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I've been led to believe that it's much easier to get money (assistantships and fellowships) as a PhD student than as a master's student, and so it's cheaper to go straight to a PhD program if you know you want to get a PhD. This is supposing that you spend the same amount of time in grad school with both routes. Is this correct? And are there other significant factors in determining whether or not it's cheaper to go straight to a PhD program?

Edit: I'm hoping to study computer science, if that's relevant. If I do a master's, it'll be in the US, but I'm not sure if I'd want to do a PhD in the US or in France. You can just assume the US for this question.

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  • It can be harder to get accepted into PhD programs straight from undergrad since you've had less time to do research. Mar 14, 2017 at 17:24
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    Anecdotal - Some PhD programs accept BA/BS students and have them earn their Masters along the way (e.g., after two years defend a Masters thesis, after four/five defend PhD thesis).
    – eykanal
    Mar 14, 2017 at 17:31
  • Also, you ask about "cheaper". Not sure what you mean (most graduate programs pay you a stipend... are you referring to opportunity costs?), but even so I don't think that's the proper metric to gauge. I recommend thinking about likelihood of acceptance instead.
    – eykanal
    Mar 14, 2017 at 17:33
  • I am referring to opportunity costs, assuming the stipend received is large enough to cover the costs of attending, but I don't know if all stipends are that large. Likelihood of acceptance into the program itself or the likelihood of getting a stipend in the program?
    – Bagley
    Mar 14, 2017 at 17:43
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    Most CS PhD programs in the US are fully funded, in the sense that the university will pay you a tuition plus a small living stipend. If you do a CS master's beforehand, you are likely to pay tuition, although some masters students are also fully funded. So I would say it is definitely cheaper financially to go directly for your PhD. However, it is also a lot cheaper to go straight to industry after a BS than to do either a masters or a PhD, so if money is your main concern, that might be what you want to do.
    – Jessica
    Mar 14, 2017 at 19:36

3 Answers 3

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Edited according to new information OP gave. I'm not a CS major so someone else could provide a better answer.

In my knowledge on the field of CS, I believe that most universities will give you full tuition waiver and living stipend, and you will be expected to work as RA or TA along the way. I do know some of the last year PhDs who taught intro class in undergrad CS as instructors.

I've been led to believe that it's much easier to get money (assistantships and fellowships) as a PhD student than as a master's student

PhD students are more likely to be under assistantships and fellowships, and most likely it may be required for them to be under assistantships or fellowships. Some excellent Master's student may also get such opportunities. However, if you are referring to opportunity cost, the answer becomes more of personal preference than an absolute answer. If you know that you ultimately want to do PhD, it is financially better to go straight into PhD without having to pay for your tuition for Masters. However, going through masters may provide a better chance for your admission acceptance. You will also be more sure about your research interest; jumping into PhD is a huge investment, so it's wise to explore before committing. There are many CS majors that I know personally who went on to MS before going into PhD.

And are there other significant factors in determining whether or not it's cheaper to go straight to a PhD program?

I think ultimately you have to check with the graduate programs about their funding. There are many Master's programs in CS that provide partial tuition waiver, and if you become a TA, they may even waive all your tuition in some universities. Look into your universities to see if they have such programs available.

If finance is one of your concern, the advice that I've heard is to work after undergraduate in research institutions or industry. In that way, you can earn some money for yourself, while boosting your resume and giving time for yourself to discover if you like the research topic you were initially interested in. If you end up in an industry job with little research aspect, publishing papers along the way is excellent way to show admission committee that you are interested in academia.

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Caveat: I only know one CS department well. However, I will answer based on that, to get you started.

It doesn't matter whether you apply for the Master's or the PhD, and you can change your mind along the way; you'll start with the same coursework regardless of whether your intention is to stop with a Master's or continue for a PhD; all the learning you do as part of the Master's will get you that much closer to your PhD; and most grad students are funded; whether you wanted a Master's or not, I think you would be given one regardless, after completing enough coursework. The initial driving force for a PhD is to pass your basic exams, and this might be done in your third year; the driving force after that is your research. The coursework prepares you for both of these hurdles. If you stop with a Master's you don't have to do the exams; if you go somewhere else for a PhD after a Master's, you'll have to pass their exams, but hopefully the coursework at Department #1 will have prepared you fairly well for them (even though it's a different program), and you won't lose much time.

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    you'll start with the same coursework regardless of whether your intention is to stop with a Master's or continue for a PhD — This is not true in all departments; in particular, it is not true in mine.
    – JeffE
    Mar 14, 2017 at 21:28
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    @JeffE - As I based my answer on the only system I know well, it would be helpful if you posted an answer based on another system(s). Mar 14, 2017 at 23:50
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This is supposing that you spend the same amount of time in grad school with both routes.

PhD programs in the US are 4-5 years (and some are starting to last typically 6 years, even for good students). The first two years are mostly coursework (like in a master's), the rest is dissertation work.

PhD programs in Europe, except for the schools that follow the American system (I think it's mostly business schools), are supposed to last 3-4 years, and you're supposed to enter there having already completed a master's program in that field or a very similar one. if you have a 5-year bachelor's from certain countries, it may count as equivalent to a master's in some European universities, but not in all of them, and not for sure if your bachelor's is 4 years.

So, before taking into account any financial consideration, I would take care of knowing the length of the master's and doctoral programs you are considering, and the admission requirements.

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    Many PhD programs in the US, for example in engineering, only last 3 years but follow a ~2-year masters, which may or may not be from the same institution.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 14, 2017 at 21:37

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