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Terminal Masters to PhD?


siitrasn

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I'm deciding between two programs that are both professional/terminal degrees in my area of interest (HCI). I'm basically torn between deciding on the school that would allow me to be more flexible if I decide to pursue a PhD versus one that is better for job placements if I decide a PhD isn't for me. Current goal is to work a year or two after graduation before deciding to apply to a PhD. 

Instead of asking for advice on my situation, I'm wondering if any of you would be willing to share your stories facing a similar situation. Did the terminal masters and work experience make you equally competitive for your PhD admissions? How did academic versus industry experience weigh in your PhD app?

Here are a few points I'd love to hear others talk about:

Time: One program is a year, which means less opportunity cost and a quicker return to the workforce. The other is two years and arguably provides more opportunity for research and publishing.

Research Credibility: Does publishing matter for PhD admissions? If I plan to work in industry as an analyst/researcher after the masters degree, would that be convincing enough to admissions committees I know what research at the PhD level is like?

Long-term Goals: How did you weigh your dream/goals of a PhD and scholarship vs employability? It's always been a dream of mine to become a scholar-practitioner that does both basic and applied research. A PhD doesn't usually increase employability, salary, or competitiveness except in a few highly specialized situations. PhDs also have a high opportunity cost.

 

Edited by siitrasn
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I worked as a researcher in an human factors/human systems lab at a gov facility for about 6 years after my terminal masters. I'd say my work experience was more valuable but not by much, and I wouldn't have got that position without my masters. The research lab (and entire division) recruited grad interns and fresh grads from three California State University campuses in human factors/experimental psych MA/MS programs, and all of those programs took at least two (usually three) years to complete with a thesis requirement.

The fact that my research lab was particularly publication-heavy was very beneficial, and I'm almost certain made my application more attractive to adcomms than if I spent the 6 years in industry. Industry experience is better than no experience, but experience in a public or academic institution where you're writing and attending conferences strengthens your application much more.

I don't know of any positions where you can do both basic and applied research outside of an academic institution, but that's not saying those positions don't exist. Even in universities, I think most HCI work is applied - but I'm looking at it from an applied psych background, so that may not be true for all HFE/HCI disciplines. In my case, I want to stay in the same gov/academic sector, but most of the positions I want require a PhD due to the complexity of the research. I also prefer more autonomy at a level that's difficult to achieve without a doctorate (more of a PI position). I think HFE/HCI is moving toward systems and we'll see a lot more professional opportunities in the next few decades, so I'm not that concerned about employability.

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Thanks for sharing your experience with your MA/MS. You're absolutely right about HCI being mostly applied work, which might make product research more valuable for PhD applications even if I don't end up working for a publication-focused institution after graduation. I'm also interested in a PhD for some of the same reasons you listed; a lot of the jobs I'm interested in require a MA/MS minimum, with many preferring a PhD to climb into a more senior research role. I also feel a PhD would train me better for being an independent researcher, much like you mentioned.

Did you apply with a SoP mentioning an interest in industry or academic work after getting your PhD?

 

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Similar situation here, I finished my undergrad, and immediately jumped into a related terminal/professional masters (Master of Information aka MLIS) as a part time student. When I did this, my main idea was to have a second card to play if I were in the process of looking for another job in the future. I did not have any intention of doing the PhD initially, but towards the end of the second year, I realized that I did want to go on the PhD in the same program (which required the masters for admission).

I should mention, that I finished my undergrad at 52, then immediately jumped into the masters program which I will finish in May, before starting the PhD program this fall. What mainly helped me is that all 3 fields are somewhat related, and by the time I applied to the PhD program I already had ~30 years work experience in the industry. The other thing that helped was that I was, in the words of one of the POIs that I interviewed with 'a known quantity', having completed my undergrad, and doing my masters at the same institution. In his opinion, I was less of a risk because of that, since they already knew what my academic work was like.

So, to answer some of your questions -

Time - only you can answer that, in my case it did not matter for the masters, but your mileage WILL vary....

Research credibility - Nobody really knows what research is like at the PhD level is like until they have actually done it. I think that most admissions committees realize that, but it may make a difference is some fields. It didn't make a difference for me, and I suspect that in HCI, practical experience is probably more important anyway.

Long term goals - You are correct in the comment about employment and salary. Full time academic jobs can be difficult to come by, but that is also field dependent. In my case, jumping directly into academia after completing the PhD, would most likely result in an overall decrease in income. My end game is to have something to do after I retire from the professional life for additional income, and I did make this clear when I was interviewing for the PhD. From where I stand now, my professional retirement with full benefits should happen 4-5 years after finishing the PhD, so this is not an unreasonable goal.

The high opportunity cost is also something to consider. There are really two things to consider here, lost income and lost time. In my case, the time is more important than the income. I will be doing the PhD part time, without departmental funding (because of the part time status), but I am also a full time employee of the university, and employee benefits will cover a significant portion of the financial part.

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18 hours ago, avflinsch said:

Similar situation here, I finished my undergrad, and immediately jumped into a related terminal/professional masters (Master of Information aka MLIS) as a part time student. When I did this, my main idea was to have a second card to play if I were in the process of looking for another job in the future. I did not have any intention of doing the PhD initially, but towards the end of the second year, I realized that I did want to go on the PhD in the same program (which required the masters for admission).

I should mention, that I finished my undergrad at 52, then immediately jumped into the masters program which I will finish in May, before starting the PhD program this fall. What mainly helped me is that all 3 fields are somewhat related, and by the time I applied to the PhD program I already had ~30 years work experience in the industry. The other thing that helped was that I was, in the words of one of the POIs that I interviewed with 'a known quantity', having completed my undergrad, and doing my masters at the same institution. In his opinion, I was less of a risk because of that, since they already knew what my academic work was like.

So, to answer some of your questions -

Time - only you can answer that, in my case it did not matter for the masters, but your mileage WILL vary....

Research credibility - Nobody really knows what research is like at the PhD level is like until they have actually done it. I think that most admissions committees realize that, but it may make a difference is some fields. It didn't make a difference for me, and I suspect that in HCI, practical experience is probably more important anyway.

Long term goals - You are correct in the comment about employment and salary. Full time academic jobs can be difficult to come by, but that is also field dependent. In my case, jumping directly into academia after completing the PhD, would most likely result in an overall decrease in income. My end game is to have something to do after I retire from the professional life for additional income, and I did make this clear when I was interviewing for the PhD. From where I stand now, my professional retirement with full benefits should happen 4-5 years after finishing the PhD, so this is not an unreasonable goal.

The high opportunity cost is also something to consider. There are really two things to consider here, lost income and lost time. In my case, the time is more important than the income. I will be doing the PhD part time, without departmental funding (because of the part time status), but I am also a full time employee of the university, and employee benefits will cover a significant portion of the financial part.

I really appreciate you sharing your story with me. It's pretty inspiring how you went from undergrad to masters to PhD, but it definitely seems like your maturity helped you map out your path in a way that I've seen some of my peers (in their 20s) struggle with due to not being sure about how school will play into their career goals. I never really thought about comparing lost income to lost time, but I think in my situation lost income is more important than time. I don't mind doing a PhD after a few years out in industry with a masters, especially if I'm planning to start a family before getting into a PhD.

Also, I'm a bit relieved to hear both you and @OhSoSolipsistic mentioned the strong applied nature of HCI research, which suggests that I might be worrying a bit too much about whether or not I'll be making myself less competitive for PhD admissions if I do end up deciding to do one. Assuming, that is, that I end up in a research role after doing my masters.

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On 3/29/2017 at 11:46 PM, siitrasn said:

Did you apply with a SoP mentioning an interest in industry or academic work after getting your PhD?

 

I plan to look for a research-heavy appointment in either a government or academic institution after grad school (I have no interest in industry), so in my SoP I focused on the type of research I want to do but wasn't very specific on a clear career position. I believe most adcomms prefer applicants who plan to become professors, so that might not have been the best general approach, but it was an honest one for me.

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