Does having an MS increase acceptance at top tier PhD programs

It seems like getting into top tier schools for a PhD in the hard sciences is always somewhat a roll of the dice even with great grades from a solid undergrad university, demonstrated research potential, strong LORs, etc. If someone was willing to get a master’s degree at another institution first, how much does that up your chances of getting into a top PhD program? Relatedly, does anyone know how that would effect the PhD funding (for what would otherwise be a fully funded course of study)?

Applying for PhD admission is very different from undergrad. The applicant is fully entitled to engage with professors and/or PhD students who will end up making the decision. That should give you much more reliable feedback on your actual chances for admission.

Your question also very much depends on the PhD school at which you’re seeking entry. For most of the top programs, admission is directly from undergraduate to PhD programs, and a Masters is either given along the way, or assigned to those who do not pass their PhD qualifiers.

For weaker programs, or weaker undergraduates, having an MS from a very reputable school with near 4.0 gpa can certainly demonstrate academic ability and commitment to a subject of study.


Maybe. I’m not in hard sciences but essentially took this path - did an MA then applied to PhD programs later. I have no regrets personally, but I don’t generally think this is the best way to do things. First, you may end up having to essentially repeat the Masters degree (I did) because that is often built into the PhD program. And second, a stand alone masters program is often without financial aid (I was lucky and did get it paid for, but this somewhat unusual). In other words, you may end up going into debt for a degree that you end up re-doing anyway.

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The vast majority of applicants to PhD programs in the sciences come directly from undergrad institutions in part because in the hard sciences, in the US, PhDs are almost always fully funded whereas a standalone Masters is not. During the application process, it seems that standing out from the rest of the applicant pool is always difficult. Beyond getting good grades, applicants use references and undergrad research as “proof” they’d make it in a research-based PhD degree.

The student in question has a near perfect GPA in both of his majors and overall at a large public university with top 25 ranked departments. While nothing is guaranteed, there’s a strong chance he’d get into a good PhD program directly.

There just happens to be an opportunity to apply to a fully funded Masters program.

My question is really whether it’s worth looking at this Masters program rather than going the “traditional route” directly from undergrad?

Is he willing to dedicate two additional years to the five (or six) that the PhD program will require?

I don’t have any insight on advantage of MS when applying to PhD. Does he have published research yet? If not, the MS could allow for that.

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The students I know who were accepted to PhD programs straight from undergrad had accomplishments in addition to a high gpa, lab experience etc. They were also published, presented at national conferences, and won awards.

To answer your question, I would imagine that a master’s degree could be beneficial if it leads to additional achievements.

Those achievements, rather than the degree, can help an applicant be more competitive (my opinion).

I assume there are different variables involved.

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The extra two years of a fully funded program will be valuable if it teaches the kid that “no way no how” does he want to do a doctorate. He will be miles ahead of the grad students who show up for their program, all excited, and two years later realize “I hate this”.

I’ve interviewed dozens of folks with doctorates-- and probably hundreds of “ABD’s” for all sorts of career paths who mostly have the same narrative-- I didn’t really know what I was getting in to.

So if the two year Master’s gives a bit of a reality check to someone who’s not sure- it’s a great idea. Otherwise-- seems like an unnecessary step in an already lengthy path. Back in the day (when we were all in grad school) the post-doc phenomenon wasn’t really a thing the way it is now. These days- it can add 6-8 years to actually getting a tenure track position (not tenure- just the TRACK). There are an awful lot of “pushing 40” adults who are still grinding away at post-doc’s (or worse- adjunct positions PLUS a spot at a lab) who are questioning their life’s choices!


Many science Masters are now one year programs, and essentially offer a research opportunity to an strong undergraduate applicant with weak research credentials. It also offers a potential to apply to the PhD program at the Masters school, by which time the applicant would personally know all the people who will make the decision on admission.

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In this case it’s a 10 month intensive Masters program that claims if you’re one of the 25 selected (out of the several hundred that apply), then you’ll be offered a full scholarship that covers all tuition, accommodation, meals, a living stipend, health insurance, necessary IT equipment and learning materials as well as a travel supplement.

No published research, just beginning to work with professors in the lab but also has about 12 months till he starts his graduate school application process.

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I hear ya loud and clear. This guy went from tutoring his friends for free to realizing he could have a nice side hustle tutoring others, realizing along the way that he really enjoys teaching and wants to do it at the college level.

In light of these details, this sounds more promising. It doesn’t sound as though a ten month program will leave much time for research, however, that extra year may allow for the publishing lag (from submission to publication) that my son observed in his research lab.

Does he have twelve months before he starts to apply even without the MS?

Yes. He’s soliciting professors this summer for research beginning this fall which he hopes will continue into the spring semester and as a paid internship next summer. The aim is to apply a year from this fall to programs and list 12+ months of research under his belt. As part of his degree he has to work with a professor to do research in an area of interest and produce a paper as well as poster presentation but all of that will be concurrent to his grad school application process and thus not likely to make it into the application itself.


I do think the straight PhD route is better if that opportunity is available and it is a good fit for the student (program strengths and student research interest). Though time is lost by getting a Masters along the way, three potential things are gained.

If the student ultimately does a PhD at another institution, they will have a more diverse resume/CV. That has value to academic institutions doing hiring if teaching is the ultimate goal.

The second advantage in the route is that as a PhD institution, I will look at the applicant with a Masters and see an applicant I can get into my lab and have them be productive from day one since they should presumably have some advanced skills from their Masters work.

Finally, if the Masters is a funded program or specially named and competitive program, that could look like the applicant is a higher achiever and later could show a track record of achieving honors/funding that tenure-track institution look for in applicants. You can never start too early in building a CV for academic work if a collegiate teaching/research position is the ultimate goal.


Would this student be happy teaching at the HS level in the event he cannot find a full time position as a college professor?

My experience is in humanities, not the sciences, but I often advise prospective graduate students that they can use an MA program as a step up to a more prestigious Ph.D. program that they might not be likely to get into straight out of college (for whatever reason – lower college grades, less name recognition for the BA program, or whatever). It’s worked for many people I know. However, I would add a couple of caveats. First of all, some tippy-top Ph.D. programs don’t accept students with MAs (or they might, but you’d have to start from scratch). They want their students in their programs from beginning to end. Second, even for programs that will accept someone with an MA (and there are many), there will be residency requirements to fulfill, which means extra course work that might not have been necessary if a student had stayed with the MA-granting institution. So the Ph.D. would take longer. Finally, terminal MA students are less likely to receive financial support in the form of grants and assistantships than those who plan to go all the way through the the Ph.D., so that initial MA could be expensive. It can still be worth it, but these are factors to consider.


No. His interest is theoretical physics (high energy quantum). The original plan was pure research at a place like a DOE lab without a teaching component. The drive to do research is still there but but as his comfort with teaching has grown, a balance of the two seems more desirable.


Not really in the way that people think.

PhD programs are not like undergrad programs. They’re not looking “to build a class”. They are looking for a certain number of students, in specific fields and often specific topics, who look like they will fit with the existing programs, and who have the right training, experience, and qualifications.

It doesn’t matter how much research potential a person has, if they are interested in studying aquatic invertebrates, and the only aquatic invertebrate lab is not looking for graduate students, they will not be accepted. Grades are not that important either.

The students who have the most success in admissions are not the ones with the best grades or even the best experience. They are the students who have reached out to faculty, who know that the program is looking for students with their interests and expertise, and who have already made a connection with a potential advisor.

This does not mean that they are assured a place, but they will be at the top of any short list.

I will again repeat that the people who decide on admissions are a committee of faculty with a grad student or two. If a faculty member in the department picks out an applications and says “I really liked this person”, that person will move to the top of the pile. If there is a faculty member who is interested in being an advisor for a specific student, that will often ensure the admission of that applicant.

Accepting a student to a PhD program does not mean that the person pays $70,000 a year and is allowed to take classes. A student is accepted to a PhD program, and the program pays the student’s tuition, pays them a stipend, AND the advisors and the thesis committee spend a lot of time mentoring and training the student. A PhD student sis an expensive commitment for a program and especially for their PhD advisor.

So the considerations for admission are based on that.

That means that any applicant who demonstrates not only interest but understanding of the field, and, more importantly, understanding of what research in the field looks like, is an applicant with the highest chances of success. Having your name on a article is great and it demonstrates that you have research experience. However, being able to talk about research in the field for an hour is even better.

People can get their names on articles without having done much or even understanding what the entire study was about… On the other hand, there is absolutely no way to fake enthusiasm and interest in a topic over an hour conversation, nor is it possible to fake understanding of the topic.

Back to the question:

A thesis masters from a top programs, with first first author publications, is a HUGE boost for an applicant. They have demonstrated understanding of all stages of research and have demonstrated that they will be more likely to be successful as PhD students.


It’s highly, highly unlikely that a student in a thesis master program will be able to produce a first author publication in particle physics, unless he’s already so exceptional, in which case he should have no trouble getting directly into one of the best PhD programs in particle physics. OTOH, the student needs to figure out if that’s what he truly wants to do and he has what it takes. A master’s program may be a less costly way to help figure it out. There’re so many extremely high hurdles to overcome and so much foundational material to master in theoretical physics and math in order to become successful in particle physics, even as an experimentalist.


I’m guessing this might be a Churchill scholarship to take Part III math at Cambridge? That is hard to win, but definitely a big honor that would look good on a resume. And great to be selected by your university to be the candidate, which in itself helps a lot with being presented with opportunities and framing your career aspirations even if you don’t win. But the course itself doesn’t provide much opportunity for research, just deeper experience amongst an extremely accomplished bunch of students.

Just to add, D18’s freshman year roommate won a Rhodes, she was picked out in sophomore year and force fed endless opportunities to make her a good candidate. S18 applied for Truman and Marshall (was a finalist for the latter). Although his university didn’t help in creating opportunities, he found it extremely valuable in setting out his achievements and career ambitions and if he’d decided to apply to grad school would have been able to reuse a lot of the material.

I was more on general terms, but yes, that would be the case for book fields as well. However, even the most exceptional student from a “low prestige” undergraduate program will usually not be taken seriously unless they have an exceptional achievement. Unfortunately, “low prestige” programs rarely have the resources to provide the opportunities for this to happen, since “low prestige” is just another term for “does not have a lot of resources”.

In any case, for a book field or a field in which first author papers are rare, the student would have to do distinguish themself in a different way.