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How do you know you really want to do your PhD, and not just masters


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Hi everyone,


I just started my second year in a PhD program for immunology, but seriously questioning whether I want to master out or complete it. I dont know if I have enough passion to get me through it. I am one of those people who went on to a PhD becuase I felt like, thats what you do next, and becuase my family and bf would be so dissapointed it I didn't do it. Sometimes I think I'm only staying in because I feel like "just getting a masters" is looked down up and that I need to get a PhD to prove that I am a success. I also don't know what the advantages a PhD would get me or how to tell if its worth it for me. There is also the stigma in research that if you are smart you have to get a PhD. Do you think a masters might be for me? How can I make this decision?



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When I was doing the whole Master's versus PhD debate I didn't pay any attention to my friends or family.  I love them, but ultimately it was my call.  I looked at it in terms of career first.  I made a list of all of the types of jobs I was interested in doing and which degree they required.  When my list was done most of the jobs I wanted to do required a PhD.  I looked at the list of Master's only jobs and wondered if I'd be happy with just those options and really wasn't sure right away.  When I started my Master's program it seriously reinforced my desire to do all of those jobs on the PhD list, so I will go for my PhD.  I also considered funding, location of programs, how motivated I am, and the time commitment for each but career options was the bigger piece for me.


I don't know anything about the field of Immunology, but I think you could similarly weigh your options.  What can you do with just a Master's?  What can you do with a PhD?  Which opportunities are more appealing to you?  I would think your adviser or your schools career center would be able to provide you with a lot of insight on employment options with either degree.  Also consider funding, time commitment, and your own motivation.


I haven't come across the stigma in research that you mention, but I look at it this way.  Do you want to be defined by a stigma or do you want to live your life on your own terms?  Deciding a PhD isn't right for you does not make you less smart, disappointing, or any other negative term.  If it was for everyone then everyone would have one.  Not everyone gets a Master's either, so regardless you'll be ahead of the academic curve.  What matters is that you have the necessary education to satisfy your own personal and professional goals, whatever they may be.

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I'll second MsDarjeeling - what are you looking for in your career? I went straight into a terminal master's program after undergrad, thinking I wanted to do community health education. I ended up in a research position because that's where the jobs were. At this point, I could easily make a 30+ year career as a research manager, but I found myself thinking of more and more research questions on my own. That was the trigger for applying PhD programs - I want to ask and answer my own questions. If you're driven by the pursuit of answers to your own questions, then a PhD is good. If you're happy to make meaningful contributions to answering someone else's question, then a master's is fine. It's also fine to get the master's and work for a few years before deciding if you definitely want a PhD.

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My decision really was based on my career goals. I want to work in academia and do research. For that I need a PhD. I couldn't do that with a master's, but it sounds like you do have options.

It's already accomplishment to get a master's degree, and not all career require you to have a PhD. Dedicating so much of your life to something you might not need and something that isn't fulfilling is not worth it unless it's something you really want/need.

Take a look at your goals right now and in the future,your well-being, and for a moment, ignore pressures (I know they can be very significant, but just for one moment). Then see how those goals match up with continuing a PhD.


Good luck!

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Definitely you have to get the feelings of your family and SO out of your head.  First of all, many doctoral students who leave find that their family actually doesn't care as much as they thought they would, and are quite supportive.  When I was thinking about leaving, both my then-fiance and my mother were very supportive and understanding, and my father actually wanted me to leave.


Secondly, even if they are mildly disappointed, they are not the ones who have to complete the program.  You just started your second year, which means you still have at least three more years to go (this one and two more) - and more realistically, 4-5 years to go.  That means 4-5 years of passing qualifying exams, doing research and writing a dissertation when you don't care and what out.  That sounds like a personal kind of hell.


You don't need a PhD to prove success; only academics think like that.  Everywhere else, a master's is usually sufficient for what you want to do.  In the biomedical sciences, people with master's often do research their entire careers.  The only difference is that they are not the ones calling the shots - you don't get to decide the actual study itself - but many master's-level researchers work as project coordinators and research associates, helping to put together the important parts of a research project.  MS-level researchers also typically stay at the bench, so if you like bench science that may be the way to go.  PhD-level researchers take a much more administrative role; once they get senior enough, they really act like more of a manager - managing their project coordinators, research assistants, graduate students, and their grants.  (They don't tell you this in graduate school!)


Intelligence also doesn't decide who gets a PhD; most people who leave don't leave because they aren't as smart, but because they simply lose interest and/or decide that they would be better off spending their time working or doing something else.  Life is too short to spend 4-5 more years being miserable in a PhD program.


The way to decide whether you want a PhD is to act like you are looking for a job.  Not an academic job - the job YOU want.  Read up on some careers and scour job posting websites for job postings.  Mark the ones that excite you.  Do they require PhDs, or do most of the people doing what you want to do have a PhD?  No?  Then you don't need one.


Google "I hate grad school" or "I want to quit graduate school" or something similar to those search terms.  Read.  I promise it'll make you feel better - if for no other reason, than to remind you that you are not alone and that there are thousands of other people who have felt the same as you and have grappled with the same decisions.  I was one of them.  Some of us decided to stay and finish (like me) and some of us decided to leave.  But it's a process and it takes some time and thought.  However, before you can truly decide you need to learn to block out all of those competing social interests (What will my friends, family, partner, strangers, dog think?) and focus on your own inner thoughts and feelings.  That in itself takes some time, but reading the results I gleaned from web searches like the ones above helped me to do that, to focus on what I really wanted and not what I thought everyone else wanted.  I eventually decided to finish, but that's because I was further along (nearing the end of my third year) when I was doing the decision making and I was finished with most of my program's requirements aside from the dissertation.  Since I had already decided on a topic and had the data for it already, and since I liked writing and doing research - so writing a dissertation didn't sound terrible to me - and since some of the jobs I wanted were within my field and required a PhD, I decided to stay.  But if I were at the end of my first year and felt the same way, I would've quit and done something else.

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