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!).