Applying to Graduate School: Which Degree is Right for You?

Asking yourself whether you want to pursue a master's or doctorate degree right out of undergrad is not realistic in many fields. In most disciplines, and even in many countries, it's a requirement to obtain a master's degree before starting a doctoral degree.

Marine science, at least in the United States, is an anomaly. It is possible to skip over a master’s degree and instead begin a PhD without any intermediary study. It might complicate the decision-making process, but ultimately you can decide what’s right for you.

I jumped straight into a PhD position after taking a year after undergrad to work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I had never thought about graduate school until the spring semester of my senior year, already too late to apply for that cycle, when my research advisor asked me what schools I was considering. Not only that, he followed up in later discussions by suggesting I apply to PhD programs. Up to that point I had no idea it was an option to skip a masters. But, here I am a few years later, having done just that.

You might find that a master's degree is a better fit if...

  1. You not sure what exactly you want to study.

Sure, you’ve narrowed it down to marine science. But if you aren’t sure what your specific research interests are, you should test the waters before committing to a doctoral degree. That said, you don’t need a whole project outlined to be ready for starting a PhD, but at least know if you want to study sharks or corals!

2.  You aren’t interested in academia – at least not right away.

Academia is not always a friendly place, and there are plenty of reasons to want to avoid it. Just like a PhD, you can certainly use a master’s degree to break into academia. But more often people who obtain a master’s as their terminal degree generally find work in industry or government as opposed to within a university system. This is not always the case, which is why point 3 is so important!

3.  You know what job you want, and you know it doesn’t require a PhD.

Are you 100% sure you don’t want to be a professor? Or be the head of a lab? Then there’s a good chance you don’t need a PhD. Of course that’s not entirely true, but in many cases you’d have spent a lot of time and energy just to become overqualified for the position you’ve decided you want.

4.  You want to work with a very specific advisor.

Do you see yourself studying under one specific person whose work you are obsessed with? This one can go either way, but even within marine science where skipping a master’s degree has become somewhat of a norm, I know of lab heads who won’t take a PhD student unless they have a master’s under their belt. This is mostly out of fear that they’ll be investing in someone who doesn’t work out – see point 1. If you have your heart set on working with this one person, check with them before submitting your application that you meet all of their personal qualifications, aside from what the university says is necessary.

5.  You don’t want a huge time commitment. 

Master’s degrees take decidedly less time than a PhD, typically one to three years for a master’s compared to around five for a PhD. With a master’s degree you’re often publishing a one-chapter thesis, whereas in a PhD program, a three-chapter dissertation is almost universally required. If you’re not completely sure a PhD is the course you want to go, don’t waste your time, especially if it won’t be worth it to you in the end.

6.  You want to improve your resume before proceeding to a PhD.

Science majors are hard, and if you are interested in a PhD in marine science, you probably studied a science in undergrad. If your science transcript is less than stellar, maybe you could use a GPA bump before applying to that PhD program. If you are switching fields entirely, and have very little science background, you could use a master’s degree to prove you are capable of graduate science study. Or if you’re straight out of undergrad but have no research experience, you can get great practical experience in the field, lab, and academia by completing a master’s degree. The list goes on, but if you really want to attend a top institution for your PhD, a master’s could be the resume builder you need.

You may want to opt to skip a master's degree and go for a PhD if...

  1.  You know you ultimately want (or need) to get a PhD.

If your dream job requires a PhD and you can’t think of a good reason to wait on getting that qualification, then don’t.

2.  You know exactly what you want to study. 

If you don’t think you need clarity on what you’re passionate about before you commit to a research topic, get right into it. Some people are just born to study fish ear bones.

3.  You don’t want to take on the expense of a master’s degree.

This is a huge one. Master’s degrees are often not funded. If you can find one that is funded, excellent! But the truth is universities take much better care of their PhD students as far as funding goes. If you’ve gotten out of undergrad and don’t want more student loans, applying for a funded PhD is a solid option.

4.  You are okay with waiting for the right timing.

If you’re planning on skipping a master’s to pursue a PhD, you may need to be okay with not getting accepted during your first round of applications. Even if you do have a master’s degree, acceptance to a PhD program is not guaranteed. Timing is one of the most critical factors in admittance to a PhD program. You could be the perfect candidate, and if no one has funding for you, you’re still out of luck.

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