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 by Robbie Crowder
, posted on 3 May '18

Using a Masters as a Stepping Stone Towards a PhD

Robbie Crowder is an international PhD student at Loughborough University, studying in the School of Sport, Health, and Exercise Sciences. In this blog he talks about the process of using a Masters to apply for a PhD.

While some people will go straight from their undergraduate to a PhD, that is not the case for everyone. There’s a good chance you might be considering a Masters on the way, but do you need to spend another year (or more) studying before you begin your doctorate? And what do you gain if you do?

I’d like to share some of my experiences and perspectives.

Why do a Masters anyway?

There are three main reasons why you might want to do a Masters on the way to your PhD:

  • It’s often a requirement for PhD admission – I’d recommend checking if this is likely to be the case in your field (a current tutor or prospective PhD supervisor might be able to advise).
  • A Masters can be a good primer – Not quite sure if you’re up for postgraduate-level work? A Masters can be a great way to check before you commit to three years of PhD.
  • A Masters can help make up for anything that was lacking during undergrad – This is particularly helpful if you’re moving into a slightly different or more specialised subject for your PhD.

My decision

My experience was more on the third end, but doing a Masters first also allowed me more time to really decide where I wanted to pursue my PhD.

As I was finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I knew that I didn’t have the research experience or grades that could put me in the same league as my friends who were applying for PhD programmes. This led me to decide that pursuing a Masters was the best next step for my academic journey.

I found that there were three main steps that would help me use my Masters to one day be accepted to a PhD programme.

Step one – finding the right Masters

The first step towards using a Masters to get to a PhD was to identify the right one for me. The most important factors for me were the location and a thesis option. I was studying my Masters in the USA, where it’s more common for programmes to focus on taught content. However, I wanted to ensure my course gave me experience (and training) in research – this meant I needed to find a degree with a ‘thesis option’. Ultimately, I found one in an area that I wanted to explore and the programme offered a thesis option.

Step two – doing the Masters

The second step was completing the Masters itself. It should be obvious, but a Masters programme should be approached differently to an undergraduate degree.

While someone can get by without the best of grades in undergrad, postgraduate study is more demanding and – if you’re planning on making a successful PhD application – you need to make sure you come out with some good results.

What’s more, when everyone around you is smart and doing well, it can sometimes be difficult to separate yourself from the pack. That’s why I tried to view my Masters degree as an extended interview for the PhD admissions process. Viewing it through this lens provided extra motivation to study and encouraged me to participate more in classes. It also helped me to think about how what I was doing could relate and/or transfer to a PhD.

Step three – succeeding with the Masters

When everyone is expected to get good grades, the best way to separate oneself is to try and be amongst the highest achievers in the programme. Sounds simple. But how do you actually do that?

Well, I’m in no way the most intellectually gifted, but I’m a very hard-worker, which is needed when excessive amounts of studying is required to excel. A thesis – or dissertation – is also a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability.

My programme’s thesis option gave me the opportunity to either conduct a systematic review on a topic, replicate a previously done study, or conduct original research.

If you have a similar choice, I recommend going for the original research, and I also suggest designing a study with similar methods that you hope to use in your PhD. This will give you experience with relevant methodologies, while showing you can conduct a literature review. It also demonstrates that you can come up with original ideas and identify gaps in the current research literature.

The final step – from Masters to PhD

Assuming you still want to pursue a PhD after going through a Master’s programme, I found the final step of using my Masters to get into a PhD was the doctoral application process itself. Tying some of your research proposal, admissions essay (and interview answers) back to relevant parts of your Masters during your interview can be very effective in demonstrating the relevancy of your previous study – and how it demonstrates your capability to complete a PhD.

Providing concrete examples of what in my Masters could apply to work I would do in my PhD helped immensely in demonstrating that I could undertake the required work involved in a PhD. It also allowed me to show how I had already overcome some of the challenges involved in advanced postgraduate work (and thesis research).

As things stand

I write this as someone who has used all of these steps and found them to be true for me. They helped me go from having a difficult time getting into decent Masters programmes to being accepted to some of the best PhD programmes in the world for my subject. Condensing this work into three steps can make this appear deceptively easy, but it is hard work that needs to be tailored to your situation. Hopefully, you find my experience helpful for your own path.

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