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Apply to PhD and get admitted for MS in Canada?


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How common is it to apply to a PhD program and have them admit you as a Masters student? I talked to a POI who just took on a bunch of students and won't be taking on any more soon. She said that I had a decent shot at being taken on as a student with a non-traditional background but I'd have to take some remedial courses (which is fine).

 

As I was writing my SOP I rechecked their website to be sure of the wording and it looks like wording about remedial courses refers to Masters students. I emailed a program administrator and she confirmed that the non-traditional applicants are only accepted for Masters studies. This is a Canadian school. In the US you earn a Masters on the way to getting a PhD. I'm not sure that this is the case in Canada. They do accept people into the PhD program from the Masters without reapplying though. I already paid all of my fees and my app is complete except for the SOP.

 

Should I change my status to Masters applicant or should I leave it as-is with the expectation of a Masters admission?

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While I am most familiar with social science admission processes, I know that across the board in Canada it is very (very!) rare to go from undergrad straight to a PhD program.  The typical course is bachelors degree, masters degree, then phd.  

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While I am most familiar with social science admission processes, I know that across the board in Canada it is very (very!) rare to go from undergrad straight to a PhD program.  The typical course is bachelors degree, masters degree, then phd.  

 

I have a Masters in a specific application of the field I'm interested in. I just haven't taken the core set of coursework for the field in general. They want me to know the core before being allowed to pursue a research oriented degree.

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In the US, you earn a Masters on the way to a PhD. In Canada, you earn a Masters and then a PhD. I'll tell you about how most Canadian schools work, even though your school sounds like it's a bit different. But this might be useful context because I would guess that your school probably started this way and then moved towards the more US-like system (I know the big schools, such as U Toronto, are doing this, even getting .edu domain addresses as an alias for the more usual .ca)

 

Usually, the student will stay with the same school and same supervisor (but probably different project) for the Masters and PhD, but it's normal and perfectly fine to switch topics, supervisors, or even schools. Either way, the student is usually (but not always, as you said) expected to apply to the PhD program all over again (including getting transcripts, LORs, writing SOPs etc.), even if you are applying to the same school. 

 

Thus, in Canada, a Masters program is not a "remedial" one, it's basically the first two years of a US PhD program, except you have to complete and defend a MSc thesis to get your degree. In many US schools, you just get the MS when you finish the course requirements and pass quals. 

 

In addition, when a BSc graduate applies to Masters programs, he or she will usually have a discussion with the proposed supervisor(s) ahead of time and make sure everyone is on the same page. For example, does the student intend to stay for a PhD? Does the supervisor plan on being available and supporting them all the way through a PhD? In some cases, a prof is going to retire in 3-4 years so they will make it clear that they will only promise funding/availability for the MSc. One year into the program, the student and supervisor should revisit this discussion and often programs will give the student a chance to "accelerate" or "advance" directly into the PhD program if the supervisor and department and student all agree and they meet some standard.

 

With all that said, you're saying that your school generally puts people directly into PhD programs. Actually, you said the person said that non-traditional applicants are ONLY accepted for Masters studies, but that does mean that ALL masters students are non-traditional applicants? The above (standard Canadian school) case might still be true -- but in exceptional circumstances, a BSc graduate can directly enter the PhD program. However, like I said above, usually you must have a Masters before you can start the PhD program.

 

Finally, some useful timescales if you don't know them about Canada: Usually, a student will spend 4-5 years (5 years is getting more and more common now) in a BSc program and then....

 

1) 2 years in a Masters followed by 3-4 years in a PhD program at the same school

2) 2 years in a Masters followed by 4 years in a PhD program at a different school

3) 1 year in a Masters, get accelerated to a PhD program, and finish in another ~4 years

4) 5-6 years in a direct entry PhD program

 

Staying at the same school might save you time if you stay on the same project (less background to learn) and also because you can count your MSc courses towards your PhD requirements. (Routes 3 and 4 do NOT result in a Masters degree -- you would "only" get a PhD out of it).

Edited by TakeruK
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So I posted my last post after seeing your first post but before seeing your second post!

 

In light of the new info (that you have a Masters in a very specific sub-field/application of the field but not enough general knowledge), I would say that this is not that abnormal, but there is probably no common practice. Also, it depends on the circumstances of your Masters -- is it equivalent to a Canadian Masters? (Like I said above, the Canadian Masters program is a bit different than a US MS). Depending on what your undergrad and Masters degree are (are they the same type of degree that you would be getting in this department?) another school might accept you for a PhD program. 

 

I am not surprised though, if they won't want to accept you into a PhD program because you only know your specific application/sub-field instead of general knowledge. In Physics in Canada, I've noticed that many departments have the mindset of "you're a physicist first, and then [your subfield, whether it's astronomy, medical physics, quantum, condensed matter, etc.] second". The requirements for graduate degrees in any subfield of Physics would generally be heavy on the "core" courses of Physics, even if they have nothing in common with your actual research. i.e.  you'll be hard-pressed to find an astronomer who got their PhD in Canada but did not take Quantum Field Theory! I'm not commenting on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it exists and that might explain why you would be asked to do a Masters there first.

 

I like the Masters first then PhD because it provides you with an actually useful degree if you decide that you don't want to stay in academia (or your supervisor decides that you didn't live up to expectations). However, I would consider the cases where a student is forced to leave after a Masters as a failure of the school and supervisor, in most cases!

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With all that said, you're saying that your school generally puts people directly into PhD programs. Actually, you said the person said that non-traditional applicants are ONLY accepted for Masters studies, but that does mean that ALL masters students are non-traditional applicants?

 

No, they just don't accept non-traditional applicants directly to the PhD program.

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So I posted my last post after seeing your first post but before seeing your second post!

 

In light of the new info (that you have a Masters in a very specific sub-field/application of the field but not enough general knowledge), I would say that this is not that abnormal, but there is probably no common practice. Also, it depends on the circumstances of your Masters -- is it equivalent to a Canadian Masters? (Like I said above, the Canadian Masters program is a bit different than a US MS). Depending on what your undergrad and Masters degree are (are they the same type of degree that you would be getting in this department?) another school might accept you for a PhD program. 

 

I am not surprised though, if they won't want to accept you into a PhD program because you only know your specific application/sub-field instead of general knowledge. In Physics in Canada, I've noticed that many departments have the mindset of "you're a physicist first, and then [your subfield, whether it's astronomy, medical physics, quantum, condensed matter, etc.] second". The requirements for graduate degrees in any subfield of Physics would generally be heavy on the "core" courses of Physics, even if they have nothing in common with your actual research. i.e.  you'll be hard-pressed to find an astronomer who got their PhD in Canada but did not take Quantum Field Theory! I'm not commenting on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it exists and that might explain why you would be asked to do a Masters there first.

 

I like the Masters first then PhD because it provides you with an actually useful degree if you decide that you don't want to stay in academia (or your supervisor decides that you didn't live up to expectations). However, I would consider the cases where a student is forced to leave after a Masters as a failure of the school and supervisor, in most cases!

 

I have a professional masters but I took extra classes in hard stats and CS rather than fluff classes like most of my classmates. My MS program was much harder where I earned it than the equivalent program is at my target school. I think I'd make a great TA since I did it at my old school. Since graduation I've been building my skills in my spare time. I have lots of practical knowledge but I don't have anything on a transcript that says I know a CS theory. It was also a non-thesis program and I think most Canadian schools want applicants who've done a thesis for PhD programs. I haven't done research, just teaching. At the time I didn't think I'd want a PhD.

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Okay then I think this sounds like a typical Canadian school then (because only people with research based Masters are accepted for PhD programs and even traditional undergrad degree graduates must go through the Masters program first). You are definitely right that most Canadian schools want applicants who have done a thesis for PhD programs. Basically, your supervisor is on the hook for funding you during these years and why would they risk someone who have no demonstrated CS research experience over someone with a thesis-based MSc. A professional masters is not part of the path towards a PhD.

 

You would make a great TA but in most graduate programs, you would still TA as a masters students. Again, research-based Masters programs are basically just the first step of a PhD program. If you went to a US grad school, you would be in the same position as you are now -- starting as a fresh new PhD student is the same as a first year Masters student in Canada. Also, being a good TA is rarely a thing that graduate programs care about. TAing is unfortunately usually seen as a way to reduce your financial burden (the department pays you this money in exchange for some of your time, so your supervisor's burden is less). In some cases, if the supervisor has the funding and feels you need to spend more time on research, they can "buy out" your TA requirement and have the X dollars that would normally be paid by the department for your TA work to come out of their own grants instead. 

 

Unfortunately, it sounds like there isn't really much you can do except ask to be considered for the PhD program and see what they say. I know that in some Canadian departments, students are only accepted for a PhD program if there is a prof that is willing to agree to fund you for the entire degree (the shorter Masters don't always have this commitment). All of your accomplishments are great things -- but they are not the things that graduate programs (in both Canada and the US) look for. The extra CS and stats classes would be good for making the case that might offset your "non-traditional" background, but it might not be enough to propel you to the "direct PhD" program.

 

Like I said above, personally, I think it's a far better idea to do a research Masters first, then a PhD later. This gives you the flexibility to change things if you don't like your project, supervisor, school, academia etc. I definitely would not have been ready to commit to a 5 year program right out of undergrad, despite doing some research in undergrad. 

 

Again, as I said above, what's the difference between the Masters program at the school you're applying to and starting a 5-6 year direct entry PhD program? The Canadian MSc+PhD program isn't any slower than a direct entry PhD or US PhD program. You can't really expect your professional Masters to count for a lot towards a PhD though. That sounded like a put-down to professional programs, but I just mean to say that the professional program track is a different thing than the academic/PhD track. Also, graduate programs in North America rarely accept accreditation from other schools. At best, you might be exempted from retaking a specific course requirement if you have demonstrated prior coursework, but they'll just replace that course requirement with something else (e.g. a more advanced version of the course). 

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Everything is done with my app. I applied directly for the PhD (which this school allows) but noted that I was willing to do the MS if they thought that I should do one first. I'm gonna wait a few days before hitting the send button though. History has shown that there is always one little improvement that could've been done when immediately send my SOP. If it still looks perfect after 2-3 days then it's good to go.

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