I am currently working as a software developer. I have a degree in computer science. However, my country, Turkey, is not a technology favoring country, and research in the fields I am interested in is very rare, and only available at a few select schools. From job, location and opportunity perspective (too many applicants for too few places), getting an advanced degree at these schools is next to impossible for me.

I want pursue Ph.D. badly but I need a MS degree first because I don't have any research experience. So I have decided to apply for US schools and do some research there applying for a Ph.D.

Is paying for a master's degree a good idea and will I be able to do quality research there? Do master's students convert their degrees to Ph.D., if so is it easy or difficult? What to expect from a MS for getting good research experience?


In principle, yes, that's a viable plan. But there are a few stumbling blocks to be aware of.

First: There are two types of MS degrees in computer science in the US. Research master's degrees have a significant research component, usually ending with a formal thesis. Professional master's degrees require only taking classes; this is no expectation and little opportunity to get involved in research. A successful research MS is good preparation for a PhD program, and many CS PhDs started by getting a master's degree first. (I'm one of them.) But a professional MS is generally considered a terminal degree, even with a 4.0 GPA.

Second: PhD applicants with MS degrees are held to higher standards than PhD applicants with only undergraduate degrees, because they have had an extra year to build up a research portfolio. In my department, for example, strong applicants with master's degrees but no formal publications are usually rejected. See the previous point.

Third: Strong graduate programs in the US also get too many applicants for too few positions. Competition at the top departments is fierce. Even getting a research MS is no guarantee of being admitted to a PhD program.

To address the first three points, I strongly recommend asking the following question of any MS program you apply to:

What fraction of graduates from your program go on to get a PhD?

Fourth: If you don't have any research experience, how do you know that you want a PhD? Getting a PhD is not like getting an undergraduate degree; doing research is not like taking classes — it is much more open-ended, much more self-directed, and much much riskier. This is not a question to answer here, but definitely something to address in your application statement.

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  • I don't have research experience but I independently carried out some small projects by myself for small problems. I love thinking on problems. – bilal Dec 1 '12 at 20:54
  • Enjoying thinking about problems is a good start. What makes research different is that the problems are open-ended (i.e there's no solution to look up). – Suresh Dec 1 '12 at 21:01

In principle, a masters degree is the first steps towards a scientific career. At least in my studies it was the first time I really did a major scientific project:

  • Defining a research question
  • Coming up with a plan how to answer the research question
  • Doing the actual research
  • Writing it down in a scientific report

In a lot of countries, excluding the UK, it is obligatory to get a Master degree before you are admitted to a PhD position. So, in answer to your first question, if you want to get into science, you need to do a MS. Depending on your financial situation, and how badly you want a career in science, paying for your MS might or might not be a good idea.

Your next question deals with difficulty. In general, if you really enjoyed your Masters research this is a good indicator you would like a PhD position. If you like doing research, a PhD is a nice job, but certainly not an easy job. However, if you enjoy it, it should generally be possible to finish your PhD.

In regard to if a masters is a good preparation for a PhD, it heavily depends on where you do your masters. But in general they train you in being a scientist.

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