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I am currently a (USA) Master's student studying biochemistry. I intend to get a PhD after my Master's but I am doing a Master's first because my husband is going to finish his PhD and want to move to another city before I would be able to finish a PhD at my current university (this was planned from the beginning, I applied to the Master's program, not the PhD program).

Normally, people in my program graduate in 1.5-2 years. I could graduate in that time frame and find a tech job in the area or I could continue my research in my program until my husband finishes (~3.5 years from the time I started). Given where we live, I think the job I could find would be a job that will help me develop additional lab skills, but probably not result in publications.

My advisor is happy for me to stick around and it would be convenient for me to do so, but I'm concerned that it will look on a resume/PhD application like I was either lazy so it took so long or just bailed from a PhD and dropped to a Master's. I understand that if I had a fantastic publication record it might make up for the long Master's program, but I expect my publication record to be average.

In summary, does it look bad on PhD applications to extend the length of my Master's program instead of getting a job as a technician for 2 years?

  • I'd say it depends on the references, who would you be interested in being a technician for? – hello_there_andy Apr 3 '17 at 3:35
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It seems to me that the strongest argument in favor of a 3.5 year master's degree you mustered was "it would be convenient for me to do so." You said yourself that you don't think the extra time spent will pay sufficient academic dividends; rather, you are hoping to break even but worried that it will look bad. I think your worries on this are plausible: 3.5 years is a long time to spend in a master's program. The explanation of wanting to stay in the same city as your husband is certainly reasonable from the greater perspective of life, but I have a hard time seeing how your advisor could swing that in a really positive way in a recommendation letter.

Why don't you want to spend a year or two working at a "real job," presumably making real money, and (bonus) developing skills that you could then use in a PhD program?

Pro Tip: staying in grad school because it's easy, or because you're vague on the alternatives, is pretty much never a good idea. The time dilation experienced by an insufficiently motivated grad student is amazing: it is not an exaggeration to say that many grad students spend a year doing what a really passionate (and capable, and well-trained) student could do in a month or even a week. Again, that is not an exaggeration: I've seen plenty of instances. The thing you're allowing a 2:1 (or 12:1 or 50:1) time dilation on is in fact (a big part of) your life.

Of course, the flip side of all of that is: tell us again why you can't do good or great work rather than average work? And also talk to your advisor about it:

My advisor is happy for me to stick around...

Not great or even good. She either has an overly self-centered attitude to student mentorship or somehow has gotten the impression that you're not a very serious student. But you could be if you wanted to, right? And if you're really not...then just finish up your degree and move on.

  • +1, there are really no reasons to stay there doing your masters. Finishing up and volunteering in the same lab would already be much better. But staying there for two years while you could be earning $80-100k as a tech is ridiculous. It's real time you're wasting. – VonBeche Apr 3 '17 at 15:14
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    I think it's good for American students to take a look at the European system regarding time frames: potentially a 3 year bachelor, 1 year master, 3 year Phd at an institute where everyone is pushed to finish on time with perhaps 1 in 10 students having a 3-month extension. – VonBeche Apr 3 '17 at 15:18
  • Thank you for your insight. I'd like to offer the following clarification in case it wasn't clear. I expect to have completed the requirements to graduate in the next few months (1.5-2 years into my program). If I were to continue, over the course of the next two years I expect to publish more, but I use the word average to express that I expect to have a typical level of productivity over the course of 3.5 years, nothing out of the ordinary compared to what most graduate students accomplish in that time frame. – waldol1 Apr 3 '17 at 17:59
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    Completion times vary greatly between students, labs, and disciplines. Australia and NZ follow the UK/Europe system with 1 or 2 year masters and 3 year PhD but they're rarely competed during that time as they still need to be examined. Our Biochemistry dept has slowest thesis submission rate on campus so up to 3 year masters are not unusual in biochem here. – Tom Kelly Apr 10 '17 at 2:30
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It depends if you come out of it with strong publications for the extra time or really needed it to fulfil the degree. Of course, it won't matter much after PhD if you do well then and build up a strong CV.

The main immediate concern is really financial. Why continue as a student? If your advisor is happy with your performance you could work for them short term to continue the project (and publish). This is commonplace in my country.

If you're planning on doing a PhD and have a good relationship with your current research group other may be worth considering. Speaking from experience (as I've been completing my PhD for the past year with my fianceé in another country), long distance is hard bit it is a viable option for many people. That's a personal choice and I won't pressure you into it but it's worth considering if you feel the career opportunities are worth it.

  • With "long distance", are you suggesting that I stay in my current group and get a PhD, while moving elsewhere with my family? If so, that doesn't work because my work involves hands-on experiments with cell culture. – waldol1 Apr 10 '17 at 14:06
  • My partner works on cell culture as well, I understand that it is not possible to work remotely. I was actually suggesting a long distance relationship but that depends a lot on your personal situation. – Tom Kelly Apr 10 '17 at 20:49
  • It wouldn't work for my situation (we have children) – waldol1 Apr 10 '17 at 21:15

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