What is an MSc degree?

Apr 28 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

An MSc degree is a funny thing, because it means very different things to different people. There are as many different philosophies about what skills should be learned during an MSc as there are advisors overseeing students in these positions. Yesterday I had a conversation with a senior colleague (SC) about a student that SC is supervising and how SC would never take on another MSc student again because they have to be handed a project and can't take a long view. This struck me as odd, because I have never seen an MSc student as a PhDlite, but after talking with SC for a while it was clear they did.

For me, I see an MSc as an intro to science. I don't mean that in a condescending way or to imply that a BSc (including undergrad research) doesn't give you a feel for science, but an MSc degree is the first time many students have some ownership of a project and need to plan things. At the same time, I don't generally give an MSc student the kind of leeway to figure out what they want to do, as a PhD student might get.

Part of my reasoning is based on time (you can't spend a year of an MSc degree kicking the tires of various projects) and the other part is that it is very hard for a student at that level to see both the forest and the trees. A masters project needs to be tight enough to fit in the time frame, yet contribute to the broader picture and I don't think it is fair for us to assume that students fresh out of undergrad can identify a project of that nature and execute it in 2 years. There is also the issue of funding. A PhD student can pursue a couple of topics, and thus stray a bit more from the projects the lab has funding for, but an MSc student needs to keep their focus on the project at hand, which is often one that moves the lab forward along the lines of on-going projects.

In the end, I think an MSc degree should provide students with a solid background in critical thinking, science as a process and give them ideas as to what the next step is. For many, that will be getting employment related to their field with an increased appreciation for, and ability to perform, the science behind their job. For others it may be that they want to go on and tackle a PhD, but the MSc degree put them in a place to know what questions they want to ask and how to get at them. From that perspective, I don't see the MSc as a truncated PhD or a consolation prize, but a unique degree in it's own right that can be extremely helpful for those students.

Another one of my SCs uses the thesis of MSc students as the basis of manuscripts, but modifies them for submission themselves rather than have the student do it. The paragraph above is also the reason I do not write my student's manuscripts for them. Yes, I will edit them and work them through the process, but the students are responsible for the initial draft and all revisions, based on feedback. Writing is a critical skill for students to learn and if they want to continue in science I want them to know what the submission process is like. Obviously, if a student finishes up and decides not to pursue a publication, I will do it myself, but I have only once seen this happen over my time in academia.

In any case, I would be curious to hear how others see the MSc degree.

25 responses so far

  • Odyssey says:

    I personally view the MSc in much the same way you do. However, we don't get MSc students here. Instead, they are handed out as "consolation prizes" for PhD students who drop out. This is something I object strenuously to, but unfortunately I'm apparently in the minority. There are some cases where a student decides they don't want to complete the PhD, but have earned enough for an MSc. I'm okay with that. On the other hand, just last week the graduate program we are part of gave a student an MSc because it was that or boot them out of school for poor performance. That I have real issues with.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Agreed. I know this was the tradition in a lot of European institutions, but I think it has changed a bit in recent years. IMO, the MSc is a degree unto itself, with specific goals for the students and PIs. It's not a mechanism to get rid of the under performing students.

  • Anonymous says:

    The other difference between MSc and PhD students that I've run across is that a higher proportion of MSc students will end up in professions where there is a strong emphasis on applying the science rather than researching per se. So, although many of the skills that will ultimately be used are the same, the approach and mindset of MSc students often also seems to be more applied (as opposed to theoretical) in nature.

  • Anonymous says:

    PLS-Many times in your post, you have referred to BSc and MSc, rather than BS or MS. Are you referring to European or British type of academic system? Just an observation...

  • ScientistMother says:

    My MSc supervisor treated me like a PhD student. Although it prepared me awesomely for my phd, it was inappropriate for someone who came into the program with the mindset of learning how to do science. I was expected to have a publication for my masters degree. One of my committee members (and my current supervisors' opinion as well) saved me. His view was that if a MSc got a pub, that was great but the point of the MSc is to learn how to ask a question, form the hypothesis, test and then place those results into the broader literature. You may or may not have conclusive, novel findings which is OK.

  • Gerty-Z says:

    I've never been in a program that had a terminal MS degree (all in the US). Instead, it was more of a situation like Odyssey describes, in which MS are given to PhD students that either quit or are kicked out as a consolation prize. This is how my new department is set up, as well.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Anon@10:57 - True. I don't think it has to be that way, because many go on to PhD's, but I think that is sometimes the easiest angle to take for someone getting their feet wet. Anon@11:29 - I am mostly referring to the US system, but I've spent time in other systems as well. You can take or leave the 'c', doesn't matter. SM - It works for students who want to go into a PhD, but many don't so it's not a great model for them. Why apply the same shoe to different sized feet?G-Z - If your department doesn't have a MSc program, that's one thing. But for departments that have separate degrees with different qualifications it doesn't make sense to treat the students the same, IMO.

  • Alyssa says:

    MSc's are seen in Canada very much like you describe: a degree of it's own. As far as I know, everyone who enters grad school in Canada goes into a master's program. Some schools allow a transfer into a PhD program after one year, but many have students finish the MSc, then move on to the PhD. In my case, I did the degrees separately, and it was always my intention to do so because I wanted to do the degrees at different universities (and I ended up switching fields). My MSc was much more supervised than my PhD, in that my project was chosen for me and I had lots of help and instruction along the way. I finished both degrees in six years (2 for MSc, 4 for PhD).My husband, on the other hand, entered as an MSc student and transferred to a PhD. He finished in 4.5 years. So, he did save a lot of time!

  • Schlupp says:

    PLS, just our of curiosity: In which part of Europe was this common? I've spent most of my life in continental Europe and only two years in the US, but I've only met this practice in the US,* so I'm curious.* Yeah, granted, given that quite some continental European systems require(d) a Master's before starting a PhD, failed PhD students would automatically end up with a Master's.

  • chall says:

    I see the MSc as a short(er) period where the student learn how to manage and finihs a project. It's not as long as a PhD (where I come from - European country - an MSc is ending with a 6-12 months project time on top of your classes) and therefore not as "free".You show with the MSc that you can initiate a project, do somehing with it, and finish it and writing it up. You don't ness. show you can "do" all aspects of science, that would be the PhD, and even if you have some responsibility of your own - it's not as when you are a PhD student and YOU are the main responsible person to drive the research and ask for help.my small cents in this and I don't think the MSc for a phd student drop out is proper. They are two different things. However, I think there is something to 'earning' the MSc after a while and then continue on to the PhD... that might be the 'better' way to set it up? That is the view from someone where we had to have a MSc in order to start as a PHD student... and therefore if you didn't make it as a PhD student you already had one degree and could move on into another field in the future.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Schlupp - The practice of using the MSc as a very independent degree from the PhD is, I would argue, largely a North American thing. I'm not suggesting otherwise, if that is your question. In my comment above, I was referring to the system Odyssey was describing. However, I have heard from British colleagues that there are some distinct MSc programs sprouting up.

  • Schlupp says:

    PLS, in the traditional continental European system (say Spain, Germany, Poland), the Master is not the beginning of a PhD, but the end of the undergraduate studies, whether that makes it more or less "independent" of a PhD. But the practice of admitting people to grad school and handing out MSc to the failures is not something that I've seen in Europe. Hence my question where you'd observed it.

  • chall says:

    PLS> I would say that the Scandinavian places I know of would see the MSc as a stand alone thing, as the end of an undergraduate studies and not as a PhD. It is also common to see the MSc as a "you're going somewhere not Academia where you can use that title to prove you finished your undergraduate as something planned" (this since you have to have enough credits in various classes 300, 400 etc to make a thesis project. Otherwise you just get "classes taken" on your transcript but it is not a "degree with direction" if that makes sense?)

  • chall says:

    I see now that Schlupp had written something similar too. Didn't see that comment until mine was done.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Schlupp - In thinking about it, I guess I am basing that statement mostly on information from the UK, so you're right that projecting that to Europe as a whole is incorrect. Nevertheless, the post was geared mainly towards the North American system and the MSc as a degree, separate from both undergrad and a PhD. It would be hard to equate that with the continental European 5ish year combined degree.

  • lin says:

    European and all, where I come form you can not enter a PhD program without a MSc.Anyway, the way I teach my MSc is that they need to do some sort of mini PhD, "complete empirical cycle" as they say at my uni. formulating hypothesis, searching for literature, setting up / redesigning tests, testing, getting a shitload of useless data, redesigning, testing, writing thesis. And when they are really really good, they are sometimes published. But most often not.

  • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Hmm, when I left the UK in 2002 there was a definite distinction made between an MSc (usually a taught course, a specialist extension of a BSc) and a research Masters, known as an MPhil, which was project-based. The latter was more likely to be given to a student who didn't complete a PhD than was an MSc.There was also a new degree called an MRes coming in, which comprised 2 or 3 rotation projects and focused on teaching research methods.

  • Bec says:

    In Australia (where we mostly follow the UK system), we also have two types of Masters degrees - a research Masters and a coursework Masters though (unfortunately) there's no difference in title. In my department, anyone wanting a PhD started as a research Masters student and after a year either converted to a PhD and finished the thesis in the next 2 (or so) years, or stuck with the Masters and finished up in the next 6 months. So a research Masters can be both a stand alone degree (if the student only wants a Masters, which is a PhD with less scope) or a kind way to drop students, since you need to pass a conversion process to officially become a PhD student.

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    Where I am in the U.S. (basic science department in a private medical school), we actually have a handful of "terminal MS" programs. These are largely classroom-based, with 1 or maybe 1.5 semesters of laboratory research that happen before the student writes a (very abbreviated) thesis and graduates on a set date. In no way would it be realistic to have expected my MS student this past semester to be a mini PhD - she didn't have the time in my lab to do so! With respect to writing, her work is part of a larger study that is being put together for publication later this summer, so I impressed upon her the importance of writing up her part of it well because authorship would be attached. Obviously the success of this approach will have a lot to do with the maturity of the student, but she (as my first) was great and I will continue to take this approach with the right candidates in the future.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    I grabbed an MSc before starting my Ph.D. program. I was on the borderline of committing to a long term program and thought it would be a good way to get my feet wet and get some critical thinking skills under my belt. In ~2 years including classes, I ended up with a pretty good cursory knowledge of and the practice of science. It helped me to build up a good skill base and has given me the confidence to hit the ground running in my Ph.D. project. I also racked up three publications (1st, 3rd, somewhere in the freaking middle) in the process. The important thing is that I wrote those manuscripts and some intra-institutional funding proposals so it helped to build my critical thinking and writing skills. Currently at my uni we are seeing more students being taken with MSc's.

  • pika says:

    In Europe there is an on-going unification attempt about the structure of the higher education, based on Bologna declaration, which states that by 2010 the whole EU should have a comparable system. What this means is that most countries in continental Europe are implementing a 3+2+4 system, where you have a 3 year BSc, 2 year MSc, which are together considered to be the undergraduate education. Before Bologna there was no option for a BSc and the undergrad education was either 4.5 or 5 years, so most of the countries just split the 5 years into 2 degrees (I think Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Italy), while others (e.g. Sweden) kept their original 5 year degree for national programmes (this would be called something like diploma engineer, for example) and introduced new 2 year MSc for international programmes, but basically the MSc students just take the same 2 last years as the 5 year diploma engineer students.The 5 undergraduate years are followed by 4 year PhD. In these countries you can not start a PhD without a MSc, i.e. a total of 5 years of undergraduate education is required to enter the PhD programme.However, there are several EU countries that are exceptions to this: France has a completely different system and UK/Ireland have something else again. I am not familiar with the French system, but in UK/Ireland, you typically have a 3 or 3.5 or 4 years BSc, which is enough for you to enter a PhD directly (if you are good enough). The PhD is 3 years and research only - no classes (while in the continental European system you need to take at least 1 year of courses in the 4 year PhD). MSc is not a requirement to enter a PhD and is typically just 1 year long. You can also enter a PhD and exit after 1 year with a MSc in research, if you have not progressed enough to be admitted to 2nd year of PhD. Ireland is changing this though to get closer to Bologna system. From this year the duration of the PhD is 4 years and the PhD students will be required to take 30-90 ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) points of courses. I don't know what's the situation in UK.Sorry for hijacking the comment, but I also always wonder how PhDs from these systems could be considered equal, given that continental Europeans need at least 9 (or more) years of study to get one and so have more time to really learn how to do research and mature and try out other things. While if you do the shortest track in UK/Ireland, you can get out after 6 years (3 years BSc and 3 years PhD) - I know a couple of people who got PhDs at 24 and were kind of lost aftewards, as they never tried anything else.

  • Micro Dr. O says:

    My graduate university had a terminal MS program, but they took very few students. Most people who got their MS either didn't pass comps or switched from the PhD to the MS program in their first two years...usually because they decided they didn't want to spend 5-6 years on a PhD or figured out something besides research that they wanted for a career (e.g. teaching). The MRU I'm at now has no formal MS degree, so the MS is only a mechanism to give some kind of degree to a 6-year grad student that can't finish their PhD. This irritates the crap out of me, but unfortunately seems to be quite common in the U.S.

  • Professor in Training says:

    My grad school used the MSc for a coursework degree (usually a professional degree) and MPhil for the research degree. Entry into the PhD system was typically done through completing an honours year and thesis after the bachelors program although students could also enter the doctoral program through an MPhil (2ys). Some people simply entered the MPhil (usually those that didn't get an honours level that would allow them to start the PhD) and then "upgraded" to the doctoral candidacy at their proposal defense.In my present position, I only have access to an MSc that can either be via thesis or non-thesis routes. It's a good way to try before you buy if you're not sure about making the commitment to a PhD program.

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