Deciding to Apply
Graduate schools (i.e., those offering M.S. and Ph.D. degrees) provide students with opportunities for intensive research and classroom training in focused areas of science. Advanced degrees allow access to higher level positions with more independence than jobs offered to applicants with Bachelor's Degrees. Graduate programs may be based in science departments or administered as interdisciplinary programs among groups of departments/divisions; the latter is becoming more common in both academic medical centers and biotechnology-oriented academic campuses. In general, science graduate programs are designed for students seeking to enter research related career paths and a majority of the student's effort will be devoted to mentored, but substantially independent, laboratory investigation and/or field study.
Should I pursue an M.S. or a Ph.D.?
In most institutions, the course requirements for the two degrees are similar, and both require the preparation and oral defense of a written compilation of the student's research (the M.S. thesis or the Ph.D. dissertation). The main distinction between the two degree concentrations is the depth of research involvement and institutional expectations for completion of each degree. Some programs admit only a few M.S. students and you may have to be selective in your application choices. Upon completion of the M.S. degree, a student is expected to display a thorough understanding of his/her research area and to have attained significant technical expertise. Successful completion of doctoral programs requires the student to demonstrate in-depth comprehension of his/her specific project and how it fits into broader scientific contexts. The Ph.D. also signifies the ability of the degree recipient to function as an independent scientist with commensurate skills in experimental design and critical evaluation. Predictably, completion of the Ph.D. requires significantly more time and effort than the M.S. In general, two to three years of full time commitment is expected for completion of a research-based Master's Degree, while Ph.D. training typically requires five years and, depending on the nature of the project and the level of effort by the student, may take as many as six or even seven years. In addition, most academic jobs and many industrial positions require 2-4 years of postdoctoral experience after completion of the Ph.D. "Postdocs" are equivalent is some ways to apprenticeships: new Ph.D.'s devote full time to research so as to strengthen their publication record and establish a reputation of expertise in a particular scientific area. This is done under the mentorship of an established scientist.
Do I have to complete an M.S. before getting the Ph.D.?
Most graduate programs allow students to apply directly for doctoral training without having to earn an M.S. However, if you are uncertain as to whether you are ready to commit to the rigors and time constraints of Ph.D. training, a research-based M.S. degree will strengthen your credentials should you decide subsequently to seek the doctorate. Many graduate schools have provisions for students who wish to remain in the same institution to move smoothly into doctoral training upon completion of an M.S.
What if I want to take a year or two off and work in a lab to help me decide my future career path?
This can be a very good idea. As noted above, most graduate programs are designed for students seeking research related careers and admissions committees usually are impressed by evidence of previous independent research experience, and unimpressed by applicants with little or no exposure to life in the laboratory or field study. While this is more critical for applicants to doctoral programs than for students seeking an M.S., research credentials are a real asset. Formal laboratory courses do not qualify as independent research. Academic performance is important, but previous research experience has proven an important indicator of success in graduate school and beyond. The reason for this is quite simple: unlike laboratory sections of college courses, most experiments don't yield the expected results and one of the most important traits of successful research scientists is the ability to persevere in spite of the significant potential for frustration. Graduate admissions committees consider individuals who have experienced this first-hand to be aware of the realities of research careers and are much more likely to accept such applicants. One potential danger of a hiatus between undergraduate and graduate school is the difficulty some students encounter in re-acquiring efficient study habits upon return to the classroom.
Is part time study an option for M.S. and/or Ph.D. programs?
This varies among graduate programs and research disciplines but, due to the intensive laboratory (or field study) component of the training, full time enrollment often is required.
What are my career options?
As might be expected, positions available to doctoral degree recipients tend to be more lucrative and to offer more independence than the jobs available to holders of M.S. degrees. As a result, the reputation of the M.S. degree diminished somewhat over the last two decades. However, there has been a recent blurring of the distinction between career opportunities for M.S. and Ph.D. recipients in some sectors, and the actual number of career choices available to scientists with M.S. degrees may exceed that for Ph.D. holders! As a consequence, M.S. programs are growing in popularity and stature, and a variety of "Specialized M.S. Degree" programs are appearing that offer training in highly focused areas, such as biotechnology, science business, science policy and others. New combinations of degrees (M.S./M.B.A., Ph.D./M.B.A., etc.) also are becoming available. Below is a brief overview of career options for M.S. and Ph.D. recipients:
M.S.: In terms of research careers, the M.S. allows mid-level entry into industrial, pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. These positions offer salaries that are among the highest for holders of M.S. degrees. Technical research posts also are available in academic research settings such as universities and medical centers. In terms of teaching opportunities, while it is rare for colleges and universities to appoint Master's level faculty the majority of community college science faculty hold the M.S. as the terminal degree. In fact, salary requirements and other considerations can constitute a hindrance to the hiring of Ph.D.'s as community college faculty. Teaching positions at the K-12 level also may be available but these appointments typically require formal education training in addition to an advanced science degree. M.S. recipients are qualified for jobs in the business side of research as well, such as positions in sales and marketing of instrumentation, supplies and services.
Ph.D.: Doctoral recipients may seek industrial, pharmaceutical, government and biotechnology research positions that offer higher salaries and more independence than those of M.S. degree holders. The Ph.D.'s also are qualified to seek faculty positions in colleges and universities. Depending on the institution, there will be a wide range of the amount of effort expected to be spent on research versus teaching: liberal arts colleges usually require substantial educational efforts, while appointments in large universities and medical schools may allow nearly full time for research. Doctoral training also is becoming an effective entree into non-research careers such as science policy and patent law.
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