MS vs. PhD: Which should I choose?

The short answer is: whichever you think is best for you.

I know, that’s a cop-out answer. But, in truth, choosing whether to leave with an MS or continue on for the PhD is such a personal decision that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. In an effort to help people think about both sides and make their informed decision, here’s a Pro-Con chart (modified from a WE12 presentation I co-presented) and some things to think about.

Master’s Ph.D.
Pros:

  • Geared toward a career in industry in technical areas or management.
  • More $$ than earned by a Bachelor’s
  • More competitive resume; range of job opportunities.
  • Allows higher level entry than with BS.
  • Required for some positions.
  • Interested in research but don’t want to commit to PhD.
  • Usually only 1.5-2 years full-time.

 

Pros:

  • Geared toward a career in research, think tanks, highly technical areas in industry, or consulting.
  • Often more $$ than MS or BS.
  • Overall curiosity and desire to learn.
  • Required for some positions (primarily R&D, academia).
  • More funding opportunities.
  • Love for the research.
  • You get to call yourself Dr. at the end.
  • Skill set gained is beyond just the specific research project, e.g. deep research, writing (grant and technical), mentoring (if you worked with undergrads), time and project management, etc.
Cons:

  • Little funding for those who are only interested in Masters.
  • Usually only focused on coursework and minimal research.
  • Non-research skill set not as transferable as with PhD.
Cons:

  • Exhausting, longer commitment than MS. Usually 5-7 years total (full-time).
  • Qualifying exams are scary.
  • If you don’t have a fellowship, you have to do research for another professor or teach. These things often interfere with making progress on your own research (and therefore graduation).
  • Sometimes companies pigeon-hole you into your research area. I suggest looking at R&D places, National labs, Federally Funded R&D Centers (FFRDCs) aka Think Tanks, and government. These places will put a premium on the PhD degree and the experience you obtained by getting it as well as allow you to work in as many areas as interest you.

 

Keep in mind, too, that some degree programs only offer certain paths. That is, some programs only offer PhDs, with no option for an MS along the way. Other programs don’t even offer PhDs. Make sure to research your program, or even similar programs not in your specific discipline, so that you know your options.

Think about your own situation: do you have a significant other or children? Do you really enjoy the city in which you’re going to grad school? These things often are the biggest influences in the MS/PhD decision.

For me, I had entered graduate school thinking I would get the MS and leave, heading to industry. When at my internships, I had seen a lot of Managers with MS degrees in positions I aspired to. This was my primary motivation. Once in graduate school, I fell in love — with my research, my lab, my now-husband, and my city – Austin. Complete with an amazing advisor and support system of friends, family, and SWE, I decided that a PhD would be no big deal. Additionally, I had another amazing internship which showed me the value of obtaining a PhD for the career I wanted. My primary motivations were: the career I wanted, my support system was intact, and I loved my research.

Overall, I think my biggest piece of advice is to have an idea of what you want to do after graduation. Take a look at the education level of the people holding positions you aspire to. What degree do a majority of these people hold? This can help you figure out what the company/position values. The PhD is a huge investment of a lot of time and energy. The biggest question of all is: will it get you where you want to go?

 

What are people’s thoughts? Are there pros/cons that I forgot to include?

 

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