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Opportunity cost of grad school, etc.

Rob Knop liked my previous post. The comments on his post are well worth reading. For example, someone pointed out that, even if you don't go into debt to finance grad school, there's still usually an economic opportunity cost. During the years you spent in grad school and as a postdoc, you might otherwise be paying down a home mortgage, saving for retirement, etc., not to mention nonfinancial opportunities, like starting a family.

Terence Tao also has some good career advice,. It's aimed mainly at mathematicians, but much of it is relevant to science in general.

Of course, not going to grad school could also have opportunity costs, especially nonfinancial ones. If you really want to do research, with reasonable freedom to choose your own research problems, a PhD is almost essential. It's not just a matter of getting paid to do research. A PhD-level position is also needed to get access to all the expensive equipment, and grants to pay for expensive supplies, needed in most of science today.

Because it's a much smaller commitment, I often encourage students to consider doing an MS (2 years) before deciding whether to tackle a PhD (4-8 years plus 2+ years postdoc). An MS is good background for various science-related jobs, including teaching high school science, most technician jobs, etc. Nobody ever takes my advice, though, maybe because it's usually not that hard to switch from a PhD program to an MS.

A technician, often with an MS or even BS, doesn't get to set the direction of a research program, but, in the right lab, is a full-fledged team member with plenty of opportunity for scientific creativity. There's a little less job security, relative to a tenured faculty position, but my prized technician was snapped up by another lab when I left UC Davis.


At least in my field (physics & astronomy), there are very few programs that will admit you to a terminal MS. Most places (including Vanderbilt, where I am) will only admit you into a PhD program.

You can seek out a MS program. For instance, at Fisk a Nashville HBCU, there's the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge program. This is designed for those who perhaps have a somewhat weaker preparation in Physics, and want to shore up their preparation in a masters' program before diving into the PhD program.

However, if you think you want to go on to the PhD right now, it's maybe not the right decision to go to a masters' granting place. It's very hard to find a place that will admit you to a terminal masters' and which also has a PhD program.


You can get an MS here, but our college does tend to give preferential treatment to PhD students for fellowships, etc. I worry that this channels people right into PhDs who might prefer to do an MS first, contributing to what could be seen as a PhD surplus. If this is bad for the country but somehow good for the college, it could be yet another example of The Tragedy of the Commons.

Do you have MRes (Master of Research) degrees in the US? They were becoming popular just as I was finishing my PhD in Scotland. It's basically a 1 year programme in how to do research, usually encompassing 3 short research projects in different labs. Students then typically choose one of those 3 labs if they move on to a PhD programme. The students who came from one of these programmes definitely seemed to be much better prepared for their PhD work than I was when I joined the lab straight from my BSc. There's an example here: http://medical.faculty.ncl.ac.uk/postgraduate/mres/pdf/why%20do%20an%20mres.pdf

I'm not aware of anything like that, but it sounds like a good option. Some of our PhD students do something like that in their first year. Mostly we have 2-yr MS, with or without a thesis. The latter is assumed to be terminal but may involve a smaller scale project of some sort, in addition to classes.

I've known a few individuals to switch from a PhD program to an MS. A close friend of mine did and his reasons where simply that he didn't feel is was worth the extra commitment.

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