I'm an undergrad and have been looking at my professors' CVs. While some of them went straight from earning their undergraduate degree to earning their PhD (which is what I was thinking of doing since it seems more direct), I noticed several of them first earned a master's degree in pure math after finishing undergrad, then went to another institution to earn their PhD. I was wondering if there are any overall benefits/drawbacks to earning a master's degree at one school and then entering a PhD program at another, versus jumping straight into a PhD program?

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    FYI: In some countries (the UK and Australia, for example), one need not do a masters before entering a PhD programme. In other countries, you do. Nov 13 '14 at 21:17
  • Two points: (1) Some undergrad programs in the US offer accelerated Master's programs so it makes it very convenient and (2) depending on the state, public universities may get funding based on the number of graduates, so they may force all PhD students to take a MS along the way. Nov 13 '14 at 21:32
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    This depends on your branch of science/mathematics. One answer in my field of study is sometimes an undergraduate may want to further hone their mathematical chops before taking on a PhD, in which case they'd go for a maths masters first. Nov 13 '14 at 22:29
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    Some people don't do well enough in their undergraduate degrees, so they then need to do a Masters to get into a Phd program.
    – mdg
    Nov 15 '14 at 19:57

I can't speak for purest math, but many parts of computer science overlap so I think there may be some similarity...

If you know that you want a Ph.D. and are able to get into a good Ph.D. program straight out of undergraduate, more power to you: this is a fine path to go on. This may not, however, be possible or desirable for a number of reasons. Some examples of good reasons to get a Master's at one institution before switching to another:

  • You might not get into grad school on the first try, and a Master's program is a good place to progress academically while you prepare to try again (this was one of my reasons)
  • The Master's is a natural break-point for transferring to a program that is stronger or a better fit.
  • Non-academic reasons, such as family issues, following a partner, visa problems, etc.

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