Why do an Master’s Degree

internsA major part of my job at Columbia is directing the MA in Conservation Biology program, and I have spent the better part of this past week going through applications. One of the biggest challenges I am facing is getting the students I want in my lab to come here. Columbia is expensive and I am often competing for students who are probably going to get into Ph.D. programs. Discussing this with my peers over Twitter has brought me to a debate over the relative value of getting a Master’s degree first versus going directly into a Ph.D. program. I’m hoping one of you takes up the Ph.D. option and we can have an honest discussion. As for me, I’m going to present the case for getting a MA/MS first.

I think getting an Master’s offers several benefits*. First it provides a ‘trial run’ at grad school, second it provides a breadth of classes not often found in Ph.D. programs and lastly upon graduation you will have a much stronger chance of getting into a Ph.D. program.

Trial Run. Many students upon leaving their undergraduate school do not know if they want to go directly into a Ph.D. program. This may be especially true if they are coming from a small liberal arts college where they may not have been raised in an academic environment with graduate students and post-docs. They may think that they like research but haven’t had a chance to direct their own project yet, or they may have done a senior thesis but are curious to see what it is like to do research in a less directed fashion. For these students obtaining a Master’s degree is a great option. It allows them to go through two years of graduate school with a clearly defined out. If, after those two years they want to continue they will be more competitive for Ph.D. applications (see below). On the other hand, if after the experience, they realize that research isn’t for them, they can leave, with a degree, and having not sacrificed the better part of their 20s. It’s sort of like the “lunch and a movie” kind of date. If you like the person after lunch you can continue onto the movie, if you realize mid appetizer that it’s not going to work, you have a clear time to make a break for it.

Diversity of classes. Master’s programs often have a heavy course load. This gives students an opportunity to take a diversity of classes that they may not have picked up during undergrad, giving them a breadth of information and the ability to synthesize across disciplines. Often in Ph.D. programs the classes are limited since students are expected to focus so intensively on their specific thesis project. The master’s might be the last time a student can take classes in History, Anthropology and Policy if you are a biology major**. These classes may also more fully develop a skill set obtained in undergrad (such as intermediate and advanced classes in GIS or Phylogenetic Analysis) giving the student more technical competency, especially with their own datasets. Finally if a student graduated undergrad with a less than stellar GPA, doing well in Master’s program is a great way to prove your intellectual chops.

Improving your chances. Getting into a Ph.D. program is incredibly difficult. Most programs have about a 10% acceptance rate. For students who are not in those upper echelons going to a master’s program may provide an opportunity to move up in the rankings. There are two major forms of currency in academic science, funding and publications – students who have a strong record in either (or both!) will be much more competitive than those who do not. A successful academic MA will result in hopefully one or more first author publications for the student, which will demonstrate to Ph.D. selection committees that the student understands the scientific process from start to finish. Additionally, since the research that those projects are based on is not free, the student will probably have applied for (and hopefully obtained) funding. Demonstrating the ability to obtain independent funding will be a huge plus for Ph.D. selection committees, as it means that potential advisers will not have to deplete their own coffers to support the student.

Being able to both secure funding and to publish work based on that funding is a clear indicator of future success in both graduate school and in the academy beyond. Most undergraduates will not have had this opportunity and this ability to serve as a proving ground, is perhaps the strongest advantage of doing a master’s first. For this reason it is not uncommon for many Ph.D. advisers to not consider applicants unless they have obtained a master’s first.

Conclusions. Now this is not to say that obtaining a master’s is without downsides. There are very real costs in terms of both time and money to doing a master’s program, and they are not for everyone. In some disciplines (such as neuroscience or molecular biology for instance) one can work as a lab tech for a couple years after grad school to obtain a few publications and research experience. But in ecology and evolutionary biology these options are less common. Like all aspects of graduate school there is no clear and universal path for every student. Students must do what they think is best for themselves. However I feel that there is real benefit in obtaining a Master’s first for most undergrads interested in research. Regardless of which of the varied paths you take, please talk to advisors, potential research mentors, peers and alumni. If you can visit do so, and trust yourself. Being in a place where you are not a good fit can make grad school feel like hell. Being in a place where you are supported, wanted, and encouraged (cough, my lab, cough) can make all the difference in the world.

* Obviously I’m biased here, I run a MA program, but to keep this from being a commercial for the Columbia University master’s program, I’m keeping the discussion general

** This will vary from Ph.D program to Ph.D. program. In general though they have more limited breadth requirements than MA programs do.