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I have applied to multiple graduate schools and have been offered two GTA positions. Both included full tuition waivers and similar work loads.

The primary difference is one is for a MS program and the other is for a Ph.D program. I applied to the Ph.D programs because the school's Master's program didn't come with a GTA opportunity.

I am not currently committed to the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. The way the program is set up, the course requirements for a MS and PhD are very similar with the primary difference being the depth of the research project. My plan was to evaluate my job prospects and the prospects of a PhD around the time I obtained my MS. I feel like I would have a better idea then about whether or not to pursue the PhD. I don't want to be dishonest but I don't want a career in academics and I suspect that a masters will be sufficient to get me where I want to go. Is it considered unethical to leave a PhD program after my masters under these circumstances?

If it makes a difference, I stated in my SOP that my goals were to obtain a job in an industry.

  • Is the PhD program structured so that you complete an MS as part of the program or can easily complete an MS as part of the program? In addition to the thesis, there are often differences in course work between MS and PhD, and you might not be allowed to take the courses and work on an MS thesis without formally declaring the switch to the MS program and losing your assistantship. – Brian Borchers Mar 15 '15 at 14:26
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    Am I the only one who read "GTA opportunity" and thought of something other than what the OP meant? – user541686 Mar 16 '15 at 8:59
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It is often frowned upon to leave a PhD program after you receive an MS, if this is your intention from the start, because the program would have admitted someone else who wanted a PhD had they known. However, if you don't tell anyone that this is your intention, there is no way for the program to know; PhD students drop out all the time after getting a masters (it is usually assumed that this was not their original intention). But ...

You are lucky enough to have been accepted to a fully funded masters program! If you think it is a good program, you should go there. Fully funded masters programs are quite rare in most fields. Do the right thing and allow the person who really wants a PhD to enter the PhD program. The PhD program, most likely, has offered you funding assuming you actually want a PhD.

Now if you had not been accepted to this fully funded masters program you would have had a tougher ethical question. For people not accepted to such a program the options are to (1) doing something that is morally questionable (at best) and going to the PhD program, (2) getting a job and waiting a few years until that employer funds a masters degree or (3) paying the money for a masters degree and potentially going into debt. That is a much harder question to answer, my inclination on that one is to go for option (2) if at all possible. But the fact that you were accepted to this funded masters program makes doing the right thing a much easier decision than for most people in similar situations. Take advantage of it!

Response to edits made to the question: Note that you can still evaluate whether you want to go on to a PhD from your separate fully funded MS program. After your MS, you might even get into a better PhD program and have a better idea about what PhD program/advisor would be best for your research interests. The fact that you "may" want a PhD in the future is actually a good reason to take the fully funded MS program. The opportunity costs of delaying the PhD by 1-2 years, by doing a fully funded masters is much less than the opportunity cost in delaying an industry job. .

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    Depends on what you mean by "may." Go for the PhD if you want to do research for the rest of your life - or you love research so much that you would be willing to lose thousands of dollars in opportunity cost by delaying getting a position in industry for a few years. However, if your main goal is a good job in industry, a PhD is rarely required, and can often be a hindrance. – WetlabStudent Mar 15 '15 at 17:14
  • @WetLabStudent: "... and can often be a hindrance". This completely depends on the country. Germany is an example where this is the other way round (same for other European and Asian countries) – WoJ Mar 15 '15 at 18:04
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    @WoJ getting a PhD has an opportunity cost in experience for non research industry positions. It will not harm you per se, but many employers will count it as less experience that an equivalent time in industry. – Davidmh Mar 15 '15 at 19:23
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    @Davidmh - hell, it can even harm you. From personal experience, a lot of people in programming world don't have any degrees, or only graduate, and can be biased against PhDs as "snobs" or people concerned with only theoretical aspects of CompSci. Of course, no one is going to tell you this to your face as it would put them in literal legal trouble, but it can most certainly work against you when looking for work. – Davor Mar 16 '15 at 12:30
  • @Davor it is the same, cost of opportunity. You spent a bunch of years in your ivory tower doing nothing really useful... but I bet they prefer a PhD to someone who has been doing nothing instead. – Davidmh Mar 16 '15 at 16:23
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Coming from someone who is in the middle of his PhD program, I would say that it is really important to discuss your interests honestly with your presumptive future advisor (or school). Forget about the morals and ethics, forget about depriving other people. Sure, it's wrong, but that's not your main concern for your decision.

First of all, your concern should be about getting yourself in and our of grad school efficiently. Sounds easy, right? Keeping yourself moving forward is harder than the actual work, and I say that as an experienced 37 year old (former) professional. I know for myself in engineering, my wife (PhD in Psychology/Neuroimaging), and a lot of grad student friends, grad school is incredibly tough. But it's not necessarily the academics or even the research that is so tough. It's the "politics". What I mean by that is keeping your masters/PhD focused, keeping your proposal to a reasonable scope, keeping other people from taking it over, keeping your committee members from exerting their own biased interests on your project, keeping your advisor from keeping you there forever as cheap labor. Or what about this: my wife's PhD advisor got fired for fooling around with a student during the middle of her degree. Think you can just "get another advisor"? You have to find someone with the same research focus, with funding, with time for another student. Or start over from scratch with a new advisor. Or for me, my advisor is old. If I don't get my proposal approved asap and god forbid something happens to him, I could end up effectively abandoned in the middle of my degree. AKA "Start Over". My project got switched three times in two years before I put my foot down. Ok, so that might all sound crazy, but you check around and you'll find a ton of these kinds of stories. I've only met a few people who had a really smooth grad school experience, at least outside med school. I've heard that med school (residency, etc.) is a very focused, structured and disciplined experience.

What does all that have to do with you wanting to do a masters by being admitted into a funded PhD program? Well, first, if you sign up as a PhD student, you will be treated as a PhD student, which means you will have to do a lot more in the way of forming a PhD committee, making an extended research plan, submitting a proposal, passing your qualifying exam, etc. etc. when you don't have any real intention of doing that. You're wasting YOUR time, not to mention anyone else's. Second, you are really sabotaging your own success at earning only a master's degree.

Here is a specific example: Your PhD project will be very, very different than a master's project. If you are in a combined Master/PhD program, your masters and PhD project is one in the same (maybe different phases/levels of difficulty). How are you going to get out of the program in 1-2 years with a master's if you're working on a PhD project set up for 3-4 years? You can't just stop in the middle, say "that's enough", and expect them to hand you a master's degree. Sure, you can absolutely quit, but you probably won't have any degree - just a couple years wasted and some prospective employers asking you what the heck happened and why you aren't reliable.

Furthermore, as a PhD student, you might be guided to spend your whole first year getting classes out of the way without even starting on your 3 year project in earnest. Or, a different school might do the opposite and guide you to spread your classes out over 4 years. In my case, my research project was in a rush to get started, so I didn't take classes at all my first year. I just worked on building my reactors and getting them running for a multi-year duration experiment. That was my decision to ultimately benefit myself, but depending on the circumstances, your advisor may instruct you to do something similar.

One thing I will say about ethics/morals/quitting is that in my field of water/wastewater engineering, at the graduate level, it is a remarkably small world. If you quit a program for an "honest" reason, nobody will frown upon you. But if you develop a reputation for not being genuine, there is a reasonable chance that it will haunt you eventually.

Another thing that I will agree on with some of the comments to your question: Don't do a PhD unless you know exactly why you are doing it. I'm doing mine because I want to do a very specific job and after 10-12 years working experience, I decided that I wasn't going to find a way into that job without a piece of paper hanging on the wall with the letters "PhD" on it. It's not really about learning - I'm teaching post-docs right now. But no one is going to hire me to be their "expert" unless I have that PhD hanging on the wall to prove it.

And it is absolutely true that having a PhD can be a hindrance for many jobs. Sure, you can say it's because it means you have to be paid more, or because being overqualified could scare an insecure boss. But I have actually had someone say to my face that they wouldn't hire a PhD in their consulting business because PhD's are by definition perfectionists. That person said "in engineering consulting, there might be 10 solutions that will satisfy the project requirements. I just need one; it doesn't have to be the absolute best one." And to that, I agree wholeheartedly. In business, you can't waste time like that, and PhD's have a reputation not to the contrary.

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  • There is much good advice here, but the point about not getting the MS highly depends on the field. In many theoretical fields, the masters is given based purely on coursework and possibly a passed written or oral test, and no masters thesis/project is required. – WetlabStudent Mar 15 '15 at 23:29
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Your best bet here is to be clear and discuss it with your future supervisor. In case you don't know who, with whichever professor is in charge. If they are okay with it, there is no ethical concern, and you can drop without issues. If they prefer you not taking the masters, they will not get angry at you because you did no harm.

Also, being honest about this can hopefully help you get a project more oriented towards industry and easier to close before time.

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There are two things here. (A) Are you worried about what your peers/professors would think once you leave the PhD program after the MS? (B) Do you think it is unethical and hence, it'll make you feel guilty because the same PhD position could have been granted to someone else? Well, in my opinion, you need not worry too much about (A). People do drop out of a PhD after an MS, and the university does understand that it is statistically impossible that all the students will end up completing their thesis. (B) You should convince yourself that you deserved to get selected, and hence, in some sense you are better than that guy who just couldn't make it. Whether someone else would have been given this position is none of your concern, since you're not a part of the selection committee. Your job is to do well in the studies (MS/PhD) and make decision that will suit your academic interests better. So don't worry too much about the ethics of leaving the PhD in the middle and give your best in your MS.

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