Academic uninterest in quitters?
March 23, 2008 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Life and education quandary: If I take a masters instead of finishing my PhD will I be blackballed if I reapply to finish my PhD

First year grad student in top ranked science program finds they don't like their research project. adviser is understanding and suggests other topics, a possible switch to a new lab, or take a masters and some time off. Student, while committed to a PhD, is worried about getting stuck in a dead end with current adviser and concerned that switching to a new lab without considerable consideration (which might not be possible with current research in addition to class) would be a bad idea (assuming that another lab will take on said student), and thinks maybe it would be a good idea to take time to carefully evaluate different lab groups at same school, and maybe others. Req letters should be fine, and there might be a paper with first author for the student depending on current research success and time taken, but it has been recently suggested to them that once someone has a masters, they're out, and it will be exceptionally hard to get back in. A job taken would probably be in a related industry to research, but maybe not. Certainly the appearance of inability to commit to the first program could be seen as a warning. On the other hand, student is already trained and would be able to start quickly.
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can't claim much basis for credibility here, but I imagine it would depend on the student. I think going back immediately would be super-super hard, because I think it looks like you can't commit to a program - academic or not. However as a single data point, in my PhD program (which I uh, dropped out of), there was a student who had gotten his MS from another school - and although he never said he dropped out of his particular program, my knowledge of that program was that it was extremely rare to accept people for a terminal MS. However, after his MS, he had a large number of years of work experience, and it definitely showed in terms of ability, focus, and direction. I suspect his accomplishments, maturity, and connections during that time definitely got him into the program. You should also probably know that his first program was from a school that made people gasp at its name, whereas people kind of shrugged at ours unless they were familiar with the reputation of the department alone. So any PhD program you get into after dropping out might be a step down.

As a side note, if you're in science, I'd try to avoid leaving the PhD at all just in case - I'm fortunate enough to be in a field where my not having a PhD does not limit me in the least, but what my friends in bio/chem have told me is that not having one will leave you thoroughly screwed in both academia and industry. If you're in the physical sciences, that's probably not the case, though.
posted by universal_qlc at 9:40 PM on March 23, 2008


Oh! I just re-read your question, and it sounds like you're worried about getting back into the SAME school from which you earn your MS. I have to agree with whoever advised you, that it'll probably be impossible to get back into that particular school unless it's been a few years hence - you'll have to ask yourself if you were in a faculty member's shoes, would you take yourself back into your research group? I think it'd be a much better idea to switch labs within the department and stay cordial with your current advisor than to take the terminal MS.
posted by universal_qlc at 9:46 PM on March 23, 2008


1. You seem with it, so perhaps I should take what you say at face value, but are you're sure your school doesn't have a "leave of absence" option? At my institution, Ph.D. students can take an LOA for a year and then come back without going through the application process again. This leave can be extended for another year with a further petition. I believe you can even get an MS if you do a leave and still not be locked out of the Ph.D. So I'm wondering who told you that an MS means you're blackballed, and whether you've verified that the "one foot out the door" LOA option doesn't exist at your school.

Of course, the caveat here is that (assuming that in your field, funding is provided by one's adviser) you'd need an understanding adviser who won't take you back if you take time off. So even if an LOA option exists, while you may have no trouble staying in your program, in terms of the micro-level social structures that actually pay your stipend, things may be dicier.

I'm right now going through something similar to what you're talking about (and encourage you to message or email me if you'd like to chat) and have made contact with people who have gone on leave. The sum is that I haven't heard of anyone who has regretted it, most people don't go back, but there was one story of a guy who went back to a different lab and was much happier.

2. You're a first year. This is big. A classmate switched labs at the beginning of her second year and is doing great and is wholly on schedule. First year is when it is easy to make these transitions, when people are understanding, the sunk costs are not overwhelming, you're not expected to have accomplished much, and you're not going to get down on yourself as much for not having accomplished much. Judgment is at it's nadir during this time. Take advantage of this. Take the time to find a lab situation that is right for you. Make the situation right *now* and not several years later.

Your options will depend on how student-friendly your program is. Hopefully you're in a place where you are given latitude to find your scientific self.
posted by epugachev at 9:59 PM on March 23, 2008


If you need a break to assess the situation, I second the leave of absence idea described above. Some schools allow LoAs up to 3 years. Whether your old advisor will welcome you back with open arms is a different story, especially due to taking on other students in your absence, or due to variations in research funding from year to year.

I think a better solution -- if you are indeed committed to get a Ph.D. in this program and in this school -- is to stick around campus, meet with potential advisors with research that interests you, and try to do informal mini-rotations with them. How much time you spend with them probably depends on where your funding is coming from, as your advisor might not enjoy footing the bill while you're running around and hanging out in other labs. However, if you're on an institutional training grant, you may have more flexibility. Choosing an advisor, lab, and project you'll be happy with is definitely worth carving out some hours of your week to experience life in other labs, chat up other advanced grad students, and maybe sit in on a lab meeting to see how the advisor interacts with students, etc.

Your terminal MS might be more terminal than you think, not necessarily due to blackballing per se, but rather because a terminal masters rarely translates into Ph.D.-program-hours and you may not have as much of a 'leg up' upon reapplying. Also, industry likely means higher pay (than a grad stipend) and better hours, so you might just get cozy enough to never quite get back. Person to person thing, of course. Feel free to send me a mefi mail if you want to chat more with specifics. Good luck!
posted by NikitaNikita at 10:34 PM on March 23, 2008


Oh, and seconding the point that as a first year, you should not be afraid of changing labs. ( I know *fourth* years who changed labs, and still made it out of grad school, with their Ph.D., and relatively unscathed.)
posted by NikitaNikita at 10:36 PM on March 23, 2008


Third the leave. Someone I know had similar misgivings. He now says that taking a year off was the best decision he could have made (although he eventually chose to return to the same group).
posted by Krrrlson at 11:34 PM on March 23, 2008


A good friend of mine, a grad student in physics, left the program with a master's degree after 2 years. He worked for about 8 months and decided that he'd rather be in school after all. His department let him come back.
posted by number9dream at 12:22 AM on March 24, 2008


but it has been recently suggested to them that once someone has a masters, they're out, and it will be exceptionally hard to get back in.

This is absolutely untrue. If there are obvious and known circumstances that lead to the Masters (project bombed out, psychotic meltdown, screaming arguments with supervisor), these may have an effect. But the Masters itself? No.
posted by outlier at 3:10 AM on March 24, 2008


I applied to terminal MS programs, because I wasn't positive I wanted a PhD at the time. After getting the MS, I then applied to PhD programs. As part of my application, I was asked to explain why I was changing grad schools. I had good reasons and took time to research the differences between the school I was leaving and the schools I applied to.

It entirely depends on your field how common MS programs are and how common straight through PhD programs are and that probably affects your situation in ways that we can't answer. In my field it would probably be hard to get back into a PhD program you've left and a leave of absence would be a better choice if you wanted to stay at that school. But I think it would not be hard to get into a PhD program at a different school, assuming you can clearly state why you're changing programs and why you think their school is a better fit for you than the one you're leaving.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:48 AM on March 24, 2008


It probably depends on how you intend to pay for it. I'm pretty sure schools will take your money. Whether they will give you grants is a different question...
posted by gjc at 7:40 AM on March 24, 2008


First off, is there anyone you can talk to about your situation, either the chair of your department, a graduate student advisor, or another faculty member in your department? They will probably be the best source of advice. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with switching labs...it happens quite freqently, and it usually takes more that a year to figure out that one is in a dead-end situation.

Re: the masters. Keep in mind that in many institutions, if you start off in a Ph.D. program and take a masters instead, it is a "terminal masters" meaning that if you one day decide to go on to a Ph.D. you will have to start again from scratch. You can't just jump in and do your last 3 years. I'm a Ph.D. student in microbiology and many other students in my program already had a masters degree, but from other institutions, and they started the prgam anew when they joined here. I've never seen someone get a masters and then come back a couple of years later and finish in the same department. I don't think it's allowed, mostly due to the grant support situation. A leave of abscence is probably an option.
posted by emd3737 at 8:26 AM on March 24, 2008


In my grad program in mathematics, there were a bunch of people who had masters' degrees from other institutions and transferred into the PhD program (this doesn't speak to leaving and coming back to the same institution, though). However, students with masters and students without all had to do the same work for the PhD, in terms of courses and qualifying exams. (So, it didn't hurt them, but it didn't help them, except that they tended to do better in the coursework.)
posted by leahwrenn at 8:43 AM on March 24, 2008


It is true that having the MS probably won't technically give you any advanced standing in a new PhD program. If you're lucky, you may be able to transfer in courses you've taken. But, once again depending on your field, you will have de facto advanced standing because you'll have been in grad school already. You'll be used to the type of work, the way people talk, and self-directed research. You'll be more likely to jump in that first semester of your (new) PhD program to design your project and get started--and thereby finish earlier than the people who are just starting for the first time. Intellectual maturity is advanced standing.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:59 PM on March 24, 2008


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