Master's vs. PhD : Factors to Consider


If you are interested in a science career, you are likely thinking of applying to graduate school. Having a graduate degree opens up an abundance of career opportunities, and deciding whether to get a master’s or a PhD will determine the type of career you can pursue. Below are some factors to consider when deciding between a master’s and a PhD.


Career Goals : Academia and Industry Laboratories


Individuals with a PhD typically have more independence in their roles compared to those with a master’s, particularly in an academic setting: they can lead their own research groups, teach at universities, and generally have more freedom to pursue research topics of interest to them. A PhD is required if you want to pursue a career as a Principal Investigator (PI) in academia. In addition to a PhD, you will also need to complete a postdoctoral fellowship. During a postdoc, a PhD can expand their research experience by learning new techniques and develop more independence by leading their own research projects. They work with a mentor and will often also take on responsibilities such as teaching and writing grants. A postdoc is not necessarily “required” for industry scientist positions, but it can help you be a more competitive applicant, and many employers expect at least one year of postdoc experience. Lastly, because PhDs are highly specialized in a specific field of science, their job opportunities in academia and industry may be slightly limited compared to individuals with a master’s degree.


Conversely, individuals with master’s degrees usually work under a supervisor or mentor. Their ability to explore new or independent research projects may be limited by the goals of their mentor. Although less common, it is possible for those with a master’s degree to eventually move up to a lead scientist role; however, this is very employer dependent. Many different types of academic / industry jobs are open to scientists with a master’s degree, and unlike PhDs, it can be easier to transfer to completely different types of research.


There are also many opportunities outside laboratory research for someone with a PhD or a master’s degree. Keep an eye out for a future blog post on job opportunities for science graduates!


Program Structure


Both a master’s and a PhD in science require course work and lab work. A PhD and a thesis-driven master’s degree are more research focused, whereas a non-thesis (professional) master’s focuses more on course work and learning laboratory techniques standard to industry positions.


Successful completion of a professional master’s relies on passing your courses and (sometimes) completing an independent research project.

Writing and defending a thesis and passing courses are the main requirements for thesis-driven master’s degrees.

Completion of a PhD involves passing courses, qualifying exams, and writing and defending a dissertation.


Most PhD programs have a rotation system, in which students spend a few months in different labs (usually 2-3) over the first year. Some programs allow you to rotate between departments at the university, while others only allow rotation within the department. The rotation system is great for students who are interested in multiple fields of research, or want to explore different research areas, model systems, etc. Typically, PhD students contact potential mentors, and meet with them to discuss lab space availability and rotation projects. It is important to be open and flexible because your interests may change, or you might find that a certain research area is not as good of a match as you initially thought. If this is the case, you can always switch to another type of lab for your next rotation, or even add a fourth rotation in some programs. Following the first year of the program, students select one of their rotation labs for their dissertation studies.


Master’s programs vary widely in their structure. For a thesis-driven program, students generally apply to a department with a specific mentor in mind and complete their thesis with that mentor. However, some thesis-driven master’s follow a rotation system, similar to PhD programs. Students applying to professional master’s programs apply to the department and do not get assigned to a specific lab because this type of program is more course-focused. Some professional master’s programs require students to complete an independent research project during their second year.


Time Commitment


A master’s can take anywhere from one to three years, and often has a defined “end date.” A PhD can take four to seven years, or longer, depending on your project. The length of time depends on your program, the type of research you are doing, how long it takes you to complete your core courses, your mentor’s availability, and other factors. You can start your career after graduating with a master’s, but for a PhD, you typically need to complete a few years of postdoctoral training.


As mentioned before, many employers require at least one year of postdoc experience. However, the length of a postdoc varies greatly by individual. Similar to a graduate degree, time to completion can depend on the type of research you are conducting, your own personal goals (e.g. number of publications), your mentor’s availability, and job availability. In general, postdocs that are committed to a job in academia complete longer postdocs, in order to complete more projects, publish additional and/or high-impact papers, and establish themselves in the field prior to entering the academic job market.



Finances


For a professional master’s, students usually have to pay their way through school. Some schools might have teaching assistantships available, but they are not guaranteed to every student. Many thesis-driven master’s programs will guarantee a research or teaching assistantship to all students, but not all programs do. PhD programs typically guarantee funding for your tuition and stipend for the duration of your doctoral research, although the source of this funding may vary; sometimes the program covers your funding, while in other instances your mentor pays for you. PhD programs will also cover your medical insurance while you are a student (you will have to pay for your own dental and vision insurance).


Many PhD programs offer training grants or teaching assistantships, which can help supplement or pay for your stipend. There are two main types of NIH training grants that you can apply for as a PhD student: the T32 and F31 (or NRSA). The T32 is given to departments at universities to support their training programs. You can apply to this grant through your department. To apply to the NRSA grant, you must develop a research proposal and submit it directly to the NIH.


PhD stipend amounts depend on the geographical location of your university and the funding source. PhD programs I applied to offered stipends between $16,000 and $30,000. It is crucial to consider the location’s cost of living. Your lifestyle may have to change significantly in order to afford being able to go to graduate school, without having to take out loans. Additionally, you are not allowed to work during your PhD because you are expected to work full-time in the lab and on your courses. On the other hand, many master’s programs allow you to work outside of school.


You can also apply to external sources of funding such as a fellowship or scholarship for a graduate school. Here are some helpful resources:


NIH Individual Research Fellowships

Institute for Broadening Participation (IBP) Fully Funded STEM programs database

26 STEM Graduate Fellowships for Minorities and Women, ProFellow, March 2019

Scholarships for Women in Science

Fellowship Opportunities, GoGrad.org


The choice between master’s and PhD is a personal decision, and requires deep consideration of your long-term career goals. This post is the first in a series of blogs that will dive into some of these details, including what to expect in graduate school, and the types of jobs available following graduation. Good luck with your graduate school search!



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