I just started my Masters in CS at EPFL. I got accepted here with their university wide scholarship as well as a unique opportunity to do research in a lab. My problem is that the course load (typically 7-8 courses per semester) is so much for a Masters degree here that I don't have any time to dedicate to any research. Of course there is the Masters Thesis but that only comes after all course work is finished. In the mean time I see that the PhD students and other researchers in the lab are working on really interesting stuff and I won't have the time to participate in such work. So I was thinking about just applying directly to PhD programs either at EPFL or ETHZ or in schools in the United States. I wanted to do a Masters to get a better understanding of what exactly I want to research but I have realized that just by picking the research lab here at EPFL I know what field I want to do research in.

I was wondering how common it is for people to apply to PhD programs without completing their Masters studies. How should I explain this in my application, that I am deciding to leave a program? Would it be fine to explain that I am deciding to leave as I want to enter a more research oriented program? How open will admission committees be to that? Will the admission committee be worried that if I decided to leave this Masters program I might decide to leave the PhD program, which I don't intend to?

Any advice in this matter will be helpful. Thanks.

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    In most Europe countries I know of, you will need a MSc degree before being enrolled to a PhD program. Since EPFL is an excellent university, I would suggest to finish your MSc there. – Alexandros Oct 10 '15 at 13:12
  • Yes but the PhD programs in the United States don't require a masters. – Zaid Oct 10 '15 at 13:56
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    I know that. But you still have courses to pass there too, so why move? – Alexandros Oct 10 '15 at 14:24
  • @Zaid in the US, PhD programs are usually in conjunction with a masters, so you would have to do all the coursework again. – Davidmh Dec 25 '15 at 14:41

I was wondering how common it is for people to apply to PhD programs without completing their Masters studies.

In most parts of Europe, students typically have a masters degree on entry to a PhD program.

In the United States, it's quite common in many fields (including CS) for students to enter a PhD program without a masters degree. But if you start a PhD program in the United States without a masters degree, you'll just have to do the coursework that would have been part of a masters degree at the beginning of your PhD. The course load may be a little lighter, but in general, you won't have much time for research during that period, just like your current situation.

(If you enter a PhD program in the US with a masters degree you'll still have to do some additional coursework in many cases, but typically not as much.)

See this answer for more details.

Would it be fine to explain that I am deciding to leave as I want to enter a more research oriented program?

It sounds somewhat strange to leave a masters program in which you will have a chance to do research (once you've completed preliminary coursework) because you want to enter a "more research oriented program." In any program you enter, if you haven't taken graduate-level coursework yet, you'll probably have to do some before you can do research full-time.


It's perfectly understandable that you're eager to get started on research - that's a good sign. But you can't just skip your graduate-level coursework entirely - you'll have to take it somewhere, and while you're busy with that you won't have much time for research.

I suggest you try to look at look at your coursework as something that can help you when you finally get to start on your research. The breadth of the classes you're taking will expose you to methods and ideas that you may be able to use in interesting ways in your research. The following advice is really sound:

What you think is useful or relevant will (probably) keep changing for a while. Everyone is, at some point during their PhD, forced to take some class they really don’t want to take. Over the past few years I walked into quite a few classes thinking they would be irrelevant or even useless. But I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge (and I really should have taken better notes!). Sure, there are classes whose value I still have to figure out (and maybe never will), but there are also classes that surprised me and others whose relevance became apparent many months after I delivered that final paper.

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    That last piece of advice would've been really useful to me 4 years ago... it even applies to people that you meet. You could be surprised who you end up asking for a job. – sss Oct 14 '15 at 8:46
  • I wish I had seen the last piece of advice forty-some years ago. I withdrew a class because I thought it was no use at all to me at the time. Recently, I just found out I need it so badly that I searched everywhere for it. I found a more modern approach of the topic and start reading it. My problem is that it is taking me much longer to digest it because I am slower than then. I regret I didn't take that class, otherwise it could save me a lot of time and energy (at least I could have some notes for me to go back to). Sigh. – scaaahu Jul 8 at 15:00

PhD programs at EPFL have super low coursework requirements (12 credits over 4 years, that's basically less than 1 class every 2 semesters) because you're supposed to have passed a big bunch of "graduate courses" (US-style vocabulary) beforehand, ie. have a Master's degree.

I see that the PhD students and other researchers in the lab are working on really interesting stuff and I won't have the time to participate in such work

That's because... you're neither a PhD student nor a researcher... just a university student, good old European style.

That's very good I'd say: you're in an excellent program that will prepare you for top-level PhD programs after you complete your Master's.

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