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After going straight from an undergraduate degree to a PhD myself, I have often wondered whether or not doing a Masters would have prepared me better. These thoughts tend to enter my mind after a bad day at the office. In my slump, I compare myself to colleagues who did opt for a Masters before their PhD; they can sometimes seem so organised compared to me that I question whether they are doing a PhD or training to go on The Apprentice.
However, I quickly remember that being thrown in at the deep end isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, there must have been a reason that my supervisor thought I was ready to do a PhD. Besides, my colleagues and I all share the same struggles and rewards of a PhD, Masters or not.
Here, I have compiled a list of pros and cons in relation to doing a Masters before a doctorate. So, if you are interested in doing a PhD and unsure whether studying a Masters beforehand would be beneficial then you have come to the right place!
It’s hardly a bad thing to have an extra postgraduate qualification on your CV. Furthermore, if you choose not to continue your career in academia after a Masters, you’ll still have gained great independent study and research skills that will transfer to many other types of work.
However, there are a few things to bear in mind if you know you want to go on to do a PhD eventually.
A Masters does not come free, of course, and these degrees are generally less likely to be fully funded than a PhD . Whilst there are postgraduate loans that can help you cover the cost, it may be quite daunting to think about the ever-growing student debt that you will accumulate. You may be more employable at the end of your degree, but this investment in your CV requires money and effort.
If a PhD is definitely what you want to do, then a Masters will add another year or so on to your three to four year doctorate. And five years of further study, whilst your friends are already starting ‘proper’ jobs, may not sound very appealing.
You may feel capable of doing a PhD without the Masters, and if so, go for it! Some supervisors actually view the first year of your PhD as akin to a Masters. This is particularly true for STEM subjects, as you spend the first 6 months to a year becoming a pro at all the techniques you are going to carry out throughout the rest of your PhD.
If you’re thinking about a PhD, you’re probably keen to start doing your own independent research. It’s worth bearing in mind that a Masters is often coursework based. There are some research programmes available, but, otherwise, you’ll need to be OK with another year (mostly) in the classroom or the lab, comprising assignments, group projects and presentations.
There are several reasons why doing a Masters is a great idea, but here are some that (I think) are the most important when considering to do a Masters before a PhD.
A Masters can be good if you are unsure which research area you would like to focus on for a PhD. There are several different types of Masters programmes and lots of options to specialise. Picking one in an area that you particularly enjoyed in undergrad can help you decide what you really want to do your PhD in.
If you cannot decide what you are interested in or what you want to commit to researching then you should think twice about jumping into a PhD just to save time and money. Without a vested interest in whatever field you end up in, you won’t have the motivation or commitment required to finish the PhD.
Everyone who has gone from primary school to secondary school, GCSEs to A-level and A-level to undergrad has been warned about the big ‘step up’ at each stage of education. I found that the biggest step up I’ve ever experienced was going from undergrad to PhD. The workload, the independence and the difficulty of the research made for quite a jarring transition. A Masters can be a way of easing yourself into the real world of research and can give you an insight into what a PhD will be like. It gives you a chance to get used to the self-motivation, increased freedom, longer hours and greater sense of ownership of a project that sometimes feels more like work than uni.
By doing a Masters, you become more immersed in your area of interest and gain a better understanding of academia as a whole. This allows you to learn about the techniques used to carry out research in your subject as well as getting a better understanding of it. If you’re a scientist, like me, you’ll be part of a research group and learn how individual experiments can require the cooperation of multiple different groups, all helping to contribute to a greater wealth of information. Students in other subjects will also get to work more closely with academic researchers and cutting-edge work. You never know, you might even get to be involved in a publication!
This could be viewed as a con if you are expecting a Masters degree to prolong the sense of being a student. You will still have more time for the pub than during a PhD, but a Masters will place you right amongst academic staff and the work environment will feel much more professional. You may attend meetings and perhaps even get a chance to go to conferences, making it feel more like a workplace than a place of study.
A Masters degree is a perfectly valid stepping stone for many people. For others, it might be more of a Takeshi’s Castle-style stepping stone, sending you into the murky waters of increased student debt. If you feel confident that you know which area you want to work in, there is no harm in applying for PhDs to see if you get accepted. If you are given a place, the chances are you are probably ready. On the other hand, if you need more time to decide on the direction you want to be heading in academia, a Masters is not just a placeholder, but a bridge to becoming the confident researcher you will ultimately need to be.
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