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I am looking at a particular research group for graduate studies. The research group is in STEM.

From talking to the professors, they have repeatedly told me that a master degree merely takes two years. First year you take courses, second year you complete your thesis. Sounds about right.

But when I look at the CVs of the students, a lot of the students seems to be graduating way past this two year limit. One student was doing his masters from 2011 all the way till 2014. Another recent student is still completing her master that was started from 2013. I have only sampled a few students, they might not be representative of the entire research group.

Still the question remains, what could be the reason that a master student is taking so much longer to complete his degree given that the research group has explicitly told everyone that it only takes two years.

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    What country are you from? The US I imagine? Because here ( in France, and europe more generally I think ) the only possible reason would be failing to complete your Master. Most Masters will not even take you back after a failure so I don't think I've ever seen it happen – aussetg Aug 11 '15 at 8:19
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    Neither of your samples (professors and students) are even close to be remotely representative. As for the reasons for longer times of study, there could be tons of potential reasons, from taking some breaks to see the world or temporary loss of interest in a subject to serious issues, such as family circumstances, health problems (of a student or family members), personal matters and various other life situations. – Aleksandr Blekh Aug 11 '15 at 8:38
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    Are these students from different countries? I know that a Master's Degree (undergraduate degree) in the UK can take 3 or 4 years depending on the course. – Boreas Aug 11 '15 at 9:51
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    Could the students in question have been part-time? – mhwombat Aug 11 '15 at 10:03
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    I am from Germany and I work parttime as a researcher in an Institute. This is so time consuming, that I won't finish within 2 years. – fr0gga Aug 12 '15 at 12:59
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Here is one more possible reason: the students may be working so much "on the side" that they need more semesters to complete all of the necessary courses.

Not at all universities are students supervised thoroughly or progress is checked regularly, so that working part time and studying part time is possible even when not explicitly studying for a part-time degree.

It is not difficult to imagine that when working 50% of your time and studying 50% of the time, it takes twice as long to complete the course of study.

Obviously, it depends on the rules and regulations of the university and/or course of study whether this is a possible explanation. As an example, my undergrad course allowed this, and the average duration of study was 85% above the normal duration of study, mainly because so many students studied while working. It was a STEM course. I know of on case where the student actually spent 2/3 of the time working and 1/3 of the time studying.

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    If it is in Germany, this will be one of the most common reasons. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Aug 11 '15 at 15:12
  • Yes, absolutely true. In two programs I taught in at length easily 30% of students were often either part-time employees, parents, taking care of parents, etc. You could finish in two years but not everyone did. – Dave Kanter Aug 12 '15 at 16:15
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Life.

  • Working full time
  • having a family
  • Choosing a bad topic
  • Comprehensive exam problems
  • Unfamiliarity with research methods
  • Bureaucratic issues and paperwork deadlines
  • A desire to have something published (with a 6 month lead time on conference submission, 2 years goes by fast)
  • having issues with publication deadlines
  • advisor issues including scope creep
  • committee issues
  • department politics
  • course scheduling conflicts and availability
  • oh, and the thing about research, how do you know how long it will take if it hasn't been done. You really need to clarify what your adviser expects from masters level work. (speaking from a cs background) Some advisers think novel research like creating a new algorithm is required at the masters level. Others in the same department may think creating a webpage is somehow research. Finding a balance in between the two is important.

If you are single, have experience with research and writing papers, know what your topic will be going in, have no other responsibilities, are in good mental and physical health, can maintain a full course load and research at the same time, have no interest in a coop/internship or related fear of having a degree with no experience on graduation, then I see no reason you shouldn't be able to finish in two years.

With full time classes you should be able to complete the course requirements in 2 years if the department is structured with that in mind.

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Bear in mind that this will vary by country/institution etc. according to rules and time limits.

Reasons for exceeding 2 years could include:

  • The student worked slowly/poor time management

  • The student decided to extend the scope of their thesis (as part of a larger project or to include an internship/secondment)

  • The student decided to change thesis topic

  • The student's project involved an experiment which caused a delay

  • The student was waiting for an available time to defend their work (if an oral defence is a requirement) or other administrative reasons

Any of the above (or a combination) could be the reason for a thesis taking longer than a year to complete. If you have concerns I'd suggest contacting a current student or students in the working group you're hoping to join and asking a few questions.

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The Masters programs that I've been involved with, if they advertise themselves as two-year Masters degrees, have to come up with an actual plan by which students can, in fact, graduate in two years. Often this plan involves a heavy course- and workload that is hard for most Masters students to commit to, because of work and family obligations. This is why the norm is most often closer to three years, because it's more realistic, and the older the students are that your program attracts, the more this will be the case. Any of the reasons above in the other answers could apply.

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Your Master's isn't normally awarded to you until you specifically apply for it. If your goal is a Ph.D., you might just forget about it until it's about time for you to apply for the Ph.D. I got my Master's a few months before I got my Ph.D., when the requirements were finished long before, because I did exactly that. For those without the Ph.D. goal, it's probably because they had some other goal in mind, as suggested in the comments. Including, but not limited to: raising a family; health issues (personal or among loved ones, especially family); being employed at the same time; the effort needed to acquire the degree being outside their intellectual comfort zone--many people will pursue them because they know or expect to get a promotion or better job as a result, not because they burn with an intellectual passion; travel; etc. etc.

Basically, what your Professors told you is the ideal situation, based off minimum considerations (minimum amount of time to complete courses, minimum amount of time to pass exams or write a thesis, as well as any other requirements). This timeline is what they'd expect of someone who can acquire a Ph.D. in the field, and not what they'd expect of someone trying to advance their already-established career.

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    This seems to be a US answer, because AFAIK in Europe PhD programs that start right after the Bachelor are quite rare. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Aug 11 '15 at 15:09
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In our program (Statistics) we have had several students take more than 2 years because they were either simultaneously enrolled in another program (for instance, Biology Ph.D.) or were going part time while working. At least one student took extra time because her project was funded for an additional year, so they stayed to work on it. On the other hand, it seems to be normal for many Wildlife Biology students to take more than 2 years to complete a Master's degrees, possibly because it takes more than two seasons of research to collect enough data.

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In my personal case, I will take 5 semesters rather than 4 (2.5 years vs. 2) because I made a switch from physics to engineering; I had some undergraduate level courses to make up (deficiencies) in the first semester as a condition of continued study.

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I am entering a seventh term of master's studies in a Canadian university (i.e. 2.5 years) because of supervisory communication problems. At the same time, I have been doing side research projects and research employment work. Not completing my thesis at the 2 year point has been difficult for me, but it is not abnormal. Colleagues of mine have experienced extended wait times for ethics applications to be accepted and some, such as myself, have had to change the thesis project completely at the end of the second year.

I'm wondering how PhD decision committees or employees look up a >2 year master's stint.

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