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Is it worth doing an MPhil?

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

The MPhil is one of the least known of the research degrees. Often mistaken for an MSc in Philosophy by those outside of academia, it requires additional explanation, especially on a CV. The PhD is awarded the world over, but the MPhil remains a less frequently chosen and awarded qualification.

So, what is the MPhil?

The MPhil is a research degree in its own right and one which will give you a similar skill set to a PhD. Even if does not have the elements of originality and knowledge creation which characterise a PhD, it is an achievement and a significant piece of research. It can lead to method development or to testing the robustness of existing theories.

One of the main differences is that the MPhil can be obtained through several routes, as a qualification in its own right and also sometimes as an exit qualification. And there lies the confusion about this degree. Not that long ago, it was a high-level academic qualification in its own right, and people actively sought to do one. Many senior academics, notably in the humanities, hold MPhils which they studied in the 1960s and 1970s and used to secure university posts. However, this has become a rare occurrence in academia today. Now far more people have a PhD, the gold standard of postgraduate research training, and as such, the minimum requirement for the recruitment of academics has been raised.

The other misconception, and a real stigma, is that an MPhil is synonymous with a 'failed PhD'. It can indeed sometimes be the result of an unsuccessful PhD or an unsuccessful viva voce. However, if you think about it, your supervisor should be aware that your thesis may not result in a PhD way before you are at the point of submitting. And there is actually only a very small number of MPhils awarded on this basis. In summary, however it has been awarded, an MPhil does not have to be a 'fail'.

Applying for an MPhil, rather than a PhD, at the outset.

There are many reasons why some students do not register for a PhD and favour an MPhil. Firstly, an MPhil is sometimes the name for a one-year Masters as is the case at the University of Cambridge. In some education systems like that of Pakistan, the MPhil is a research degree which includes a strong coursework component, which is often a requirement for a PhD applicant. For some disciplines, notably in the humanities, the MPhil is regarded as the most advanced Masters degree.

Other students, unfortunately, do not at the time have the financial means to undertake a PhD but still want to pursue a research degree. Some choose a one-year Masters by Research, and some choose an MPhil which will normally take two years. Sometimes, and although rare, a research degree can be for one’s own interest and an MPhil fulfils that personal ambition without the need for PhD.

You provisionally enrolled for an MPhil before upgrading to a PhD, but you have decided not to proceed.

That was the plan. You were going to get a PhD. But things have changed, academically or personally. Whether you have discovered that a PhD is not for you, your research is not panning out to be the great discovery you thought it would be, your project has taken a direction that longer fits your research aspirations, or you know that the finished 'product' may not be enough for a PhD; an MPhil can be a positive decision and something to be proud off. Think of all the skills you have acquired: writing, presenting, analysis, critical thinking…

You have decided not to submit for a PhD, but do not want to leave with nothing.

It can be hard to make that decision, especially if you have done more than two years of PhD research, but think about it; you will have studied your chosen topic intensively, produced a thesis which is a published body of work, and got a degree for it. Perhaps it could be a springboard for a career outside of academia? Or it could be a step towards another PhD?

Life after an MPhil.

It is true that if you want to go on to be a lecturer or researcher, then you will probably be required to hold a PhD. Not having a PhD however, does not mean that the world of academia is closed to you. You could aspire to a successful career as a research assistant, a lab technician, project manager, or teaching fellow, which is to only name a few.

I know a number of MPhil graduates who have done fantastic things (actually thinking about it, I don’t know an unsuccessful MPhil holder!): Director of higher education body, Manager in a pharmaceutical company, founder of a postgraduate website, postgraduate Recruitment Manager or anti-doping and medical Manager.

What MPhil holders face is the baggage associated with the misunderstanding of this research qualification, often having to explain why they 'only' got an MPhil and why didn't they go for a full PhD. My view is that it is an advanced Masters by research degree, and outside of academia, Masters degrees and research skills are extremely valued by employers.

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