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Joining PhD program for the free MS


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I'm strongly considering joining a PhD program (Neuroscience) solely for the purpose of getting a MS for free while collecting a stipend. I realize that this is considered unethical and may result in burned bridges with faculty at the university I attend. However, due to financial constraint and the lack of funding for terminal MS programs, it appears to be the only option that will not leave me with significant debt.

My questions is: Do any of you know someone who has done this? If so, how did it turn out?

Any advice is appreciated.

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I know a couple of people who did this. How did it end? Very badly.


I don't know that you necessarily understand how incredibly draining it will be to spend a year or two of your life (however long it takes for the masters) lying to everyone you talk to, live, study and research with. Psychologically, it will destroy you. 


You also shouldn't underestimate how "burned bridges with faculty at the university" will follow you around. Know what happens when you're interviewing for jobs? Those faculty members are called.


Why do you want to go to grad school anyway? Is it to further your career? If so, won't the masters ultimately pay for itself (in increased future income) as it does in many STEM fields?


If you absolutely need to get the education without the debt, consider going abroad and studying somewhere that won't cost you much (e.g. lots of European countries).


You're basically asking for trouble with this thread btw. PhD admissions are tough, and taking up a spot when you are certain you only want the MS is all sorts of messed up.

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A lot of people do this with the assumption that the first two years of a PhD program are essentially the same as a two-year terminal master's degree program.  And while on its face it does look like that, it's not entirely true.


On a most basic level, often times the PhD class requirements are different.  For example, my department has terminal professional master's programs, terminal research master's programs and an MA/PhD program.  While I did take most of my classes with students from both programs, the requirements of my program were completely different and more research-oriented.  I didn't have to take environmental health sciences or health policy and management; I didn't learn technical skills like program evaluation and healthcare marketing like the students in my department did in their professional classes.  And the core is even different for the terminal MS students - they take core classes with the MPH students.


Often even more integrated programs have doctoral only classes that focus on more theoretical and research issues.  If you want to focus on more applied issues in neuroscience or want to learn technical skills that you can apply outside of research/academia, then you may be unhappy.


And on the internship front, your professors will not support you doing an internship outside of research.  Not that doctoral students don't do them - but they do tend to do them later in their doctoral careers, when they have more unstructured time.


Which leads me into my next point.  Everything in a PhD program is geared towards preparing you for research jobs that require a PhD, primarily academia.  That's going to be especially true in neuroscience.  It's not that neuroscience doesn't have applications outside of academia but even the most applied departments (like public health!) still have the expectation that their students are going to be professors somewhere.  Most of the jobs passed around my parts are academic, and I feel like the "out there" student because I want to go do research in a think tank or a federal agency, and not be a professor.  Trust me, it will drive you nuts.


Also, people around you tend to drag their feet towards MS requirements when you are in the doctoral program, because it doesn't matter. I didn't get my MA until after year 3 in my program.


Can you do it?  Sure, and you will get the free master's, especially if you are a sufficiently good actor (or just keep your mouth shut) so that nobody knows you intend to leave.  And realistically speaking, nothing bad will probably happen to you, as nobody will be able to tell that you had no intention of finishing the program if you do it right.  But it's still unethical.


I know that there are some funded programs in neuroscience; you may want to check those out.

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I should point out that if done correctly, I would appear just to be another student who didn't finish his PhD.  This might not result in so many burned bridges.


Sure. It would look like you're a student who failed a PhD. 


That doesn't look the same as getting a masters. 


Else, you'd need to transition from a PhD, to completing a solid, thesis based masters degree. And that would require not looking like a student who just didn't finish a PhD. 


Most neuroscience programs will not award an MS part way through (unlike some other fields). 


You'll either fail out at some point, and get what will be obvious as a consolation MS, or you'll finish and have only a BS and a PhD, with no corresponding MS. 

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No, it really wouldn't. 


Trust me, I've seen people try it. 


And you'd still have to be on good enough terms to finish out what will probably be, on average, another year or so to do a MS thesis and accompanying research. 


And there's a good chance they might not keep your stipend for that. 


Or, you'll get the consolation prize MS, which will just look like you couldn't cut it. 

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It depends strongly on the school and program. 


But in Neuroscience, it's not uncommon for schools to have 1 year, no-thesis masters programs (mostly to attract pre-med students who need some extra development). 


When you get a consolation MS, it will be one of those- hence, not equivalent to a terminal degree. 


Also, many schools don't *offer* a masters program, outside of the one you get for dropping out of a PhD, making it fairly apparent. 


And keep in mind, as I mentioned above, that you may end up paying for a portion of your consolation masters anyway. You won't be meeting all the MS requirements in 2 years of a PhD program. Definitely not the thesis. So you'll need to stick around to do that, and depending on the school, since you're no longer a PhD student, you might not get funded for that portion. 


As has been said, the first two years of a PhD program is not very similar to a MS program. 

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You seem to have a response prepared for every reason you've been given for not doing this. So, to save time, please tell us exactly what your question or concern is. If you're asking for validation concerning a decision to apply to a PhD program knowing that you only want your masters, you're unlikely to find it in these forums.

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I came here to say the same thing.


I will say that employers will not always know that you got an MA or MS for dropping out of a PhD program.  That would require them to be familiar with the conventions of every program in the field, and they're usually not.  This is especially true for employers that don't normally hire academics; they don't know how it works.  I've been applying for part-time jobs that require an MA while I finish my PhD and nobody seems to care that it's a non-terminal MA earned along the way to my PhD.  I've also applied to full-time jobs, when I was thinking about dropping out of my program, and again - nobody cared and nobody asked.  And in many programs, you do have to do a master's thesis even to get the non-terminal MA - I had to write a master's paper.  I published it later.


Even if employers know that you left a PhD program, that won't necessarily matter.  Most people don't leave PhD programs because they are incapable of doing the work; they leave because they don't want a PhD anymore for a variety of reasons.  You can easily explain it as a career change, a desire to get out into the workforce and work on applied programs right at that moment, a change of interests - the same reason that career changers use to explain their job applications.  


So I agree with the above post - can you tell us exactly what it is you were expecting to hear or want to get out of this thread?  Because right now, people are telling you stuff and you have a response to everything.  I don't think anyone here is going to encourage you to do this unethical thing, so if that's what you want you may want to seek that elsewhere.


But as far as negative things that might happen to you if you do this?  If you do it right, probably nothing will happen to you realistically.  You may have a problem with references for jobs, just because your most recent supervisors will be your professors, and that's only if they knew that you planned to leave from the beginning.  If you are a good pretender and really come across like you just discovered that you don't want a PhD, then most likely nothing will happen.  It just may take you longer than expected to get your MS because PhD programs are not geared towards giving people an MS, so instead of 2 years it may take 2.5 or whatever.  But it's not like the gods of academia are going to rain fire and brimstone on you.

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