Many students have been asking for advice lately on whether to do a Ph.D. or M.S. degree in the HYPER lab. Deciding between a Ph.D. or M.S. was a very different decision when I was a senior at the University of Idaho in 2005. But what I’ve found is that despite the field of engineering changing considerably over that time, much of the old dogma and advice out in industry has not. Hence, the students are getting very different advice and struggling to decide what to believe. Given the importance of this decision (it’ll only be years of your life), it’s important to set the record straight. With this post, I’ll define the two-degree paths, discuss motivations and dogma for each, then summarize with an analogy from the sport of basketball.

Before we get started, why should you go to graduate school at all? There are many reasons from pay raises, to having a leg up on the competition for prestigious jobs out of the gate, a poor job market, to just plane confidence in yourself, and on rare occasions a desire to teach and be in academia. When I was a senior I looked around at many of my friends and was concerned whether they really knew what they were doing or not. I also knew I had a natural knack for coaching and educating. What I didn’t know was that you’re usually paid as a graduate student in engineering and sciences, tuition is waived, and you can often defer student loan debt. Based on all of this, I boldly walked into my first interview with my first advisor and said, “I want your job.” To which he responded, “Mine’s already taken.”

Defining the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees

The M in M.S. used to be an abbreviation for the Latin Magistrate, a.k.a. Master. The wiki on a Master’s degree says the degree dates back to 1233 in Spain where the degree was created to allow someone who obtained the degree after a Bachelor’s to teach at any other university. Originally, a person would complete the Trivium (logic, language, and rhetoric) to become a Bachelor and complete the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) in order to become a Master.

The contemporary definition of a Master is someone who has completed advanced training on a specialized profession or body of knowledge and has demonstrated independent ability to analyze, critically evaluate and solve a complex problem in a professional setting. While it’s tempting to say that all students should demonstrate this ability to obtain a Bachelor’s, the keyword is complex. I place the bar on becoming a Master by combining established knowledge and practices to demonstrate a new capability worthy of informing others in the field through a journal publication. Said another way, we know how to do it, it’s just that nobody did that with it before. The typical time to complete an M.S. is two years.

Ph.D. is abbreviated from the Latin Philosophiae Doctor, a.k.a. Doctor of Philosophy. The wiki on a Ph.D. says the degree dates back to medieval times and constituted advanced study in theology, medicine and law. This is the highest degree a university can award. This degree is necessary to become a faculty member at a university.

Said simply, a Ph.D. is conferred when you have fundamentally contributed to the philosophy of a field or discipline. Not only is doing something new required, but you have to change the way everyone that works in the area thinks about the particular topic. That’s a challenge and takes a minimum of 3 to as many as 7 years.

Definitions aside, each degree has particular standards for coursework and requirements that are specific to each institution. The WSU MME website has great lists of the particular degree requirements. In short, an M.S. requires a minimum of 21 credit hours of graded coursework and a Ph.D. requires 24 credit hours of graded coursework. The key difference between the two from a credit hours standpoint is the research credits. In order to show that students are fully enrolled and participating in coursework, universities invented research credits to show that a student is actively engaged in research although may not be participating in courses during the term. Hence the total credit hours required between an M.S. (30) and Ph.D. (72) look dramatically different. Although students and faculty have considerable freedom to decide how many research credits a student can be participating in per semester, many of which are completed over summers.

Motivations and Dogmas

If you looked at the wikis for either degree you’d notice that the definitions of the degrees have changed considerably through the centuries and the last few years are no different. In the 14 years since I started graduate school a few things have become apparent as trends:

  1. Degree inflation: Universities are pressured to produce Ph.D.s for ranking reasons and are promoting people to go that route and skip the M.S. option. This resulted in departments “mastering people out” — giving someone an M.S. degree and encouraging them to leave if they were determined unfit to pursue a Ph.D., usually by being unable to pass a qualifying exam. I had won an award for the top Master’s Thesis in the Western half of North America across all disciplines and suddenly people were questioning why I did an M.S. at all. This was a very concerning trend for me for many years. Viewed at it’s worst, you could see institutions playing a rankings numbers game at the expense of using up several years of the prime in people’s lives. I would get random and seemingly arbitrary pressure from administrators to promote my students to the Ph.D. level instead of M.S., which seemed disingenuous and sacrificed quality. In recent years, I’ve gotten better at mentoring students and I’ve started to view this from another angle. If the required coursework for an M.S. or Ph.D. is nearly the same, isn’t it a demonstration of higher performance and efficiency if people are able to skip the M.S. and directly contribute to the philosophy of a field in as little as 3 years? You’re advancing knowledge faster, for nearly the same amount of resources. The knowledge rigor for obtaining a Ph.D. remains the same. Why had nobody explained it like this to me before?
  2. Reduction of Ph.D. Qualifying Exam requirements: Many departments still require Ph.D. students to pass rigorous qualifying exams over the fundamentals of their fields in order to be deemed fit to pursue a Ph.D. How many exams/filters are we required to pass? Students in engineering have already been promoted to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, multiple exams in multiple classes to get a decent GPA, and we’re going to require them to pass multiple days of multiple hour-long exams? MME at WSU does not have a qualifier exam for good reasons — every department has particular approaches and ways for teaching a body of knowledge that helps students solve particular sets of problems, but sadly, many departments have very arbitrary standards. The qualifying exam I had to pass at the University of Wisconsin-Madison started with a crossword puzzle of 32 dimensionless numbers (what fun…). The psychology of hazing rituals is well established. There is an old saying — those who were abused tend to continue the cycle of abuse. But the qualifying exam may be completely incapable of assessing the quality of the subsequent dissertation. As one National Academy member stated to me, “standardized testing is completely incapable of predicting talent in science and engineering.” This is because standardized testing cannot assess creativity or work ethic. The qualifying exam is totally unnecessary if faculty do a quality job of recruiting and assessing whether someone is a good fit for their research group before starting a graduate program. If it was up to me, the qualifying exam would simply be passing the national Fundamentals of Engineering exam — which requires no faculty effort to administer and promotes professional affiliation.
  3. Reduction of Ph.D. pomposity/arrogance: When I was considering graduate school I was advised to, “only pursue a Ph.D. if you want that topic to be your life’s work.” May’be people just work faster now than they use to and fields are evolving quicker, but placing someone’s life’s work in a box like that is incredibly limiting. That mind-set promotes the common industry complaint, “Ph.D.s are arrogant and only want to work on the topic they’re the expert in.” You can see how the hazing of a qualifier and the ego-stroking creates this problem. Go back to my original definition of the Ph.D. above — it’s only a contribution to the philosophy of a field, nothing more, nothing less. It’s up to you if you want to demand people refer to you as Dr. _______. It’s entirely up to you if you want to put your Ph.D. on your resume at all. You have considerable ability to define how people engage and interact with you and whether you have a Ph.D. should be (and probably is) irrelevant outside of academic circles. My six year old calls me Daddy, not Dr. The students in my lab call me Jake, and they also call out my mistakes. This isn’t to say that the degree doesn’t matter to them or me, it most definitely does. I can much more quickly identify unknowns and assess the time and difficulty involved with solving those unknowns. I have a much better feel for the philosophy of an area and how to transfer philosophies between areas. I still fool myself and make mistakes all the time. And no matter how loud I may yell, “I HAVE A PH.D.!!” as I command the authority of something to start working, the gizmo really couldn’t care less.
An analogy for M.S. versus Ph.D.

It’s the NBA finals and WSU alumnus Klay Thompson is featured as one of the two “Splash Brothers” with Steph Curry for their shared abilities to shoot 3 pointers. Let’s draw a useful analogy for thinking about the M.S. versus the Ph.D. decision. An M.S. takes two years and could be thought of as a two-point layup. A Ph.D. takes a minimum of three years and should be thought of us a three-pointer. Do you drive for the layup and two, or go from deep for three? Statistics are much better for the layup. Sometimes you’ll get fouled and sent to the line to make it three (you found something while pursuing an M.S. that could easily become a Ph.D.). Sometimes you shoot for three and miss (you thought something was fundamental but things don’t work out that way) in which case you can easily grab the rebound and slam it home. But if you get the open shot, you should take it. Sure it’s easier to make a three after you’ve made two. But right now the field is getting better at shooting threes and coaches are incentivizing more threes — it’s the fastest way to put points on the board if you can make them. It really takes a team working efficiently in many ways to win — rebounding, passing, and shooting. Better get out there and put points on the board.

Klay Thompson shoots for three in his early days at WSU.