I will be a freshman majoring in Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign next fall, and I'm interested in their B.S.-M.S. 5-year program. I ultimately want to get a Ph.D. in Computer Science so I can teach at a university. On the webpage documenting the B.S.-M.S. program it says:

Students are strongly advised to seek faculty counsel about the 5-yr program to be sure they understand the pros and cons of pursuing a Masters degree via the 5-yr program. If their intention is to ultimately pursue a Ph.D., then it may be preferable to avoid the rapid pace of the 5-year program and instead invest time in research as an undergraduate. For admission to competitive Ph.D. programs, the expectation of publications and extensive research experience is higher for M.S. graduates. Therefore, as an alternative to the 5-year program, many top students may prefer to conduct research, possibly leading to a B.S. thesis, as a way to improve their admissions chances into top Ph.D. programs.

This paragraph left me confused, because the M.S. program requires a thesis to graduate. I was always under the impression that thesis ≈ research. Wouldn't it be better preparation to acquire experience in graduate coursework and produce a Master's thesis than to simply get a B.S. thesis? It seems to me that according to this paragraph, the only reason to get a B.S. thesis instead of an M.S. thesis is to increase admissions chances to Ph.D. programs, because more is expected of M.S. students.

So, my main question is, how is a thesis different than research experience? Why is it worse to obtain an M.S. thesis (through a 5-year program) rather than a B.S. thesis, given I will apply to Ph.D. programs?

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    @JeffE $@$JeffE $@$JeffE: I summon thee. May 21, 2015 at 1:19
  • I think by "research experience" they mean "publications", which are peer-reviewed, publicized and are easy for a potential advisor to skim through while reviewing your work. However, they can take a LONG time to prepare, submit, revise and publish, which will be particularly hard to do while also dealing with undergrad/graduate workload. I did co-author a publication while an undergrad, which hugely helped me during applications. But I've never written a thesis or done a Masters, however, so I can't really compare the two.
    – Gaurav
    May 21, 2015 at 22:06
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    – user69613
    Feb 19, 2017 at 3:44
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3 Answers 3


A thesis is always research, but not all research is theses.

In a five-year Masters program, one would definitely do a thesis, but these programs often have very stiff course requirements, which leave little time for research except the thesis. Given this, it is often the case that the only research that a student does is the thesis, and that only to the level of sufficiency to obtain the degree. Many 5-year Masters Theses are thus no better than 4-year Bachelor's theses, but will indeed be held to a higher standard (e.g., as though one had gone through a separate 2-years Masters program).

Last-minute and "merely sufficient" research work of this sort will also be much less effective at building trust and relationships with a faculty member than a longer time working on research as an undergraduate, even at a "lower" level. This significantly impacts one's ability to get a good letter of recommendation, which is another key for PhD admission.

I suspect this is why they recommend as they do, and think it's a good thing that they do so.


Many institutions now five-year programs that ultimately earn the participant a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. Sometimes these programs are split cleanly into a four-year-undergraduate program, followed by a one-year graduate program. Other times, the program is integrated over the full five years, making it more like a five-year undergraduate program (with the addition study that an extra year obviously entails).

In either case, there is only about one extra year for the master's-level work. That's not a lot of time for graduate-level classes and a substantial research thesis. Sometimes these programs do not require a thesis at all; in engineering departments, these are often labeled as master of engineering (rather than master of science) degrees. Even when a thesis is part of the requirements, it may not entail much (if any) original research. The thesis may be more of a extended report on the current state of a field, without any new contributions from the writer. (Of course, new results would certainly be welcomed as part of a thesis in such a program, but it is not a requirement.)

So if a student is planning to move on to a doctoral program, it may be advantageous to spend more time on research, rather than creating a thesis on the type I have described. I'm not convinced that one or the other plan is actually better. Either a one-year masters or significant undergraduate research experience would enhance a Ph.D. applicant's file. However, I can certainly imagine situations in which either one might end up being more advantageous than the other.


The best people to speak to would be advisers at your university. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of Master's courses - Master's by coursework, and Master's by research.

In a Master's by coursework, you do classes in 3 semesters, and write your thesis in the fourth. By comparison, a Master's by research, you do classes in 1 semester, and write your thesis in the remaining 3 semesters.

The above timings will likely vary between courses, universities and countries, and is based on my own Master's experiences, but you can see there is a big difference in how much time and focus is placed on the thesis.

A PhD program is all about research, and as part of the admission process, you need to show them your Master's thesis. Thus, if your thesis isn't that great because you didn't have much time to spend research, then you likely wouldn't get in.

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    I don't think either of these well describes a fifth-year Masters like the OP describes.
    – jakebeal
    May 21, 2015 at 1:51

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