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hungryhungryhippo

Cynical Question about PhD programs and Terminal Masters

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I know that I have been asking some cynical questions here, but such is the nature of what we do.

I will be applying to PhD programs at several universities, and I noticed that there is a huge gap between the quality of some of the Master's vs. PhD programs at universities. Some of the schools with the best Master's programs have less highly regarded PhD programs, and vice versa.

How bad would it be if I entered a school as a PhD student, got a terminal Master's, then left for another PhD program?

I know this would obviously upset a lot of people, but would it burn bridges and give me a bad reputation? Or would they not care at all? I have asked a few professors about this and have gotten mixed responses.

I was thinking that the Master's might be a boost for a second chance at better PhD programs if things didn't work out the first time, and this way there would be funding for the Master's, which is normally prohibitively expensive (for most) and simply not worth it otherwise.

Obviously, I'm not saying that this is what I plan on doing at all, but I just want to know what would happen if someone did do this. Would they care? Would they hate me for it? Or would they not be bothered at all?

Edited by hungryhungryhippo

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This gets asked all the time on these boards, you should check out past topics. My personal feelings, along with the consensus on these forums, is that this is generally a bad thing to do. You will definitely burn bridges and make things complicated for yourself. Do you think your adviser at the 1st university would really write you a strong LOR for the 2nd university? How would you explain yourself in your SOP for the 2nd application? You are clearly going to have to show you enrolled into a PhD program and then quit. How excited do you think the 2nd school will be about taking someone on who has already done that once?

I have come across this question from lots of people, and I understand if circumstances come up that make it so you can't finish the PhD at a school. There are understandable hardships and sometimes things don't work out. But to intentionally go into a school wanting a free Masters with the hopes of going to a better PhD school seems unethical to me and I question a person's integrity that does this.

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Getting an M.A. can indeed help you get into a better Ph.D. program. It also can give you a relatively efficient sense of whether grad school is really right for you. But I've always felt that the best way to do it is to go to a school with a terminal M.A. program and no Ph.D. program. That way, the faculty are on your side when you're ready to move up, and they're probably practiced in helping you find the right Ph.D. program. Plus, no burned bridges.

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But to intentionally go into a school wanting a free Masters with the hopes of going to a better PhD school seems unethical to me and I question a person's integrity that does this.

This is what I figured, but I ask this because two of my professors (who I'm pretty close with) said that it happens all the time at different universities (especially if the second school offered better funding0, that no one would blame me for taking a better opportunity, and that if it came down to it, I shouldn't worry about it because I would probably care more about it then the school itself.

I was pretty shocked by this answer.

In fact, when I asked what to do regarding the masters vs. PhD situation ("Should I get a Master's at this school and later get the PhD at another school?") they directly told me that it's always better to be in PhD program since that way I have university support, even if I wanted to leave.

I was really surprised and figured that i would ask here for more opinions.

Again, I'm not in any way planning to do this, and hopefully I will get into a good PhD program. I was just wondering if this opinion was common or not.

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oh, I never even thought about it that way. I was accepted into the PhD program at the university where I did my MA with generous funding. I had my fairy godmother for adviser, that's for sure. A lot of help, a lot of support, a lot of encouragement. Still left to move across the country to get married. Did not return years later even after visiting my adviser for some serious soul-searching. I felt I needed her help figuring things out academic career-wise and flew across the country once again to spend an evening with her. She basically said I could have my offer once again if I wanted to.

I just sort of assumed they would want what was best for me. It is better to get degrees from different schools, and I did get into an incredible program. My MA program was good, but it prepared me for even better things. And I did have amazing letters of recommendation.

Does all that sound selfish? I am not sure. I never burned any bridges, saw people at conferences, did joint research with other students, exchanged Christmas cards with my professors, and etc.

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oh, I never even thought about it that way. I was accepted into the PhD program at the university where I did my MA with generous funding. I had my fairy godmother for adviser, that's for sure. A lot of help, a lot of support, a lot of encouragement. Still left to move across the country to get married. Did not return years later even after visiting my adviser for some serious soul-searching. I felt I needed her help figuring things out academic career-wise and flew across the country once again to spend an evening with her. She basically said I could have my offer once again if I wanted to.

I just sort of assumed they would want what was best for me. It is better to get degrees from different schools, and I did get into an incredible program. My MA program was good, but it prepared me for even better things. And I did have amazing letters of recommendation.

Does all that sound selfish? I am not sure. I never burned any bridges, saw people at conferences, did joint research with other students, exchanged Christmas cards with my professors, and etc.

If I am interpreting your story correctly, I think you did something very different from what the OP is asking. It sounds like you applied and attended a Masters program, and then after completing that you were accepted into the PhD program. However, for your PhD you applied to your Masters school as well as others and ended up going elsewhere. This is exactly what I have done as well. This is very common and is perfectly acceptable.

The OP is asking whether or not it is ok to apply directly to a PhD program (without a Masters first), attend said PhD program, and then quit after 1-2 years to leave with a Masters. Then re-apply to new PhD programs. The key here is that this route intentionally deceives the PhD school because there was never an intent to actually get a PhD, just leave with a free Masters. Then apply to new PhD school because having the Masters will help to get into better PhD programs.

@ hungryhungryhippo - I actually have heard similar things you mentioned that were said by profs, but usually in the context of a legitimate concern about funding problems or research fit. Like I said, it is one thing if say you enter a PhD program and then your adviser bails out, or your adviser loses their funding for you. These things happen fairly often and it is ABSOLUTELY acceptable and understandable to transfer to a new PhD program. That is very different than intentionally deceiving your PhD program, adviser, etc. just to get a free Masters so that you can beef up your resume to get into an even better PhD program.

I don't know, I am probably a bit biased since I didn't have a strong resume out of undergrad, so I worked my *ss off researching, publishing, taking on debt to get a Masters, and then after like 5 years my app was finally ready to be competitive and now I am going to a top 10 PhD program.

I think you should just really work on preparing the best application possible, even if it means taking some time working and taking more classes, and then apply to a whole bunch of good programs. Only apply to places that really excite you because if you apply to "safety" schools and don't actually want to go there than there is a good chance you will put yourself into this dilemma later. Also, for PhDs, rank is not everything. Research fit is probably 90% of your decision. Try not to worry about name, reputation, rank, etc. for PhDs, you will drive yourself crazy with that stuff.

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It's called transferring, and it happens a lot. I don't see anything wrong with it.

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1. Look for old topics on transferring. It's a common question.

2. Faculty want you to be successful, and most of the time that carries over to transferring. They should be supportive.

3. Your advisors know more than we do, so just listen to what they've already told you.

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