acquiring the Masters Will I be able to have the flexibility to not progress towards after PhD for whatever reason, without any consequences like having to pay back the financial aid or something?

  • @PaulAsiimwe Can't you apply for a program which only offers a masters to you?
    – enthu
    Oct 3, 2014 at 9:15
  • Yes I can, but in the event that I decide to go into a PhD after the terminal masters, taking the Ms-PhD I would be great in hind sight.
    – Asiimwe
    Oct 3, 2014 at 9:17
  • What is the ultimate goal out of going for an MSPhD path? Are you planning to do research or teach, for example? I have an MS in CS, and am probably never going to do a PhD because I have no present need for one. I'm not a great teacher and practical application is more of my thing than theory and research.
    – Compass
    Oct 3, 2014 at 13:38
  • More of Research.
    – Asiimwe
    Oct 3, 2014 at 13:39
  • 1
    Got it. Then the PhD is probably important in the long run.
    – Compass
    Oct 3, 2014 at 14:12

3 Answers 3


(Copied from my comments)


  1. In some cases the terminal MS program costs you more because you are expected to only do coursework, whereas in the MS-PhD program you are expected to service the department as a research or teaching assistant.

  2. I would expect that if a school offers both options they would frown upon your entering the PhD track with the intention of quitting after the MS

  3. Most importantly, this is something that you can and should ask the administrators at the schools you are looking at. There's a good chance that the policy is different school to school.

To answer your second question, it depends on what you mean by consequences:

If you meant only financial ones: I've known many cases (not in CS) where students quit after the masters, and in none of those cases were they asked to pay the school back. Mostly because of point (1) above. In fact, some departments offering the MS-PhD program seem to take it as a given that some students will drop out. But depends on what you want to do, there could be non-financial consequences: People who've invested time in you may be reluctant to write you recommendation letters etc.

  • 4
    They can frown all they want, but they can't prevent you from just packing your bags and driving away at the end of any semester.
    – JeffE
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:59
  • @JeffE Don't you want your certificate though?
    – Noein
    Aug 27, 2018 at 15:37

In my experience in looking for graduate programs, many schools won't let you graduate with a Masters if you apply for a PhD.

That isn't entirely true, however. Depending on the school, you can drop out once you reach ABD status (All but dissertation) and they will give you the Masters. This means you have to complete all the PhD course work before granting you a Masters.

Speaking with one of my professors as an undergrad, she told me that if she knew a student intended to be a terminal MA/MS, they'd throw their PhD application out.

To my knowledge the reason for this is mostly because of what Willie Wong said in his answer. PhD students who receive funding are taking resources from the school that could otherwise have been given to another applicant. They don't want applicants who intend to drop out after getting a Masters using up funds intended for PhD students. It requires applicants to be serious about completing the program.


The answer depends on which program you enroll into. Extrapolating from the small number of universities I have looked at when applying for a PhD in computer science, many universities do allow students to leave after getting an M.S..

E.g. at MIT, ~10% of students get the M.S. but leave before getting the PhD, so it's far from being an exception:

MIT closely monitors the retention and graduation rates of its graduate students. When preparing the data schedules for our accreditation report, the Office of Institutional Research analyzed several graduate student cohorts and confirmed that retention rates are high. For example, among those entering the School of Science from 1996 to 2001, approximately 90 percent graduated with a masters or doctoral degree (roughly 80 percent earning doctorates). Further information can be found in the Graduate E Schedule. Many of our efforts to support and retain graduate students are described in the advising section of Chapter 5.

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