Sunday, August 22, 2010

MS or PhD?

Q. Should I apply for an MS or a PhD?

This is a very common doubt that a lot of aspirants have. In some cases, the student himself/herself does not have a clue about what he/she wants, in which case they are mostly interested in how this decision (of applying for an MS or a PhD) affects their acceptance chances and funding opportunities. In other cases, the student is quite sure that he/she wants to do a PhD, but is not sure whether directly applying for a PhD right after BTech/BE is the right choice, or if he/she should apply for an MS first and later apply for PhD.

As far as chances of admission at a top school is concerned, a PhD admission is considerably more tougher to secure than an MS admission. The PhD application pool is simply lot more competitive and the admissions committee too has much higher standards of admissions for a PhD admit. If you do not have a very high research orientation and are looking forward to just get an opportunity to study at a top school and/or have the name of that school get attached to your resume, then applying for MS is a much safer bet. Thankfully, a lot of the applications these days have an option that says "consider me for MS if I am rejected from the PhD program". You should definitely select this option and for universities that don't give this option, you would be better off only applying to their MS program.

Of course, things are different if you want research/academia to be your career and are sure about doing a PhD. In that case, it makes more sense to apply for a PhD directly. Such applicants should also keep in mind the things said above about the difficulty of gettign a PhD admit at a top school. However, when PhD is your goal, then the rank of the university doesn't matter as much as the particular professor/research lab you would be working with. Even in universities that might not feature in the top 10 or 20 in most rankings, there might be specific research groups or professors who are highly reputed in their field and do quality research work. As long as you get an opportunity to work with and be advised by such a professor, you should be fine. However if you really really want to do a PhD from a very top school, then you'd be better off doing an MS first and then applying again (your chances should improve once you have done an MS from a reputed university).

With regards to funding, PhD admissions almost certainly coming with funding in most of the top schools. but MS admissions don't. PhD admits get some sort of scholarship or fellowship with their admit which is good for couple of years (or at least one year), and even after that expires, it's easy for them to get research and teaching assistantships. MS students on the other hand have to solely rely on getting RAships and TAships to fund their studies. The ease of getting assistantships differs from university to university. It might be a good idea to contact a couple of graduate students already studying there (it should be fairly easy to get email addresses of students from the university website) about the funding situation there.


  1. My main reason to apply for M.S. is to get research opportunities. I did not have opportunities in relevant areas in my undergraduate education. I don't have any published research. Is it compensated by other parts of the application? (GPA, standardized test scores, recommendation letters) . I am very much interested in pursuing research but I don't have anything to show for it

    1. While GPA and test scores certainly help in giving your profile a boost, a lack of published research is best compensated by evidence of many research-oriented projects (both curricular and those outside of the curriculum such as summer internships). Having strong projects (even if they didn't lead to publications) allows you to talk about them in detail in your SOP as well and your recommenders can highlight them in their letters.