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Combined Masters and PhD Programs in the US

I was asked by a reader if one can opt for a joint master and PhD program in the United States right after an undergraduate degree. My answer to that question would be YES. Most universities in the US accept students into their PhD programs right after a bachelors degree. US universities work according to the credit system. Each degree requires that the student earns a certain amount of minimum credits. In an integrated program, once you finish your master’s coursework (in 2-3 years) and earn the requisite credits/grades you can dive into full time research and the PhD portion coursework.

What are the entry requirements of MS + PhD programs?

The entry requirements are essentially the same that the school asks from its masters and PhD applicants. Undergrad grades, test scores, letters of recommendation and work experience are taken into account. Yes, your profile must be strong enough to be considered for such a position. An applicant must prove that he/she has a strong inclination for research and can continue in the program for 7-8 years. And if English is not your native language, you will likely have to prove your English ability by taking the TOEFL or another English exam. Admissions offices need to know that you can function in an English-only environment.

Masters students are usually offered only partial scholarships, depending on the availability. Many schools at least try that the international students receive some tuition waiver/scholarship. If chosen as a combined masters-PhD candidate it’s likely that the school will offer a fellowship and offer a TA/RA position. If not immediately, the RA/TA position comes in after the first semester or even the first year. Please note, this funding is entirely on the discretion of the department and it’s best to ask admissions/graduate coordinators about such policies when applying.

The advantages of such programs

If someone is absolutely sure that a doctoral degree is his/her ultimate goal, I would strongly advice opting for a combined degree. It’s a good career move to set on the research and PhD path right after an undergraduate degree. You’re set once and for all without the hassles of applying again. Additionally, the cost of applying to schools twice- once for masters and then for PhD- can be saved. Test scores are valid for a limited period of time and if it expires before the PhD cycle of admissions, an applicant is expected to appear for it again.

Combined programs are rigorous as there is a lot to learn before embarking on research. An undergrad is a novice when considering the demands of higher research. When choosing such a program be prepared to venture on a demanding, long and tough journey.

On the flipside, it’s completely alright if you want to pursue a doctoral program after completing your masters. Separate masters and PhD degrees offers you the flexibility to change schools, specializations/area of research and the option to work/research for a few years before heading for your PhD.

Best of luck in deciding which way you are headed after your undergrad!