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Finishing an MA thesis while starting a PhD?

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Hi all,


I was just wondering if anyone had gone through the process of finishing their MA while beginning their PhD. My MA program (research based thesis) was supposed to finish this summer, but I'm really behind for various reasons (advisor problems, changing my topic in January, and a bit of burnout as well). I was initially hoping to finish by the end of July, but it's not looking like I will, and will have to keep working on my thesis as I begin my PhD (in the same field).


Does anyone have any experience with this? Is it preferable to just get it done, working like mad, and hope there's a break at the end (though I don't feel as though I can)? Or even to drop out of my MA (which I can do--my program doesn't require that I have an MA when I start)? I'd like to have the MA--I don't want to waste the past couple of years, and I'm worried it would burn bridges, but I'm already really burnt out and don't want to deal with working on my thesis while beginning a fresh start (with a related, but different research area) ...


Any advice would be appreciated! Thanks :)



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I was in a sort of similar situation; I applied to PhD programs during the first year of my two-year MA program. I had lots of credits I could transfer from previous work, so I could finish in one year if I wrote my thesis in the spring semester, at the same time as TAing, working another job, and traveling for grad school visits. I started out hoping I could do that, but there were some difficulties that would have forced me to work throughout the summer so I wouldn't have had any time off before my first year of the PhD. I contacted my PhD program to ask if they would mind if I came with just a BA, and they said no. So I ended up putting my degree on hold, which would have allowed me to come back to it within X number of years in case the PhD somehow fell through, but I have since graduated with my PhD and have not gone back. I can tell you that the issue of the unfinished MA has not come up even once in any fellowship application or job interview. No one cares, except perhaps my MA program, but I was also a BA student there and they consider me an alum either way. I recently gave an invited talk there and they didn't even remember that I didn't finish my thesis.


If you do choose to finish your MA, I would strongly recommend doing so before starting the PhD program. I think it's important to finish one thing before moving on to the next, and honestly the first year of a PhD program is hard enough without having this extra requirement hanging over your head. The longer it takes, the lower the chances that you'll actually finish, and I think it will hold you back from devoting your full attention to your new program. 


As for wasting time and burning bridges, I wouldn't consider it a waste of time since your work has gotten you into your chosen PhD program. I think you are experiencing the famous sunken costs fallacy; it's hard to stop after you've spent so much time and effort on the MA, but that doesn't mean that continuing is necessarily the best course of action. It's really a question of how much more work you'll have to do and whether it's worth the effort just to have this official conclusion to the MA. Perhaps consulting with your advisor about the necessary work left to do and trying to devise a plan to make it work before you leave will help both you and your advisor see whether or not it's feasible and reasonable. If you can get to a place where your program considers you their student -- someone who they are sending off to a good PhD program, despite perhaps not finishing their thesis -- then they should have your best interest at heart, whatever that may be.

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Thanks so much for your advice, fuzzylogician. It was really, really useful, and I'm glad to hear about the overall positive impact it seems that it's had.


You're right--starting off my PhD while still working on my MA will be miserable, and beginning the program without having taken a break this summer will be even worse. I'd still like to try and finish, but I think I'll set an ultimate deadline (e.g. if I'm not done by X date, I'm out).


Thanks again :)

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  • 1 month later...

i actually finished my MA iduring the first semester of my PhD program. i had no choice because my admission was contingent on me completing my MA degree. they allowed me to start my phd coursework even though i didn't finish, but i had to finish by the end of the first semester. 


knowing this, i took a lot of time at the end of summer/beginning of the semester and finished by the beginning of october . it was "easier" that i only took 2 graduate seminars and then a language class. i also worked hard on it during the beginning of the semester because my coursework load was lighter and i knew it would alll just pile up. the phrase "a good thesis is a done thesis" is one that helped me a lot with as well. my MA committee knew my situation and worked with me to get everything done as quickly as possible. i got through it by chipping away at it. since i had no choice in doing it, it definitely lit a fire under my ass.


i definitely approached it knowing i was not a machine and had to balance my time more. i would also recommend to anyone, knowing what i know now, to do you best to work on it during the summer just because it IS difficult to do it during PhD time, but that if you had to then be disciplined (but not necessarily a machine).  


whatever you decide, good luck!

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  • 11 months later...

Hey folks,

I found this thread and am in a similar situation, I'm hoping I can get some advice. I am done everything except my thesis at my MA program and begin a PhD program in August.  Assuming that starting my PhD program is contingent on finishing my MA,  and that I can enroll in two programs (checking now)... The main drawbacks of starting my PhD while still finishing my MA:

1. Money: my MA school tuition is cheap and they can pro-rate, and I have funding at PhD school and can live with my parents for a semester to save money, but these schools are literally thousands of miles apart, so it's an additional trip that I hadn't worked in.  

2. Transitioning: I wanted a smooth transition from MA to PhD.  I worry about having this "hanging over my head."

3. How others perceive me at new school: I don't want it to look like I don't have my priorities straight if I'm still finishing up a MA thesis at a different school.  

Just some other info: The program I'm in is not a terminal master's program, but there is a natural break between MA and PhD for situations where the fit is  not good (which is my situation).  Anyway, here are the drawbacks of not completing my MA:

1. Burning bridges:  this is a huge one.  I've been a productive student in some senses (10 presentations in 2 years, 1 pub), but my supervisor has not had many MA students and so I would feel like I was screwing them over.  They don't have tenure so having a student not finish could be a bad thing.  The field I'm in is small and I don't want to have bad blood.  As I said, there has been a strain on our relationship, which is frustrating on one hand but understandable on the other.  They felt like I screwed them over by leaving with my MA, so i can't imagine how they would take it if I just don't finish my MA.  You might think "So what?"  Well, they wrote me a letter that helped me get into arguably the best program for my specialization in North America and have been supportive.   I think the only way to salvage the relationship if I didn't finish my MA would be to write up many manuscripts in the next year so that they can at least have some additional pubs on their CV. We have talked about continuing to work together and that is something I would like to do.  I don't even know how I would prepare to tell my supervisor that I will not finish my thesis.  They would probably try to talk me into finishing it.  

2. Finishing things: I am already disappointed in myself for not finishing this summer.  I think my project is an excellent idea and I've had a lot of hurdles (personal and otherwise) since I arrived here, so I'm trying to put it in perspective.  I realize that it doesn't really matter in the long run if I don't get my MA here.  I also realize that the project itself and the progress I've made is pretty impressive, finishing was a lofty goal to begin with (I didn't even start writing it until March).  Plus, I've grown in so many ways that I don't see like "it is time wasted unless I get my MA."  But yet, I had a goal and I want to stick to it.  

3. Perception: being a "quitter," screwing over a fairly well-known figure in the field, etc.  I think this won't matter, eventually...but ugh.  


Any thoughts are appreciated.  I'm leaning heavily towards finishing, while realizing that this may not be the best decision long-term.  



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  • 2 weeks later...

Two colleagues of mine ran into this same problem last year. One began attending her PhD program in August, finished the last draft of her thesis around September, and flew back to defend last November. The other was in a program that didn't care if he finished his master's or not, so he simply dropped it.

If my advisor keeps having to go out of town, I might be in the same boat. It seems like a pretty common occurrence for those transitioning from master's programs to PhDs. The downside to not finishing the MA/MS is that if you end up ABD, you have nothing but a bachelor's degree to support your job search.

Edited by Paloma
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