My research group has always had a mix of M.S. and Ph.D. students, though typically Ph.D. students greatly outnumber M.S. students. Some of my M.S. students go on to do a Ph.D. (here or elsewhere), but most do not. Some of my former M.S. students teach at two-year (community) colleges or in K-12 schools, some work for government agencies, and some have better jobs in industry than they would have had with just a B.S or similar degree.
These are all good things, and I am glad that I was able to help these former students get a graduate degree that led them to career opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had. If I were to be totally selfish and pragmatic, however, I wouldn’t advise M.S. students who were clearly going to be ‘terminal M.S.’ (TMS) students. They are not cost effective. They require a lot of time and some require a lot of resources (depending on their research project). Rarely is that time/money well spent if ‘well spent’ is defined strictly in terms of tangible research products that typically indicate productivity (i.e., papers).
For this reason, some of my colleagues do not advise terminal M.S. students, or strongly prefer not to advise them.
I am not quite so severe in my TMS student avoidance, but I can certainly understand the philosophy. In my experience, it is extremely rare for a TMS student to produce a publishable paper or even to produce a high-quality dataset that can be used as a basis for a paper. In part, this is because I am rather strict about the amount of time a TMS student should take to get their degree. I think two years is enough for a TMS in most cases. Grad school is of course immensely fun, but why spend 3 or more years just to get an M.S.? I could insist that TMS students keep working until they produce a publishable paper, but in most cases, that’s not going to happen in any reasonable amount of time.
In the context of yesterday’s discussion, if a prospective student writes to me and says that they are interested in getting an M.S., I will certainly look at their application, but M.S. applicants are at a disadvantage relative to Ph.D. students in terms of being involved in grant-funded research. Teaching assistantships can fund M.S. students and therefore pay for salary/tuition/benefits, but someone still has to pay for the costs of doing the thesis research, and I am that someone if I am the advisor.
Even so, sometimes it is worth taking on a TMS student. One of my best Ph.D. students was initially an M.S. student who just wasn’t confident about doing research until she realized in the first year that she excelled at it and loved it. That example is definitely on my mind when I review applications for students who say they ‘just’ want an M.S. I think that if someone has even a remote interest in a Ph.D., it is good to express that interest in the application and in communications with a potential advisor.
Note: In some fields, the terminal M.S. degree is very useful for certain jobs, and good research can be done in the time frame of an M.S. thesis program, so my musings should of course not be universally applied to all advisors in all of Science. I am also not considering those Ph.D. students who fail at the Ph.D. and get an M.S. as a consolation prize.
I don’t want to give the impression that I regret the time I have spent advising TMS students. In fact, there have only been a few (in fact, 2.5) who were a total waste of my time and resources because these students were so unpleasant to work with. Any warm and fuzzy feelings I might have about creating employment opportunities for them is obliterated by memories of how awful they were to advise.
As for the others – those who spent a couple of years here, took classes, taught labs, and learned a few things about research – I am by no means disappointed that they ‘just’ got an M.S. It would have been great if they had actually produced a paper from their research, but I know it is unrealistic to expect that from a terminal M.S. student in the time frame of 2 years or so.
2 months ago