Monday, April 04, 2011

Left With A Masters

Recently, I was rummaging through some databases involving doctoral completion rates in different fields of Science and Engineering. Specifically, I was looking at doctoral completion rates for male and female students. Of course I know that graduate school is part of the "leaky pipeline" for women scientists in academia, but I'd always assumed that women choosing to do an MS and not continuing on for a PhD was a much more significant "leak" than female PhD students leaving a doctoral program with an MS.

It is likely more significant, but I was surprised at some of the data showing the % of women doctoral students who "leave with an MS". In fact, for some programs, most of the women who start a doctoral program leave with an MS. The fact that they started a doctoral program indicates that these women were at some point interested in doing PhD-level research.

The usual explanations for leaks at this stage invoke the fact that graduate studies fall at a critical time for many young women because of the stresses and choices involving work and family. This may well be a good explanation for much of the "leaving with an MS" phenomenon, but it's too general to allow advisors, departments, and institutions to understand the data and determine what, if any, changes should be made.

From these data, we don't know how many of these women:

1. left and did a PhD elsewhere;
2. switched to the MS voluntarily because it was a better fit for their career goals;
3. switched to the MS involuntarily owing to (a) life or work pressures, or (b) an academic problem (exams, classes, advisors).

Explanation #1 does not involve a pipeline leak; it's just appears to be one for any particular institution.

Explanation #2 is technically a leak, but if these MS graduates continue on with a career relevant to their graduate studies (because that's what they want to do), it's not a tragic leak. Overall, it's not good that there are so few women faculty in physical sciences, engineering, and math at research universities, but each individual woman needs to make the best decision for herself in the context of life and career issues.

Explanation #3 is more problematic, but the databases provide no insight into how many women are given an MS "consolation prize" after failing a PhD preliminary exam (and whether more women than men fail these exams) and how many women leave doctoral program with an MS because they can't (or don't think they can) get a PhD and start a family at the same time. A sub-category of the latter is of the "there could only be one PhD in the family, so we decided it should be Robert" sort.

To the extent that the "left with an MS" situation is a problem that needs solving, it's likely that it can only be solved at a very large scale (i.e., by changes in society and academia as a whole). Even so, what I want to know is: What, if anything, can individual faculty and departments and universities do?

At this point, with the tools at hand, we can at least do exit surveys in each department to find out why doctoral students leave with an MS (voluntarily or involuntarily), and, based on results:

- address any issues that relate to a discrepancy in how female graduate students are evaluated and advised, or

- use these data as a basis for instituting family-friendly policies that alleviate some of the problems that disproportionately affect female graduate students (keeping in mind that these policies need to minimize harm to advisors and research groups as well, or the policies are unlikely to be as effective as they could be for all concerned).

I am sure some (many?) departments do this type of evaluation already, and I'd be curious to know if the results have led to any structural changes in graduate programs, and if these changes had any effect on doctoral completion rates.


CMG said...

I'd like to add a fourth possibility, which was very common at the grad school I attended:

Register as a doctoral student, despite only wanting a MS, in order to have a better chance of being funded.

Female Science Professor said...

Good point. That could be a subcategory of explanation #2, but with the specification that there was never an intention of getting a doctorate.

Quill said...

One of my friends just left school with "only" a masters, when she had enrolled with the intention of getting a doctorate in chemistry. Her decision was based on her feeling of a complete lack of support for doing her own research; she seems to have felt that her department were putting up significant and non-career-helpful roadblocks to obtaining her thesis. They seemed happy to use her as a teacher and researcher. I've known her for a long time, and I can't see her becoming frustrated easily or ticking off her department. Given her strong track record and her numerous scholarships and awards, I'm doubtful that she failed any exams or struggled to complete the work required.

I don't know all her reasons for deciding to leave, but it was an unusual step for her to take as I know she loved her field and her research. I do know that, as she doesn't currently have a romantic partner or child, that family concerns were not a consideration. I'm not sure if she'll go back.

muddled postdoc said...

Ditto to what CMG said - though this was applicable to both male and female students at my grad school.

Another possibility that I have seen is that a higher percentage of females entered into PhD programs thinking it was a "softer" option than the job market and then finding out later that it really wasn't!

GradStudentAbroad said...

Another variation on 2 is that female graduate students start out wanting a research career but are more likely than men to come to the conclusion, after being in graduate school for a while, that research careers are unattractive, due to work / family issues. They then quite rationally conclude that a PhD will not help them reach their work / life goals, and switch to MS.

Here's a powerpoint presentation summarizing some results from a study on this issue, the UC Doctoral Student Career Life Survey:

This study shows that women were less likely than men to have a career goal of "research professor" at the beginning of their PhD, and about as many women as men shift their goals away from "research professor" to a career goal in business or government. Asked about the reasons for changing their career goals, women were more likely than men to cite concerns about marriage, children, time, geographic location, and "other life interests", while men were more likely than women to cite career advancement issues and monetary compensation (salary, benefits).

The study identifies some factors that seem to increase the likelihood that women and men perceive a tenure-track faculty career as being at least "somewhat" family-friendly: a higher "perceived commonness" of female faculty in the department / unit, and *not* being paid off a federal grant.

Anonymous said...

Option 2 is not necessarily benign. You have to follow it up with a question about what shaped those career goals. If it was harassment, the results of unconscious bias, or any of the other things making life difficult for women in science careers, women voluntarily changing their career goals is the sort of leak the community should worry about.

Anonymous said...

To the extent that #1 results in 2 more years in graduate school, it could result in pipeline leaks as well as it is tough to spend 2 more years in graduate school. If moves are because of mismatches or lack of undergraduate preparation/mentoring, then that could be a problem with a solution.

Me said...

Just last month, a PhD student in my lab (R1 institution) got married. When she went to register for summer classes, she noticed she was listed as an MS student, not a PhD student. Upon inquiring, she was told that she had been switched to the MS program because they assumed that now that she was married, she'd be leaving soon. Luckily, she's a strong person and just made sure she got switched back and didn't take it too seriously. Less confident students might have assumed this was an assessment/prediction of their abilities and "taken" the demotion.

GradStudentAbroad said...

My link above got messed up. Try this one:

And look for figures / powerpoint presentation in the box on the right.

chemgirl902 said...

As a female former PhD student who left with a masters, I've given this issue a fair amount of thought.

Personally I think I fall into explanation 2. I passed my prelim, so I proved to myself I could do it, but I voluntarily decided I didn't want the PhD (or the subsequent jobs that require it)enough to endure the stress & misery I was experiencing to finish. I didn't enter the program with a specific career or goal in mind other than the degree, and largely I left because I didn't enjoy doing research.

Would I have had a better experience (and therefore be doing research somewhere today)if I had had a different project or advisor? I don't know. Sometimes I think so, but in the midst of it I wasn't interested in finding a new advisor or project - I just wanted out.

As anecdotal evidence, my entering cohort of PhD students (in inorganic chemistry) had 12 students, 4 women and 8 men. Of that group all of the women and 1 of the men left with masters degrees voluntarily (ie - not because they failed out, but because they chose to leave). I've lost touch with one of the 5 of us that left, but the rest of us are all still working in chemistry - either as teachers or in industry.

El Charro said...

I wonder how many of the men want to leave with a Masters (my guess would be that lower ranked departments/universities will have more students wanting to leave) but stay for the PhD for the wrong reasons. I can think of a few:

-What will other people (friends, relatives, future job interviewer, etc) think/say about you quitting the PhD midway and settling down for the consolation prize of an MS?

-If you're a foreign student, what will you do after you fall out of your visa status for not continuing your studies?

-What if later you'd want to come back for the PhD, but then will be to preoccupied with other things?

-What if you can't find a "good" job with just an MS?

In my view, a good PhD program should have as a requirement an MS degree, and then have the graduating MS students do an internship (at least a summer) somewhere before they come back to finish the PhD. That way students will have data on both lives (academic, professional) and might have more tools to make a good decision as to whether the PhD is good for them.

I know, it'd only be possible in a dream world, but dreaming doesn't cost a thing.

Anonymous said...

I think #1 deserves a little more scrutiny. I left my first PhD program with a MS, went on for my PhD elsewhere, and didn't leak out of the pipeline. But why did I leave the first program? Because it was a mediocre program at a second-rate school. I realized my first week there that I had made a big mistake. I am still amazed that none of my undergrad advisors said a word when I told them my plan to go to Mediocre U, and I should have known better as well. I would have been (and later was) very competitive for much better programs. It worked out for me in the long run, but it might not have.

Every year as faculty I encounter very bright undergrads, primarily female, who are heading down the same stupid path that I took, applying to crappy programs that are far beneath their abilities. Of course I try to set them straight. But I think the combination of advisors' lower expectations for female students and female students' low expectations for themselves could be indirectly contributing to the leaky pipeline.

Anonymous said...

As with CMG's comments - at least in my field, masters degrees are very employable, possibly even more so than a PhD. On the other hand, just about every student starts off as PhD regardless of their future plans, as the RDF for the advisor is higher, and they can be supported as a TA that way too.

Anonymous said...

I was also surprised at this--it certainly is not true in my Department, where the overall "leak" is low and not gender biased. I'd be curious to see the relevant stats, how men compared with women, and how this varied with science field?

Mark P

Anonymous said...

After suffering harassment and bullying from my PhD adviser, I did a little research and realised that every single female student who worked with him over his long career abandoned their PhD.

Anonymous said...

I'm a doctoral student, wife, and mother, and I want so much to do research. But I also want to have some balance to my life. I am profoundly *not* looking forward to the post-doc and assistant professor years when "the ones who succeed are the ones working on weekends." I am not ruling out working outside of academia when I graduate -- mainly because of better family attitudes in the government, non-profits, and some companies.

I could write several essays on what could be done by individual advisors, departments, and institutions to make things more family-friendly. But I won't do so here.

As a start, though, departments and universities could have clearly defined family policies. Most don't, which means headstrong and aggressive women like me can work out pretty good deals for themselves. But more "normal" women and meek women get screwed by the system badly. As a bare minimum, departments and universities can guarantee 6 weeks paid maternity leave (with continued health insurance). That's not very costly to the institutions and a huge big mega deal for the new mom. Watching a pregnant friend go through the guantlet, I'm horrified. She stands to lose all pay AND her health benefits when she gives birth. If she had suddenly developed some disease or illness and had to be hospitalized for weeks, she would keep both. Why? There are policies for disease and illness and no policies for childbirth for grad students.

As for advisors... having a good attitude and being understanding that the first 6 to 12 months are going to be slow in terms of progress is a great help. In addition, many grad student moms (and dads) may not have peers or family around to help guide them. An advisor can help connect their advisees to sources of support for new parents -- other faculty or post-docs with young children, student parent groups, community resources, etc. And finally, you could offer to babysit occasionally. I know it sounds weird, but we grad students almost always have to move far away from our support networks to go to grad school -- our parents and friends live far away. That means no "grandma" to help watch the baby while we get out for a once-every-two-months movie or dinner with our spouse. Both my (older male) advisors have watched my baby son on occasion. (One loves babies. The other was willing to lend a hand.)

mathgirl said...

Slightly off-topic.

It amazes me the difference between academic cultures in the US and Canada. Here in Canada (at least in mathematics) the norm is to do a Masters. Most students don't think about the PhD when they start the Masters. The sentence is more like "(s)he continued into a PhD because (s)he was very good, liked research, etc". The Masters is certainly not a consolation prize. Those in situation #1 are typically very good students who went to better institutions. Some of them stayed for the Masters at their undergradute institution to have better chances to get into a very competitive place for the PhD.

I did my PhD in the US and I'm still can't get used to how things work so differently in Canada...

Unknown said...

I'm a woman who "left with a master's" and is now in a doctoral program elsewhere. There were four years of industry work in between. I suppose I fall mostly into category 2. My masters work was in a field where a Ph.D is not obviously desirable for someone who wants to go to industry, and at the time I was not thinking about an academic career. Working in industry taught me that I wanted a research career of a type that seemed to require a doctorate, and I took the opportunity of changing fields while back in school.

Funnily enough, getting married actually increased my interest in an academic career, because my husband is clearly having so much fun with his.

Anonymous said...

My best (female) friend in a math/CS-heavy area of social sciences entered a graduate program in her field with the intent to get a Ph.D. and go into academia, but ended up opting to get a Master's and go into industry. For her, the major reasons were these:

(1) The faculty in the program were unsupportive of her when she was going through major and debilitating problems in her personal life.

(2) The heavy coursework, teaching, and research load left her no free time, and she was not able to live happily like this for weeks or months on end. Who would?

(3) Not even the best people were able to find decent jobs, so she was enduring this massive suffering for nothing.

What would have helped her stay in the pipeline was for the department to view their graduate students as human beings, who need to have emotional support as well as the time for social lives and hobbies. As it was, they were exploiting their students for all the work that they could. This mentality would have been a problem for anyone with a family, but we should not forget that it could wear down almost anyone.

Anonymous said...

Adding to what mathgirl said, I completed a PhD program in Canada but at my institution everyone had to enter the program as a MS if they had not already completed a masters (this was also the case at my undergraduate institution). After a year in the program students were given the option to "bump up" to a PhD, assuming their thesis committee felt that such a move would be appropriate. This is supposed to somewhat alleviate the stigma of "dropping out" of a PhD program if a student chooses to complete the MS.

In the past 5 years in that department, 36% of female graduate students and 53% of male graduate students completed a PhD. However, looking at the raw data, equal numbers of men and women completed a PhD (ie. there were just more women enrolled in the whole program).

Anonymous said...

I Think the leak should be higher, we don't need so many PhD's around.

Anonymous said...

That's a stupid comment unless you specify that more men should leak out of the pipeline as well. The leaky pipeline analogy refers to women leaving science, and the way to solve the PhD glut in certain fields shouldn't be to drive out the women.

Anonymous said...

Let me be more clear; there are too many PhD's graduating. Male, female, it does not matter. I believe we are oversaturated in PhD's.

Cloud said...

@anonymous 11:13- honestly, given the attitude and resourcefulness you display in your comment, I think your chances of having a "balanced" life are about the same no matter what sort of institution you work for.

There are plenty of "nights and weekends" people in industry, too, particularly in the small startups. Government jobs can having shockingly bad family leave policies. No matter where you go, you have to learn how to ignore the nonsense from people who think you should do nothing but work, and how to be productive enough in the hours you do work to be able to fight back if you do get any flack for your schedule.

I agree wholeheartedly that we need better family leave policies across the board. But in the end, your own personal experience will depend on your local environment. I have two kids. I had the first at a company whose handbook didn't even have the word "maternity" in it. Their policies were basically the minimum required by law and most of my superiors were men with stay at home spouses who were sort of surprised when I said that I intended to come back to work after I had the baby. I actually had a wonderful experience there in terms of "work-life balance". I got a really good maternity leave arrangement, and they were very flexible when I came back. I'd still be working there if the interesting work hadn't dried up. I had my second kid at a company with a much better set of written policies. But in practice, it was less flexible and I had a harder time making the balance work out.

I am certainly not trying to scare you about industry. I guess I am just trying to tell you to ignore the negative hype about academia and go for your first choice career. You won't know whether it will suck for you until you try it, and any alternative you might pick could end up sucking, too. The lack of coherent family policies means that it is all a crap shoot, really. (And yeah, that sucks, but I won't rant on it more. I've gone off topic enough.)

Ms.PhD said...

I can only provide support for #3, and in almost every case I know about it, it was only for academic (read: cultural and/or political) reasons.

I'm pretty sure I've written about this here before, but my program tried to kick me out. Fortunately, they were stupid about it and tried to fail me on a written exam, and when I compared notes with my best friend, we realized the grading was inconsistent. I brought the two exams to the dean and worked out an agreement that I would put in a lot of face time and write an extra paper if he would make it go away.

I was angry and I demanded what I needed from my advisor, or I wouldn't have made it through. But I had something to prove. I knew I was good enough and I knew I wanted to do research.

I found out later that two other women from a year or two behind me in my program were not so lucky. I had seen them give presentations on their work so I knew they were good, but their advisors were not supportive and their committees encouraged them to give up. They decided not to fight it, so they left.

I had a friend in another department who left because she felt completely adrift for lack of advising and didn't feel like begging and screaming for attention and help. She also had pressure from her mother to get married and have a baby ASAP (personal, cultural things). She now has the baby and works in the family business, very successfully.

I recently hung out with a couple of other girls who left a third department because they felt the requirements were arbitrary, the advising nonexistent, and the research wasn't fun enough to make up for the political bullshit. They never got past the stage of wanting their advisors to tell them exactly what to do, and I know this because they say the same thing about their current supervisors.

To me, this is one of the most critical differences between the masters and the PhD. After the PhD, most people are a lot more confident about working independently.

I want to add that the comment about Canada is very interesting. I wish it were like that here.

re: where the pipeline leaks, most of the women I know dropped out after they completed the PhD, or within 1-3 years of postdoc.

Of course, the vast majority of women I went to school/postdoc with are not faculty in academia.

Bottom line, looking on LinkedIn, out of
>200 connections, of the people I went to school with (not including faculty I met later), there are 17 men and 7 women who got academic positions. We had equal numbers of men and women in my program, and almost everyone graduated with PhD. I know that at least two of the women were hired because of their husbands. None of the men were hired because of their wives.

Of my former colleagues, I know more women who were recently promoted to Superdoc type positions. A couple of them are still hoping to become independent faculty eventually (after 9+ years of postdoc).

Anonymous said...

I know it sounds weird, but we grad students almost always have to move far away from our support networks to go to grad school -- our parents and friends live far away. That means no "grandma" to help watch the baby while we get out for a once-every-two-months movie or dinner with our spouse. Both my (older male) advisors have watched my baby son on occasion.

I am an associate prof in the US, originally from an overseas country. It's not like this place is swarming with grandparents or friends for my family either, so should I ask grad students to babysit my kids? Of course not, that would be abuse of students.

It's also ridiculous to expect advisors to babysit students' kids. That's way too much of a personal involvement; the relationship needs to be professional.

Michal said...

I fall into #3, followed by #1. I entered my first PhD program right after receiving my BA, but struggled with the candidacy examination and doubts about whether graduate school was the right place for me. At the time, the program was having a persistent problem with high percentages of students failing the candidacy exam. However, I know that other students in my year argued for and received another chance at it - I think my decision to leave with an MS was definitely influenced by my self-doubts and the lack of a mentor who could give me advice about my options.

I spent two years essentially doing an internship, in the course of which I was exposed to some research problems that caught my interest. So I decided to go back to graduate school, in a different field, and received my PhD last year.

Anonymous said...

Can people get a masters if they actually fail the exams? What I've heard is that you get the consolation prize if you complete all your exams, but then decide to cut the dissertation portion down to just a short, single paper thesis (so ~3 years total instead of ~6).

Students who've failed the exams in my dept are simply asked to leave without a degree.

El Charro said...

so should I ask grad students to babysit my kids? Of course not, that would be abuse of students.

It's also ridiculous to expect advisors to babysit students' kids. That's way too much of a personal involvement; the relationship needs to be professional.

I don't think having your advisor babysit so that you can go out for dinner or a movie is a good idea. It does cross some boundaries that can make the relationship weird. But, as an associate professor you certainly make a lot more money than a grad student and you can probably afford to pay for a babysitter.

Why not pay more to students are parents? To expect that grad students should postpone having kids until they are out of school and make money is stupid.

EliRabett said...

In this sort of comparison you have to differentiate between international students amle/female and US nationals (inc. green card holders) male/female for many reasons, including the ability to leak to a job

Anonymous said...

@El Charro:

I am the Anon (associate prof) from above to whose comment you responded.

Why not pay more to students are parents? To expect that grad students should postpone having kids until they are out of school and make money is stupid.

That discriminates among students based on their family/reproductive choices, which is certainly unethical and probably illegal. Grad student salaries are set by the departments/universities.

I had a kid when I was a grad student. It was tough but it was (barely) possible financially. Having kids does not require a house and a yard, you can get by with much less. You can have kids on grad salaries; however, it may mean you don't go out, almost ever. There are cheap ways to have fun. And even profs with multiple kids can't affort to go out whenever they want. If someone needs to make enough money to comfortably go out with spouse whenever they want in order to decide to have kids, that would exclude >95% of this country from ever procreating.

theSpacemom said...

I planned on being a PhD student, then became a MS student. I was the first person in the program to willingly start for an MS. In my personal case, it was for sanity. I would finish my MS the same time my boyfriend (now husband) would finish his PhD. We would move on from there.

Turns out, I was put in the terrible position of being the "fail" point for the written qualifier exam. The staff encouraged me to take the written exam in addition to the dissertation I was writing. I chose to study lightly, but I managed a fairly strong grade. The staff then turned around and said "if Spacemom here is doing a Master's degree and got this score, you can't move to the PhD program unless you beat her score!"

I was angry and felt used. I chose to get a Master's, I didn't do it because I was unsure of my abilities.

When I actually defended my research, I had several professors congratulate me on the work, but one was very bitter and complained that I set the bar too high and it would have been better to not have done any research. Fortunately, there were very little overtones of sexism in any of this.

El Charro said...


I'm a grad student and I also have a kid right now. Some people can afford to have a kid on grad students stipends (the two parents have to have the income though, a family with a single grad student stipend cannot get by, at least not in the early years of the kid that require visits to pediatricians quite often).

It might be illegal, but it is not discriminating. This country, and many others, already distribute money for programs that not everyone is eligible for. But it was only one of the possible ways to help some grad students, particularly the female ones. The universities (or states) could subsidize on campus day care for grad students's kids. Day cares exist on campuses, but in many cases it's professors who are taking those spots.

Not having mechanisms in place that make reproduction a viable road for grad students and especially for the women cannot help leveling the field in terms of enrollment and graduation rates.

Lindsay Chaney said...

I probably best fall under explanation #3. I am currently a MS student with no intentions to receive a PhD. Why do I have no intentions to receive a PhD? I want a family. I don't think I could balance starting a family, raising kids while committed to the *much* longer PhD program. Additionally, after the long process to degree, you add on a post doc and my unborn children would be teenagers when I would finally start a career. As the primary nurturer of my family, I need a shorter route with a flexible career options.
On a similar note, I would like to comment on this ideas were BIG in my grad school decision process. I was most interested in programs that appeared I could graduate the quickest (fewest course work requirements). Also, my advisor is a FSP with two young kids. She has been perfect. Someone who is/will be supportive and understanding when we close her office door and say, I am pregnant. I am pretty certain some of the male advisors would not react the same way.

Anonymous said...

Why consider leaving with a MS?

No academic support from department or university whatsoever during difficult times with my advisor (issues including discrimination).

FSP, I am wondering, does this issue have effects on the admission rates for female science phd students in general?

From the statistics, they know that female students tend to drop out more easily and so wouldn't it be logical (sigh) if they don't admit female students in the first place?

Anonymous said...

Dear "Me" on 4/04

I think that your friend's story about being switched to the Master's program needs to get out somewhere to embarrass the institution (or whoever did/approved the switch), otherwise it is likely to happen to someone else. School newspaper?

Margot said...

My phd "class" was 20 to start, 10 men and 10 women. While 7 of the men eventually left with their phd, I was the only woman to do so. The subset of reason #2(applying phd to get a funded ms w/o intent to continue) was definitely in play for some, but others got good job offers or had family concerns come into play.

Anonymous said...

I've known a couple woman who've stopped after the Master's. In many cases, the wool in front of their eyes had been removed and they were able to see what the *real* odds of getting a tenure-track professor job were. Once they realized just how slim their odds are of becoming professors, they took the Master's. At least you can get a decent job with a Master's, and you save yourself years of a pointless PhD.

lady oracle said...

I am leaving with a masters after battling through with it and deciding not to take my quals. My university is not very well known for Chemistry and while my advisor is really well respected in his field, I don't think that anyone graduating from his lab is going further than a post doc, unless they are stellar and then maybe after a few post docs they can get government lab staff scientist. I am kind of burned out on basic research and I feel an overwhelming lack of support in a field where there has to be some kind of training to use the equipment that would get me the publications I need.