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I realize that this sort of question has been asked before and I have read through some of the other threads but I figured I'd see if there are any more perspectives out there. I am currently a research embryologist for a small fertility clinic with a Bsc in molecular biology. I have about 2 1/2 years of experience and have been accepted into an Masters in Bioinformatics program. I am very excited to begin taking classes but l have recently begun second guessing whether I should have tried to get into a PhD program. I will not be able to continue working at my current job while I am in school so I will likely be paying for school with loans unless I'm able to find a job after I relocate.

Those of you who have Masters degrees, would you do it again or go for a PhD? From what I have found searching around the site many people say PhDs are more academically focused while Masters degree holders tend to find more positions in industry. Is concern over the cost of a Masters degree a good reason to consider a PhD instead or do most of you find you were able to offset your education costs with the job you eventually found? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you in advance!

  • What are you hoping to achieve with graduate education? – user4383 Apr 19 '13 at 20:38
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    I don't understand the question. Getting an MS does not prevent you from getting a PhD. – JeffE Apr 19 '13 at 22:33
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    I guess to rephrase the question, unless I misunderstand, most PhD programs provide a stipend and tuition. The Masters program I have been accepted into will be entirely an out of pocket cost for which I will need financial aid (likely PLUS loans) in order to complete. Is it worth the risk of going into debt for a Masters degree when a PhD would not likely cause debt? I understand this would not preclude me from later pursuing a PhD. In other words, I guess I'd like to know why people get a Master's degree if a PhD is essentially obtainable without debt. – Stavrosnco Apr 19 '13 at 22:44
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    @Stavrosnco I think you should edit your question to include your comment above to make clear what and why you're asking this question. – scaaahu Apr 20 '13 at 3:14
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    I realize this is not exactly what you are asking, but if you currently have a BSc in biology, a Master's in bioinformatics will only give you very basic skills, considering that to understand bioinformatics you first need a decent understanding of probability/statistics, linear algebra, algorithms, programming, and machine learning. – Bitwise Apr 20 '13 at 15:57
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When I was studying for my MBA I also thought about this choice. However, a PhD is long and I was looking forward to working with my new-found knowledge sooner than a PhD would allow. For me, I prefer to balance practice with theory. That is, I did not want to wait for longer than I had to before being able to use my knowledge in the 'real world.'

That said, I'm now looking seriously at a PhD and I certainly do not regret my decision. I could work while I was studying during my MBA. Now, I do understand that one can take some time off during a PhD but I wasn't really looking forward to starting something which would likely require a break. I prefer the clean completion which the master gave me.

Since I could work while studying my MBA, finances were not much of an issue. The cost of my education was easily offset by the higher salary which came with the degree. The payback period (considering the increase in my income directly related to my additional qualification) in my case was less than 18 months.

It is a little different from your situation in that many people who study business for work in the real world do not go beyond an MBA. I will, but I also teach.

In short, I'm glad I got my MBA before pursuing a PhD.

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Just a side note from a central european (Germany) perspective. Although things have similar names now (Bachelor, Master), things work a bit different over here.

While we know that this is possible in the anglo-american education systems, people here wonder whether someone who has not completed a Master (or Diplom) is actually fit for tackling a PhD project (in terms of subject knowledge, working techniques, and experience you learn during the Master's).
However, most PhD projects here have a Master's or equvalent degree as prerequisite. In your case you may argue that your work experience in research should be counted as equivalent. Over here, this would likely lead to an invitation to take a bunch of oral exams before you are officially accepted into a PhD program.

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First, disclaimer. I'm not sure I'm qualified to be giving anyone advice of this nature. But since you asked, here are my 2 cents.

The bottom line is that people do a PhD if they want to do research. Otherwise, probably not. I believe this is true in both academic and industry circles - if you want to do research type stuff, you need a PhD. I could be wrong about industry - if people know of counterexamples, please comment. So, a relevant question is whether you want to do research.

My experience is that in practical terms, at least in the applied sciences, research translates into more autonomy pursuing questions which you find interesting. In general, not having a PhD means less autonomy. Of course, having a PhD does not mean anything like total independence - there are always people you have to answer to. However, with just a Masters, you are much more likely to be taking direction from people in the choice of projects you pursue, and how you pursue them. You should try to figure out how happy you will be doing this. I used to think I would be Ok with that, and discovered later that I really wanted to be making my own decisions. So, you might think now that you are happy to do what you are told, you you may later discover that you do not consider these decisions that others make for you to be all that great. It really depends on your personality and inclinations.

It seems ridiculous that people will treat you differently on the basis of a piece of paper, but that is how human beings, at least the more bureaucratic variety, are constituted - they like to pigeonhole and put labels on people.

Having said all of the above, of course, if you do a Masters and then decide you want to do a PhD, you can always do it later, but I suppose you are trying to figure out the more efficient path to follow.

One fairly obvious question - is there some reason you can't go into the PhD program and leave with a Masters if you decide you don't want to do a PhD? I have done that (left a PhD program with a Masters), and it seems like a relatively common thing to do. I think that some Masters degrees do require a thesis, but others may just require coursework which you will be doing as part of the PhD program anyway. You can check with the programs you are considering what the rules for pursuing these options might be. If you could do this, it might be your best option. You can leave yourself some space and time for figuring out what you want to do, not pay lots of money in tuition, and not burn any bridges.

I have a PhD in Statistics, and know a fair amount about programming and related things (check my SE accounts), though my primary background is mathematical. I've also done some bioinformatics work. Given that, I'd say the comment by @Bitwise above is right on the money. With a big interdisciplinary field like bioinformatics, you need a lot of background and a fairly substantial and diverse skill set to get moving - cramming all that into a masters degree will be brutal unless you know a lot already. After a masters degree you might not know enough to do anything really interesting. Of course, you might be able to get an industry job where they will be willing to give you the space and time to learn more and develop. I don't have any experience of industry jobs; however from what I have heard, those sorts of conditions are more easily met in academia.

Also, personally I would not consider the cost of a MSc as a major factor when making such a decision, though of course it is a factor. I would think bigger picture, myself.

  • Yes, since you ask, there are lots of people in industry doing research, without PhDs. There are even (gasp) some academics doing research without PhDs. – EnergyNumbers May 13 '13 at 2:22

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