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Graduate Study Decisions: MS vs PHD

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There have been a lot of questions asked on whether one should pursue an MS, and whether it was worth doing it over a Ph.D., as many feel that

Supratim Das, is a final year dual degree student in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Supratim is all set to grace the haloed precincts of MIT start the coming fall in 2016 to pursue his Ph.D. . Also read the article "Supratim das at MIT" .


There have been a lot of questions asked on whether one should pursue an MS, and whether it was worth doing it over a Ph.D., as many feel that another five-year long degree after graduation will be somewhat stagnating to their career learning curves. The master’s degree usually consists of additional coursework and will give you a stronger foundation of the same sort you had as an undergraduate. Getting a Ph.D. is a much longer commitment, the core of which is an independent research project leading to a doctoral dissertation, and job in academic institutions or research fields or non-research fields as per an individual’s choice. Here are some of my own views on the subject, based on many Quora posts from current students and professors from many Tier 1 universities in the US, and one-to- one interaction with fellow MS friends and Ph.D. friends/seniors.


1. Ease of admission: In an MS, if the question is whether or not one's ability to pay can overcome deficiencies in one's academic transcript, the answer is "usually" a no. The university will not allow an unqualified applicant to get in, but if there are two candidates, and one is in high need of funding (smart) and the other is not (slightly less smart), all other things being equal, the student willing to pay may be the one getting that admission letter. Most universities clearly state in their websites that they don’t fund an MS degree, one needs a substantial bank balance at that. This is the reason why you see rich students in elite colleges, Ivy leagues but awesomely smart students in average colleges. Money matters.

In a Ph.D. on the other hand, the university is in charge of supporting the students’ financial needs, at least partially, whereas it is fully covered in most cases in Tier 1 universities. Thus, if they have to select candidates on whom they will be spending about $450,000 for the entire duration of the degree per student, it is obvious that only the smartest in the world will get in. Generally, because of this reason, Ph.D. programs are difficult to get into. However, this may not necessarily result in a lesser ‘Acceptance ratio’ (though it generally is) as the number of vacancies and the number of applicants to each of these programs vary widely depending on the research strengths of a university. If I have to quote a line from one of my interactions with a professor from Stanford University, who was gracious enough to be brutally honest about it, ‘Masters candidates are mostly accepted to enable the university to better fund Ph.D. students as they bring in a large money pool into the system’. This is not to downplay the quality of education received in an MS however, they are at par with any education imparted through coursework to a Ph.D. student in all regards.


2. Finances – Expenses and Expectations: A typical year’s tuition fees can be anywhere from $25,000 to $48,000, depending on the university. An MS student admit without a fee waiver would be required to support this entire amount, along with living expenses and he/she would be mandatorily required to prove that they can support themselves for a year to qualify for a visa. It is possible to get a position as a Teaching Assistant (TA) or a Research Assistant (RA) in a masters degree after admission, but in reality the number of positions available to masters students are rather few. If one manages to get such a position, a large part of this tuition is waivered and a nominal stipend is also awarded, which buffers a lot of the financial burden. In my experience, one should not blindly count on it and should apply for an MS position only if he/she has the potential to fund himself/herself for the entire two years of the degree. A Ph.D. admit on the other hand from most Tier 1 universities in the US has an assured 100% tuition fee waiver, along with external merit based fellowships and a relatively luxurious stipend allowance throughout the duration of the Ph.D. (conditional on satisfactory academic performance in every year). Thus, a Ph.D. is essentially a zero-expense venture for an Indian student in the US, in addition to earning a comfortable salary.


 As regards expectations in salaries after an MS as compared to a Ph.D., it varies widely across disciplines so it will be hard to comment on a general basis. In chemical engineering and similar applied science fields, the returns immediately after an MS may not match up to one’s expectations after spending the amount of money required for an MS. That is why, the educational landscape is seeing more and more students opting for continuing for a Ph.D. after an MS (one can qualify if one has a good masters GPA and does well in the Ph.D. qualifying examination). The industry prefers people with a solid experimentation and theoretical background, and quite honestly a two year MS is not enough to make a student an expert in the field. A Ph.D. candidate is usually much happier when it comes to fulfilling salary expectations. A typical job after a Ph.D. usually results in doubling (and sometimes tripling) of the salary one earned as a Ph.D. student. And since it is already a no-expense venture and since it is the highest degree most people have inside an industrial atmosphere (there may be a few post-docs in academic environments), the job satisfaction and happiness indices are generally quite high.

  At this point, I would like to address an issue which has been asked by many – Do the universities prefer their own MS students for a Ph.D. admission over external direct Ph.D. applicants? Not really. There is always a fixed number of seats in a Ph.D. program reserved for its own MS students and another fixed number for external direct Ph.D. applicants. External international Ph.D. applicants do not even need a masters’ degree, they hire directly from a bachelors program. Every Ph.D. degree has an in-built MS, which serves to bring bachelors students up to speed with the standard of knowledge expected from a Ph.D. student. Nevertheless, it is slightly easier to get into the Ph.D. program if you are already an MS student in the same university, since the presence in the environment always helps the cause. Do US universities prefer US MS grads over international bachelors’ degree applicants? No, they always look to hire fresh talent and aim at maintaining a culturally diverse batch of people in their student pool.

So why do a standalone MS? There are some advantages unique to an MS degree which almost no other student can enjoy. An MS students enjoys world-class curriculum without the pressure of a doctoral thesis looming overhead, which can be rather annoying when things are not going right in doctoral research. The networking capability for an MS student with multiple types of industry at the campus job fairs and with entrepreneurs are unmatched, the program is tailor-made to create world class alumni, which is the envy of every Ph.D. student. It also provides the opportunity to interact freely with people from other fields of study like business, commerce or law, and enables one to explore his/her compatibility with those fields as there is ample interaction time. And being inside the environment itself, one can talk to a lot of professors to find out what makes him/her most happy. There is ample scope to shift to an MBA or a finance degree after an MS because of the exposure it provides and it being a shorter time commitment than a Ph.D.




Written by - Supratim Das
Designed by- Utkarsh Prabhakar

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