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One common piece of advice for weak students who want to go into academia is that they do a terminal master's degree first before applying to PhD programmes. This, however, bothers me for two reasons:

  • If I'm not mistaken, master's degrees are, in some places, often seen as the first of a two-part process to getting advanced degrees, where the PhD is the second part. (This is the sense I get of many non-American systems.) So finding a terminal master's programme doesn't sound that simple to me, although this may depend on the field.

  • I would imagine that there's still a need for decent grades / recommendations / etc. to get into a master's programme in the first place. Something like GRE scores can be readily fixed via preparation, but a lack of appropriate coursework (due to concentration mismatch) or poor grades cannot be, and this might also mean very weak recommendations. In some fields where doing research assistant jobs after graduation are common, this might be still resolvable, but it does not appear to be so in something like math or the humanities.

If so, how viable it is actually to get into a terminal master's programme in order to boost future applications to PhD programmes?

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    The short reason is that most terminal master's (non linked to a PhD) are unfunded, while you are paid for PhD positions. It is much easier to get a university let you pay them, that get them to pay you. Regarding the terminality, to my knowledge, only in the American system MSc and PhD are commonly linked; but even there there are plenty of master's programs not oriented towards a PhD, mostly professional programs. – Davidmh Jul 9 '15 at 15:29
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    Can you specify which places you are referring to (or explicitly confirm you are looking for how realistic such a master's programme is around the world)? The reason I am asking is that, for instance, I can think of some "non-American systems" where the Master's degree is rather the second part of a two-part process of getting a "normal, industry-level" degree (the first part being the Bachelor's degree), and a comparably small percentage of the graduated Master's students then decides to go on with a doctoral degree and thereby, for a change, work for an entirely research-focused degree. – O. R. Mapper Jul 9 '15 at 15:52
  • @O.R.Mapper: I'm speaking mostly as someone from the US system. I have seen people from the US who want to do grad school in, say, Germany or the UK, where I could imagine something similar still being an issue though, so I'm also interested in a more . . . international perspective. – user36992 Jul 9 '15 at 15:55
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    For the system in Québec (Canada), we have funded master degree programs (by researchers, at least in STEM). Unless they come from abroad or other specific reason, all student (not only weak ones) do a master degree, then a PhD. To answer your question, very viable. – Emilie Jul 9 '15 at 16:33
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As per the comments, you are interested in finding information from various places around the world, so I will provide a perspective from Germany (possibly limited, as there is a partial focus on computer science and closely related degrees, with which I am more experienced compared to other areas):

If I'm not mistaken, master's degrees are, in some places, often seen as the first of a two-part process to getting advanced degrees, where the PhD is the second part.

As described elsewhere, Bachelor and Master often form a consecutive unit in Germany. The reason is historical, as the former Diplom degrees were cut into two parts approximately in the middle to insert the Bachelor degree after the first part of the studies. Studying for a doctoral degree optionally followed for some students after graduating with a Diplom, and likewise, it now optionally follows for some students after graduating with a Master's degree.

Therefore, at least in Germany, the Master's degree is the second of a two-part process of getting "basic, industry-level" degrees (the first part being the Bachelor's degree). Accordingly, in 2011 and 2012 (sources only in German, sorry), about 3/4 of all students who graduate from a German university with a Bachelor's degree continued to study for a Master's degree.

The doctoral degree is something separate that only a smaller fraction of students who graduated with a Master's degree start, as it usually focuses on research rather than educating a highly skilled employee for the industry.

Therefore, as an answer to your first question

So finding a terminal master's programme doesn't sound that simple to me, although this may depend on the field.

While there are some disciplines (chemistry maybe?) where traditionally many Master graduates continue for a doctoral degree, entering the Master's degree as a terminal degree before completing one's higher education and starting to work full-time is rather the default in Germany.

I would imagine that there's still a need for decent grades / recommendations / etc. to get into a master's programme in the first place.

Again related to the aforementioned historical development, there is a strong feeling that whoever has successfully completed their Bachelor's degree must be allowed to continue their studies if they so desire (as with the former Diplom degrees, no-one would be kicked out in the middle of their studies, either, unless they actually failed the requirements).

While I am not sure whether it is always possible at all universities to accommodate everyone who would like to continue with a Master's degree, I could get some limited insight into the "selection process" for which Bachelor graduates may continue with the Master studies on a few occasions. The general guideline was that unless there were any absolutely terrible obstacles (with previous marks that are bad, and just enough to fulfil the minimum requirements to get a Bachelor's degree explicitly not counting as such an obstacle), every applicant should be accepted.

Hence, getting into a Master's programme is not an overly hard problem; chances that one has to abort these studies due to failing exams during the Master studies are likely to be considerably higher.

This leaves two final summarizing statements:

If so, how viable it is actually to get into a terminal master's programme

In Germany, probably rather viable.

in order to boost future applications to PhD programmes?

In Germany, it's not a "boost" in the sense that improves chances prior to getting the degree; for most, if not all doctoral programmes, having a Master's degree is a minimum requirement.

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  • I think that this is not the case only in Germany, but in the entire EU (and associated countries), due to the Bologna process. – Bubble Jul 10 '15 at 4:47
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    In Denmark, Norway and Sweden - at least, it works the same way. Not getting a Masters, after a bachelor degree, is uncommon. We have no bachelor job market, other than perhaps a few part time jobs. – Repmat Jul 11 '15 at 11:21
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In the UK at least, most PhDs are separate from a Masters, so I don't agree with your first point. In fact it is much more common to have the Masters and Bachelors combined into one program.

I believe it is the same in most European countries that people applying for a PhD are required to have already done a masters.

For your second point I believe the logic would be that if you are a poor applicant now, then getting a masters, which presumably has lower entry requirements will give you another opportunity to show how good you can be and improve your prospects.

It stands to reason that the entry requirements for a masters should be lower than the PhD as the masters is the lower degree. How much lower is likely to depend on the demand for separate masters courses. If most strong candidates go directly into a PhD program and then entry requirements for a separate masters must be lower or places will not get filled.

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I am someone who got into a funded masters program after a weak undergraduate degree in the US and leveraged that masters degree into the PhD program of my choosing.

In short, I got lucky. My undergraduate advisor went to graduate school with my masters advisor. He vouched for me, and I had done plenty of research as an undergraduate, just my GPA was exactly a 3.0 (not good enough for top programs).

I was also lucky that I had high level math skills and programming skills that many people in my new field do not learn but people in physics do learn.

The masters degree came at an unranked program, but the research results were great for such a short time, at least i've been told (and reviewed).

To put it bluntly, I applied to 5 phd programs and got into 0 before I had my masters degree.

2 years later I got into 6/8 PhD programs I applied to, with the 2 rejections a personal note saying that funding that they expected to come in to take me did not come in.

My best advice in the US is to get your foot in the door in any kind of research, leverage those recommendations into a program, and take it from there. It really is no different than anything else, you just need to find a way to establish a track record, and get lucky.

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Speaking from a humanities perspective, I know of people who have gotten Master's degrees before going on to do a Ph.D. (usually at a different university). If the question is whether this will boost an applicant's chances of getting into a Ph.D. program, it depends. The real measure is always going to be the quality of the student's work, the strength of the recommendations, and their previous academic record. Obviously, these are all things that can be improved on by getting a Master's first. But all of this will still be measured against all the other applicants to the program, and in that reckoning it is not necessarily an advantage by itself.

Most top Ph.D. programs (again, I can only speak for the humanities) do not even offer a terminal Master's, so the value may be negligible when applying to them. Even those schools that do offer them will not usually offer an increased chance of admittance to the higher degree program, and the student would still be evaluated on an equal footing with other applicants—ideally, too!

Furthermore, the credits earned in the Master's program may not even transfer to the Ph.D. program. They could satisfy certain other requirements, but as far as I know you have to start over from the beginning when embarking on a Ph.D. It's a complete package, in other words, so while you may get valuable experience doing the Master's (and probably pay a premium for it), you'd have to repeat much of it again anyway, further putting its value in question.

But, like I said, I know people who have done it. Job prospects and rates of attrition being what they are, the advice you will often hear is a Ph.D. is only worth doing if you can get into a top program, and if you can't get your Ph.D. paid for, then you shouldn't get one at all. That's rather cynical, and you can counter it with talk of dreams and perseverance, but if a person hasn't demonstrated an academic inclination by the time they graduate college, it may be wishful thinking to presume it's possible to change, catch up, or otherwise compensate for what is lacking in the initial application package.

This is just my own perspective. Your question cannot be answered definitively because there is no formula, and admissions decisions are made by human beings who tend to have strong opinions, who negotiate over the make-up of any incoming class, and who may value different things than their colleagues for different reasons.

It's worth considering the opportunity cost of spending money on a Master's that may lead nowhere versus some other, more promising career path. Of course there's no harm in furthering an education for its own sake (and you can tell yourself this if things don't work out), but I would say it's not worth it to get one of these degrees, for the most part. Most Master's programs seem to me to be cash cows for the universities, and you won't necessarily learn more about a subject by sitting in graduate seminars than you could on your own for free. That's the really cynical opinion! But graduate education is about professionalization, for the most part, not just teaching you more information. You might say that in college you learn how to acquire knowledge, whereas in grad school you learn how to use knowledge to create more of it. Only a very few number of people end shaping any given discourse compared to the number of people who try to get there. It's a long shot for everyone.

The best advice is to get as much advice as possible from different people who know what they're talking about (professors, admissions officers, deans, other grad students, etc.) and then see how you feel. Much of what you hear will be contradictory, because people have different opinions and varying degrees of innate optimism. But you will notice patterns.

It's a difficult decision to make this kind of commitment. No one can make it for you or predict the odds of your success.

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    This is a U.S. oriented perspective, by the way. Coming into the U.S. with a foreign Master's may have even less value, if you're curious about that. – sjsyrek Jul 9 '15 at 22:00

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