In the US, most Ph.D. programs accept far fewer students with master degrees compared to students who just graduate from college with a bachelor. Why is that the case since master students are supposed to have more background and maybe more research experience than students who just graduated from college?

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    Are you sure this is the case? Maybe it is the case for those who wanna be funded through advisors and projects (and not self-funded).
    – The Guy
    Dec 24, 2016 at 18:34
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    There is a very related post on the advantages and disadvantages of MS before Ph.D but where are you getting your numbers on academia accepting less MS students (some of the programs I looked at required a MS, publication, or related experience)? Dec 24, 2016 at 18:36
  • For this kind of question, I think whether the majority does it one way or the other is not the right thing to keep your eye on. Rather, one should look into which programs prefer that incoming students have master's degrees, which do not, and which are indifferent. Dec 24, 2016 at 19:59
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    Are you comparing total numbers of students accepted in each category, or acceptance rates? It's quite plausible that a smaller number of students with master's degrees are accepted, because I suspect that a smaller number apply. Since US PhD programs usually accept students with only a bachelor's, and in fact are usually targeted mainly toward such students, most students who are interested in a PhD will apply immediately after their bachelor's, rather than getting a master's first. That has nothing to do with how prepared they are. Dec 24, 2016 at 20:27

3 Answers 3


I'm not sure that your basic premise holds. What you've stated is not common knowledge, and you don't give any particular source for your numbers. More importantly, you haven't answered @NateEldedge's question about total numbers vs. acceptance rates.

Based on my own anecdotal experiences, however, my guess would be that the actual circumstances are this:

  • Students with a Masters are more likely to get into a U.S. Ph.D. program than students without a Masters, for exactly the reasons that you suspect.
  • Most students interested in a Ph.D. program, however, apply directly without bothering to get a Masters first. As a result, it may well be the case that most U.S. Ph.D. students do not have a Masters.

The underlying reason that would cause such an apparently counter-intuitive situation is that in the U.S., it is typically the case that a Ph.D. and a Masters are both terminal degrees that serve different purposes. A Masters is frequently a focused collection of coursework in support of one's profession, whereas a Ph.D. is an apprenticeship into the world of research. As such, most U.S. Ph.D. programs do not require or expect applicants to have a Masters, and there is often little incentive for students inclined toward a Ph.D. to delay and acquire one, unless they have some particular reason (e.g., they aiming to shift fields, improve on a past poor record, or escape the effects of a poor undergraduate institution).

Note however, that in other parts of the world, like Europe, Ph.D. programs are organized to assume that students have already acquired a Masters, and in such programs it is the case that nearly every Ph.D. student will have a Masters.


I definitely do not agree to this statement. I am in world's top 10 universities in EE. In my department, rarely they accept any international student without Master's degree.


Most of the students in the US who are in Master's programs in the arts and sciences are only in these programs because they failed to be admitted to PhD programs with their Bachelor's degree. Generally speaking, being in a US Master's program is by itself a sign of weakness.

While some students do become significantly stronger over the course of their Master's programs, generally speaking, students with a Master's degree have less innate ability than students who are admitted directly after a Bachelor's degree. They may have more knowledge and experience(*), but this is usually easily made up for in a year or two of study. (There are exceptions, and it's quite easy to spot them from letters of recommendation, but you're asking a statistical question about numbers overall, not about specific individuals.)

Foreign students who might not have had the opportunity to be directly admitted to PhD programs immediately after a Bachelor's are evaluated differently.

(*) Actually, someone with a Master's from my department usually knows about as much as someone with a Bachelor's from a top university, and is significantly less capable.

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    Do you have anything to substantiate your claims besides personal anecdotes? You acknowledge that this is a statistical question but you provide no statistics. Dec 24, 2016 at 22:21
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    I strongly disagree with this answer. Being in a Masters program is definitely NOT a sign of weakness. If only a Masters is required for your career, it may not be wise to get a PhD, and these goals can change. Additionally, this is certainly not true in all disciplines. Comp Sci + Eng Masters are incredibly common, in social work masters are the norm although PhD programs exist. Foreign students often have a masters because the typical progression in Europe is Bachelors, masters, (3-year) PhD, whereas in the US it's common to do BA -> (5-year) PhD.
    – NMJD
    Dec 25, 2016 at 2:41
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    This varies enormously by field. I don't think this is how CS master's programs work, but it's how master's programs in pure mathematics work in the U.S. Basically, most students fall into one of three categories: prospective teachers, students who enjoy math and are trying to put off entering the job market while they figure out what they'd like to do, and prospective Ph.D. students who are trying to make up for inadequate preparation or poor undergraduate performance. Some master's students do a great job and will make wonderful Ph.D. students, but most will not. Dec 25, 2016 at 4:40
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    Many students do a masters to further clarify their interests, to gain experience in a slightly different field than their undergrad degree, because they're not sure yet whether they want to do a PhD... or because they don't want or need a PhD for their future career plans, and so they didn't apply to any. To say that most are "only in these programs because they failed to be admitted to PhD programs" just does not ring true to me.
    – ff524
    Dec 25, 2016 at 4:43
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    @Alexander If you're writing about pure mathematics specifically, I suggest you say so. This is certainly not true of "arts and sciences" in general.
    – ff524
    Dec 25, 2016 at 5:26

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