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Question about "Mastering Out" of a PhD Program


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I am currently concluding my 4th year in a Biology PhD program. My PI was not offered tenure since the lab had lost its funding. However, because I was not on good terms with the PI, my advisory committee recommended that I withdraw from the program. My PI had written a biased evaluation that had led to the decision that I withdraw. I appealed this decision, and it seems that the department just does not want me there.


I was asked if I wanted a Master's degree in General Biology from this PhD-granting school, but I already have a Master's in General Biology from another (and more prestigious) school. I plan on re-applying to other PhD programs, but my concern is that taking a 2nd Master's might hurt me rather than help me. I don't want my 4 years in the PhD program to go to waste, but at the same time, I don't want my record to look like I was not successful in my PhD program. On the bright side, I do have a second-author publication from my time in the PhD program. However, it seems that no one can give me a straight answer as to whether taking a 2nd Master's (four-year duration??) in the same exact field would be beneficial or not, especially if I'm reapplying to PhD programs.


I would very much appreciate if anyone can offer me advice on this sitation, but It seems that a lot of people explore other career options if they encounter my situation, which is not what I want to do. I do want to stay in academia, as I've found it to be a good fit, except of course for these evil professors that ruin people's careers...haha.

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Sorry to hear that you are in this situation. You asked for advice, so I will tell you what I would do in your situation and my reason. However, this is a pretty personal thing, so since we're not the same people, I'm not sure how useful my advice would be!!


I'm at about the same stage in my career as you. I have a Masters prior to my PhD program and I'm finishing up my 3rd year in my PhD program. If I was in your situation, I would definitely not pursue an academic career. Leaving with a second Masters in general biology would mean I have already spent 5-6 years in grad school and I would have to start again at a third grad school! At this point, I would move on to a different career path--even if it was unfair for the PI to kick me out, I am not certain it's worth fighting against it anymore.


When people say a 2nd masters is bad for PhD admits is not because you have two pieces of paper that say the same thing, but because it means you were not successful in at least one PhD program (not sure if your first masters was a terminal one or not). So, at this stage, for you, it doesn't matter if you take the second masters or not--either way, any future grad school will see that you have spent 4 years in this program and did not get a PhD.


Again, I don't know all of the details, so I'm going to give two sets of advice. The first set of advice is from someone who is "on your side" and the second set is from someone who is a neutral third party.


From someone on your side:

How long are PhD programs in your field? If they are normally 5 years, then I would probably either fight really really hard to appeal their decision to dismiss me. You might have to get university officials and/or lawyers to prove that you are being wrongfully dismissed. This is not an ideal route but the best case scenario would be that while you will likely burn all bridges you have with the department, you can leave with a PhD and move on to something outside of academia.


From someone who is a neutral third party:

Sometimes the best decision for you might not be the one you want to hear. Maybe your PI is indeed biased against you but that doesn't mean the entire committee is as well. I don't know what the evaluation says, or your ability as a researcher, but maybe the committee is correct in their assessment that you should withdraw from the program. I would consider the evaluation carefully and ask for honest opinions of people you trust or respect in the department. Find out what are the main reasons that led to the withdrawal decision and ask yourself if these are things you agree with and/or can change. That could help you determine whether or not it's worth a fight, or whether you will be better off spending your time, energy and money doing something else.




In my opinion, trying to continue in academia at this point does not sound like a good idea. I hate telling people advice that essentially says "give up on your dreams" but from what you wrote here, my personal choice would be to leave academia. Note that leaving academia now does not mean leaving forever. I know professors in my field that were originally in a similar situation to you, left and did other work, and then returned and found permanent positions (some are even tenured). But only you can decide whether or not something is "worth it" for you :) Just seriously and objectively consider both sides!

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TakeruK, thanks for sharing your honest opinion! I would have to disagree with you in that respect, though. I do not think being in grad school for this long is a waste of time. In fact, it has helped me develop a lot of people and research skills that I would otherwise not have obtained in a 9-to-5 job.


My lab lost its funding and the PI will not be reappointed. The program has a funding limit, so I could not continue...I don't think you got the point of my post. I was asking IF I should take the 2nd Master's with the intent of re-applying/transferring to other PhD programs. I am NOT quitting. Academia is my life, and my life is academia. I eat, sleep, and breathe it. My PhD program was just not a good fit. It happens, and it doesn't mean I should find an alternate career choice. If I didn't like this, I wouldn't have worked my tail off for a publication.


Does anyone else have another perspective on the situation?

Edited by molcellbio25
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I am not going to voice any opinion about your decision to reapply for grad school. 


Regarding your current decision, it seems to me that taking the Masters is better than leaving with nothing. The facts are what they are -- you did spend 4 years in this program, and you are leaving without a PhD. If you are going into industry, it's probably not going to matter much one way or the other so better have the degree than not. If you are reapplying to other PhD programs, you'll need to justify leaving and starting over. The best story you can tell, in my opinion, is that your advisor was denied tenure and no one else was able to support your research, forcing you to leave (or some version of that that may not be the full truth but is not a lie). If so, you would want to show that you were on good terms with your department. My guess is that leaving with some kind of degree is better than leaving with nothing to show for your time there.


The real challenge, in my opinion, will be getting letters of recommendation to support your new applications. You will need to have someone from your current program support your new application if it's going to succeed. If you find such a person, I recommend you ask them for their opinion regarding the Masters option. 

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I understand your desire to stay in academia. I feel similarly about academia and would prefer to spend 10+ years in grad school than leave to industry... I love it that much too! If it is your dream then I don't see why you shouldn't keep pushing for it.


Since your advisor wrote a negative review and no one in your committee is standing up for you then that of course raises some eyebrows. Do you feel that you have been on track with your research progress? I would think having 1 middle author paper at this point would be on the very low end but I do realize that different subfields of bio differ a lot in frequency of publication so it may be completely normal for your area. Do you have some conference talks/posters as well on your CV so that you have some tangible results for your 4 years of work? Also of major importance is your relationship with profs in your department (including with those outside your committee). Are there people you have done side projects with or impressed in other ways who can write great LORs?


I would try anything I could to stay in my current program if I were you. If funding is the issue then are TA positions available or can you take a year off and apply like crazy for outside funding and come back to your current program in a year? At 4 years in (I assume you have 1-2 years left?) then I think I would even settle for doing part time work with the university or in industry and then finishing your dissertation part time. This might still be faster and less confusing on your resume than leaving after 4 years, especially since you already have another masters. If you don't think there is any way to make your current program work and you do think you can get a couple good LORs for applying to your next program then I agree with fuzzylogician that you should take the masters and explain that your professor left and no one in your research area had funding. Good luck!

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