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Posted on 4 Oct '18

Skipping a Masters on the Way to a PhD: The Road Less Travelled

Typically, the path to a PhD begins with a Bachelors course and continues through a Masters degree. However, it is possible to skip a Masters and pass straight to a PhD degree. It’s not always easy, and there may be twists and turns, but taking the road less travelled from undergraduate straight to PhD could be the best choice for you.

When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate Biochemistry degree at The University of York, I faced this dilemma. I was sure I wanted to do more studying, and I was pretty certain I eventually wanted to do a PhD. I started looking for Masters degrees, until a professor of mine told me that if my end goal was to enrol on a doctorate degree, I could find one there and then. I used FindAPhD to (you guessed it) find a PhD, and I am now approaching the end of my molecular microbiology PhD project at The University of Sheffield.

The advantages of taking the traditional route to a PhD

There are many benefits to studying a Masters degree first, before moving on to a PhD. A Masters gives you a chance to experience what postgrad life is really like. There’ll be fewer lectures, seminars, taught modules and exams, and more practical work, self-taught study and writing. Although you’ll have faced most of this at undergrad level, that shift of focus can be a big change. If you’re uncertain whether this change suits you, a Masters is a good way to ‘dip your toe in’ and decide if you want to move on to a PhD.

You may be certain that you want to continue studying, but are you sure you know what it is you want to study? There is so much choice out there, and it can be hard to pick the right research topic. Doing a Masters first gives you a chance to try out something that you think will interest you. This may confirm your feelings towards a research topic or show you that your interest lies elsewhere.

Bearing this in mind, a Masters is much less of a commitment than a PhD. They only take one year, rather than three or four. And it’s not just a matter of time – starting a postgrad degree usually commits you to one place for the duration of your study, and there’s money to think about, too. You may find that postgrad life is not for you, in which case getting it over in one year is much more favourable than three years.

If getting onto a PhD course is your aim, completing a Masters first may help in the application. PhD supervisors generally look for applicants with experience in their field; a Masters degree on your CV may tip the odds in your favour. Indeed, the relationships you develop during your Masters may provide useful advice or ways into a successful PhD application. It’s often as much who you know as what you know, and a Masters gives a great opportunity to establish connections that could turn a rejected PhD application into a successful one. These people may even point you in the direction of great PhD projects to apply for. For my PhD application, I was fortunate that I had some experience of working in research laboratories as part of my Bachelors degree and voluntary work. This also provided some useful contacts and references. Without these, I don’t think I would have been successful in my application and I would probably have needed to do a Masters first.

An important aspect of a PhD that often isn’t given much thought is your PhD supervisor(s). This person or persons can be an integral part of a PhD. There are many different types of PhD supervisor, and each may expect you to work in a different way. So, a Masters degree is an opening to discover how best you learn, what kind of supervisor you will work best with, and develop connections to find your perfect PhD supervisor (and avoid the bad ones!).

The benefits of bypassing a Masters

There are lots of advantages to a Masters degree that can help your approach to finding a PhD. But there is still the option to bypass this stage and go straight to a PhD. So, what are the benefits to skipping straight to PhD?

Firstly, going straight from Bachelors to PhD saves you time and money. You don’t need to spend all the time and effort applying to another degree, and you will not need to fund that additional year. By finding a PhD straight away, I dodged some of the disruptive applications, and house moves, and general uncertainty that comes with finding another postgraduate degree, and I was able to settle down fairly quickly. Although a year is a relatively short time in postgraduate education, it is still a significant amount of time out of employment that can be avoided.

Even though going straight to PhD means you miss out on a Masters degree, a completed PhD effectively supersedes it anyway. The same way that nobody asks about your GCSEs once you have A-levels, once you have a PhD it will hardly matter about a missing Masters. Also, often the first year of PhD study is very similar to a Masters degree. In fact, if you fail at the first year stage of study at PhD level, you may still be eligible for a Masters degree. Of course, it is much better to pass!

The biggest benefit to going from a Bachelors to a doctorate is timing. PhDs come and go, and you may not want to miss your shot at your dream degree. If you spot your ideal PhD straight away, it could make sense to apply before it gets snapped up. This is true for funding too: if you find a great funding opportunity, it’s well worth applying before it’s gone. For me, I found a PhD project that interested me, that was already funded by a great doctoral training programme, and at a university and city that I wanted to move to. I didn’t pass up!

The perils of the road less travelled

However, there are plenty of downsides to skipping straight to PhD. Going from undergraduate to PhD is a massive adjustment, like shifting straight to top gear. In order to get the most out of a PhD, you’ll need to hit the ground running. It’s very difficult to get familiar with new work and new techniques, generating results, and establishing professional relationships all from day one. Fellow students with Masters experience will have already done this, and their PhD may even just continue on from their Masters work. It’s tough work to be able to keep up. I really struggled with this at first. It took me longer than I would have liked to get familiar with what I was doing and truly understand what I was trying to achieve. But, if you’re persistent and proactive, you can overcome this hurdle.

For many Masters degrees, a key part is the research proposal. This is where the student puts forward an outline for a topic of research. This typically forms part of the PhD application. But, if you apply straight to a PhD, the research proposal may already exist – particularly if you’re applying for a pre-funded project. This strips you of the experience of writing a research proposal and the opportunity to choose your own research topic. This is not always the case, but it is much easier to write a research proposal on the back of a Masters than from completely from scratch.

In addition to this difficulty, it is also a huge commitment. If you are talented and lucky enough to be accepted for a PhD, there is a lot of pressure to complete it. Having doubts about the PhD after you’ve started can be like looking a gift horse in the mouth. There is the risk of putting too much burden on your shoulders to finish. I’ve certainly felt this pressure throughout my postgraduate study. I’m through it now though, and I’m glad I took the path I chose.

Choosing your path

Under most circumstances it is probably best to take the well-worn path: go from Bachelors to Masters to PhD. It’s the path that develops you as a researcher at the best pace and gives more control over your postgraduate study. But, if you feel you are determined, resilient and confident enough, if you have experience of what you want to do, and if you’ve found your dream PhD, it may be worth taking the path less travelled.

If you'd like to learn more about the transition to PhD studies, and the process of studying for a PhD, the best way is to visit us at FindAPhD LIVE! 2018. It's a fantastic way to find out what PhD courses and funding opportunities are available. And it's free!






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