Master's to doctoral transition

Mar 07 2016 Published by under Postgraduate Training

Question for the biomedical types: 

Have you ever heard of a doctoral program in which entering with a Master's degree significantly shortens the arc from entry to degree?

In my limited experience, the treatment of those with Master's degrees is not any different from those without. Same initial course load, same exams and qualification steps. 

Do any of you know of programs with a different approach?

20 responses so far

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Depends on the nation. I agree that American masters programs tend not to be very useful as many of them don't even require independent research, but when I was doing a postdoc up in Canada I met some really good masters students there who were basically doing mini-doctorates, publishing papers, etc. One of them went on to do his doctorate at Harvard and managed to get out in three years because he hit the ground running.

  • Grad Student says:

    Stanford's Bioengineering program reduces the number of required courses if you enter with an MS (normally in a related field). Everything else is the same, and in my experience, there isn't really a significant time-difference. Having fewer classes to take in the first two years tends to have only a marginal effect over the duration of the PhD.

  • aspiring riffraff says:

    Aside from the fact that someone with a MS has more experience in a lab and might therefore be better at picking a good project/advisor/etc, no. My impression is that master's degrees either serve to help pre-meds up their GPAs, or prep people for jobs in biotech/compbio/datascience.

    Debating the pros/cons of moving toward a more European model?

  • drugmonkey says:


    Do you feel that is a systematic outcome? Or the unique result of a highly unusual individual?

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    While the individual in question was/is one of the smartest people I know, I don't think the short time of his doctorate was completely due to this. At least thinking about my first couple years of my doctorate, I didn't even really know how to read a scientific paper critically, let alone do research. Coming into a program already knowing this is going to shave off time. Although the time of the masters+PhD together is not unusually short compared to typical US direct PhD programs, I suppose.

  • Nat says:

    I didn't do a master's, but I spent nearly two years at one grad school before leaving to start up where I ultimately finished.

    When I started at 2nd school, I do remember I didn't have to take as many courses as the newly starting folks, but that have been because I was switching from a physiology to a neurobiology program (gotta take neuroanatomy sometime). And I only did one "rotation," but that may have been a result of the great fit between me and my new advisor.

    Easing up on at least some class requirements for people with Master's seems reasonable to me. Not sure how to speed up the research portion of things. If there is such a thing as required rotations, easing up on that (should the student so desire), seems ok.

  • Craig says:

    I don't know that I've ever met someone who has entered a biomedical PhD program with a directly relevant MS. I know several people who entered with an advanced degree in a different discipline (say comp. sci. MS or DVM) who followed the same track as all of their PhD classmates.

    Those I know who finished their PhD early were generally either talented scientists, whether naturally gifted or from having years of experience in their field (generally as a technician), or forced to finish early due to lab situations (lack of funding, PI relocation, etc). The common denominator is that they finished the last 4-5 years of research quicker than their classmates. If having a masters could reduce the amount of time someone spent in classes or TAing it would certainly help decrease the time to degree, but research is still the rate limiter and much of that depends on PI and committee benchmarks.

  • MoBio says:


    At my former R1 institution, master's students typically had already taken the courses so they shot directly into ~Yr 2.5 (e.g. prethesis meetings and such).

    Here (another R1 place) seems to make no difference.

    My sense is it depends on the student--certainly if it is in a relevant area of research I would advocate for them to get some of the preliminary (non-lab stuff) shaved away.

  • Newbie-Ish says:

    Depends on the institution. I know of at least one example where a student entered with a master's and was able to substitute every class requirement with credits from their prior institution. The student got all credits transferred and filled in the required research hours as expected with no problem.

  • drugmonkey says:

    MoBio- that sounds like at the first place that the Master's program was at the same institution? Or could anyone come in from another U and get the same boost?

  • David says:

    For engineers (we have biomedical types types) a MS shortens the effort to get a PhD, maybe not the time - depending on the project. In general, it cuts the number of required classes in half and as mentioned above, the student already has experience in a lab, reading and writing journal papers, etc.

    In terms of the actual dissertation, I know of a couple of people who did a continuation of their masters thesis project, so there was less work (mostly the experimental setup was already constructed, they just had to collect and analyze more data). If you stay in the same lab for both degrees, the adjustment time is zero. Changing labs, departments, or schools negates some of the advantage of the MS.

    Based on my own observations, while a few classes a semester doesn't seem like much (compared to undergrad days), I think having those classes already completed does a lot for reducing the time it takes to complete a project. But it might be less of a factor than luck.

  • drugmonkey says:

    From this discussion so far, I'd like to ask two things- First, if you can try to distinguish the experiences coming from where the Master's is done at the same institution as the eventual PhD vs. different institutions. Second, if you can try to elaborate on bio*engineering* vs other coursework because this is seemingly emerging as a place where Master's activities may count more often?

  • johnny chimpo says:

    I'm not in a biomed department - marine biology - but yes, our times are different. Mean time to completion for PhD entering with a MS is 4.2 years, mean time to completion for a PhD without a MS is 6 years. FWIW, our mean time to completion for a MS degree is 2.2 years, and they are required to do a very rigorous research program. Pretty much everything a PhD is required to do, except a shorter and smaller research program.

  • Green Fluorescent Postdoc says:

    I got an MS from my undergrad institution before earning my PhD from a different institution.

    My MS (Biology) was in a field closely related to my PhD (Neuroscience).

    I believe I had to take 2 or 3 fewer elective courses (which in reality were glorified journal clubs) as a result of my MS, and that's it. So there was a difference in requirements for me, but the difference was admittedly minimal.

    For me the primary benefit was that with publications under my belt from my MS work that I was a much more attractive applicant (and was accepted to every school I applied).

  • David says:

    DM - Not sure I completely follow the second statement, but my two cents:

    At my MS department (which included biomechanics), you needed 30 hours to get a MS which included one specific course, 3 course from a select pool of classes within the department, some credit for research hours, and the remaining hours from a larger pool of classes (these classes were typically within the department, but there was some flexibility if the adviser agreed to it, and then those classes were typically limited to ones from the college of engineering). A PhD required 60 hrs, also with various hard and soft requirements for what qualified. If you were in the same department for both degrees, the 30 MS hours automatically counted towards the PhD requirement. I think I finished my MS with over 40 hours because I took some "fun" classes, but only 30 would have counted if I stayed for a PhD.

    If a student with a MS from a non-engineering field (e.g. biology) was accepted into the PhD program, I believe that close to zero MS hours would automatically count towards the 60 (although they or their professor could negotiate this).

    Someone switching departments within the college of engineering would fall in between, with some or all of the classes counting (again up for negotiation).

    So going back to the original post, the MS could significantly shorten the course load. In my experience, that was never the limiting factor in time to complete a PhD, but I think it is non-trivial.

  • outoftune says:

    Canadian here, and I can echo Jonathan Badger's datapoint with my experience. The research masters programs in Canada are generally quite good preparation for a PhD. We were expected to publish, TA, supervise undergrads, and generally initiate/manage/finish our own smaller-but-complete research project while contributing to the overall work of the lab. I don't think my group was unusual in this, as my cohort all seemed to have the same expectations. (I'm in non-bio engineering, for what it's worth.)

    This definitely helped me hit the ground running for my PhD, which I did in a country that has more course-based masters degrees. The contrast with my colleagues who had done their masters locally was clear - I had already learned more about the field, done lab work, and written and published papers, so it was simply easier for me to be productive more quickly. And unlike JB's datapoint, I am not one of the smartest people I know, so it's not just me. 🙂

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    IME, Master's done at the same institution counts toward degree requirements in PhD. Master's done at different institution runs into problems getting coursework moved over. This is speaking both from personal experience as well as accumulated experiences of my trainees and anecdotes from colleagues.

    Different institutions have limits; e.g., I've seen "no more than two credits transferred, no matter what" or "however many you can justify, we'll take". Department size/scientific diversity plays a role, though, because there has to be justification that it will fulfill curriculum requirements. If the department has lots of different classes, there are many good potential matches to the master's class. What I've seen at less scientifically diverse institutions if a more specific feeling about what the curriculum should consist of... if it's not an exact match, they don't want to transfer it. E.g., even though I had loads of graduate engineering math on my transcripts, nothing matched the courses taught at my PhD institution, so I didn't get to transfer any of it. BS. I was qualified to teach their quantitative classes at that point. There's all that pride about what they think students need to get a PhD. Or maybe they just want the tuition money?

    But agreed with everything above. Getting a running start is far more important. For that matter, starting during the summer seems to make a /huge/ difference in how quickly students progress.

  • Paul Orwin says:

    At my MS level institution the pt of the Master's is to give our students (coming from a lower prestige institution, a typically less academically prepared background, often minority or first in family to college) a chance to compete for a spot at a good Ph.D. program. I doubt it shortens their time compared to their compatriots who go straight to Ph.D. We always have a handful who can go to a pretty good Ph.D. straight out of undergrad, but many of them had their struggles early on in their careers, like blowing off classes for work or play, getting Cs and Ds before they got their heads on straight. You know, being 18-20 yrs old and away from home for the first time. Unlike those of us who went to hard core prestigious schools, they don't get forgiven for those transgressions, even when they straighten up and fly right. So they have to find some other way to get a foot in the door. An MS (and more importantly, some posters/networking, and hopefully a paper) can get them in places that wouldn't have even considered a middle of the road student from my school.
    Of course, whether they SHOULD go on for a Ph.D. is an altogether different question...

  • Dr. Zeek says:

    Incoming master's students here (biochemistry dept at a med school) are genuinely treated as having a year under their belt already. Decisions on if courses are waived are made on a case-by-case basis (i.e. if they have had no biochemistry ever, then the take intro to biochem--if they have had four biochem courses, they get to skip the intro class). to make sure they have enough credits, they take an additional elective or two. We will only waive two courses, though.

    No lab rotations are required-so they can be directly recruited into a lab. Comp exams take place a year after starting (rather than two). We do this for master students from other institutions as well as our own. The push is also to get them graduated sooner too (i.e. 3-3.5 yrs vs. 4-5 yrs. for a BS student).

    In some cases this works wonderfully, in some it has blown up in our faces. It all depends on how good the students training was in their MS program.

  • […] asked about your experiences with the transition from Master's programs to PhD granting programs because of the NIH Bridges to the Doctorate (R25) Program Announcement. PAR-16-109 has the […]

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