UBC masters to PhD transfer situation?

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Galois2199
Posts: 15
Joined: Fri Nov 29, 2013 11:20 pm

UBC masters to PhD transfer situation?

Postby Galois2199 » Tue Feb 18, 2014 4:47 pm

Hi all,
I was admitted to University of British Columbia for what I thought was their PhD program (because that is what I applied for!) but it turns out they admitted me as a masters student. In talking to some of their grad coordinators, it seems almost all of their new grad students enter as masters students, with very few exceptions.

They then allow for transfer to PhD program after year one provided you have done well enough, know what you want to study, and have picked an advisor. This sounds all well and good, (especially since UBC is a prime place to be for string theory), but I'm worried about getting stranded as a masters student! I want my PhD and got accepted into some lower ranked PhD programs already.

Does anyone have any experience with this kind of thing? Apparently UBC is different in this respect. Essentially what I'm asking is do you think there's a decent chance of transferring after year one or would it be safer to accept an honest to goodness PhD offer from a somewhat lower ranked institution?
Much thanks everyone!!

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: UBC masters to PhD transfer situation?

Postby TakeruK » Tue Feb 18, 2014 6:44 pm

Hi there,

I am a Canadian student and I did my undergrad at UBC, my Masters at a Canadian school but now I am at a US program for my PhD.

This is the way the Canadian graduate school system works. With very few exceptions, people with BSc degrees enter graduate school as a Masters student, which is normally a 2 year program. You complete coursework, do thesis research and write/defend a MSc thesis in this time. After your MSc program is finished, you apply again for PhD programs and most Canadian schools only accept PhD students who hold a Masters degree (the one exception in Physics in Canada is Toronto, which follows the US model). Even if you are staying at the same school, with the same supervisor, you have to completely reapply. However, in the Canadian school system, it's basically up to the professor if they want to accept you, so there is almost a guarantee that they will keep you if you are doing good work. You just have to do all of the application paperwork (including LORs from your MSc advisor who may also be your PhD advisor) just to keep everything legit on paper.

If you stay at the same school, it's usually 3 more years to get a PhD. Going elsewhere would normally mean 4 more years. So the total time in grad school is the same. Also, Masters students are 100% fully funded, just like PhD students and in Canada, there is very little difference between a MSc student and the first 2 years of a PhD program. :)

I think this system is a lot better, because you don't have to commit to more than 2 years of your life to one school/advisor/project. Many people change projects completely (most keep the same school and advisor though) after their MSc. A MSc thesis might be the background or prototype project for the bigger PhD work and a MSc thesis does not have to be original work (but it's better for everyone if it is). Also, this allows you to leave after 2 years with a useful degree (not a "consolation prize Masters") if you don't want to stay in academia instead of having to stick around to have anything to show for your work. Finally, if you turn out to be a big disappointment, this means the prof doesn't have to keep you around as a PhD student, but this is very rare.

I would recommend that during your visit next month (I think they still do this in April), you talk to potential advisors and figure out what you want to do. Have a discussion about your future. Ask if this person is looking for a PhD student in the end. Very few professors want to take someone only for a Masters and then drop them afterwards.

As for the "acceleration" program (i.e. skip the Masters thesis/defense and not get a Masters), I would actually not recommend going this route. At some programs (not sure about UBC), it's there as an option but very few people take it / are encouraged to take it. In my opinion, it's far better to have a complete Masters projects (including papers that come out of it) first and then do a PhD project. In most US places, you don't even get to start your PhD project until year 3 or so anyways because you have to pass all the quals, comps, etc. first.

I know it's scary to not be actually enrolled in a PhD program, but rest assured, in Canada, the MSc-->PhD process is very routine and expected for students who want to continue in academia. I think that pretty much all Canadians that think about grad school think about it as BSc -> MSc -> PhD, and I was pretty surprised to learn that in the US, you commit to a 5+ year program right after undergrad!

Feel free to let me know if you have any more questions/reservations about UBC and/or Canadian graduate programs!

Galois2199
Posts: 15
Joined: Fri Nov 29, 2013 11:20 pm

Re: UBC masters to PhD transfer situation?

Postby Galois2199 » Tue Feb 18, 2014 8:09 pm

Wow, thank you very much TakeruK; that was very reassuring. I think you can tell my only real concern is getting stranded as a masters student and not then having an option for a PhD but it sounds like this probably won't be the case. I think I'm quite good at what I'm interested and got very good at working hard in undergrad.

I suppose the only other thing I'd be slightly worried about is finding a professor/adviser in only one year! That seems almost more intimidating than committing to US programs where you have a few years to figure that part out. When do you really start delving into a research project? Almost immediately upon your first arriving Fall?

Thanks again, you're very helpful!

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: UBC masters to PhD transfer situation?

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Feb 18, 2014 10:11 pm

Galois2199 wrote:Wow, thank you very much TakeruK; that was very reassuring. I think you can tell my only real concern is getting stranded as a masters student and not then having an option for a PhD but it sounds like this probably won't be the case. I think I'm quite good at what I'm interested and got very good at working hard in undergrad.

It's mostly just a remapping of the US process of qualifying exams, with perhaps a greater emphasis on punctuality (often, in the US, you can put quals off for a year or so if the timing is inconvenient). Most (if not all) US PhD offers come with guaranteed funding for only the first 2 years, after which they're perfectly capable of kicking you out and leaving you 'stranded' with a masters if you aren't making 'adequate progress'. How likely this is to happen (what inadequate progress entails) will vary by school in the US, and I imagine it does in Canada as well.

I suppose the only other thing I'd be slightly worried about is finding a professor/adviser in only one year! That seems almost more intimidating than committing to US programs where you have a few years to figure that part out. When do you really start delving into a research project? Almost immediately upon your first arriving Fall?
Thanks again, you're very helpful!


It's false that you have a 'few years' to figure out your advisor in the US. You're meant to have made meaningful progress in becoming an expert in your chosen discipline by your third year, roughly the time you'd be starting the Canadian PhD. If you don't have a research project by the end of year 2, you better hope there's a good external reason for it.

Galois2199
Posts: 15
Joined: Fri Nov 29, 2013 11:20 pm

Re: UBC masters to PhD transfer situation?

Postby Galois2199 » Tue Feb 18, 2014 11:18 pm

thanks a lot bfollinprm. So would you say that, supposing UBC is one of the best places to be for what I'm interested in (indeed it seems to be), it would be silly to choose a slightly lesser US institution *only* because they let me straight into the PhD program?

It seems that the thrust of what you guys are saying is that the difference b/w the Canadian system and the US system is much more one of how they "name" things as opposed to fundamental differences.

Thanks again

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: UBC masters to PhD transfer situation?

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Feb 18, 2014 11:37 pm

Galois2199 wrote:thanks a lot bfollinprm. So would you say that, supposing UBC is one of the best places to be for what I'm interested in (indeed it seems to be), it would be silly to choose a slightly lesser US institution *only* because they let me straight into the PhD program?

It seems that the thrust of what you guys are saying is that the difference b/w the Canadian system and the US system is much more one of how they "name" things as opposed to fundamental differences.

Thanks again


For the most part, I think that's right. Granted, I don't have first-hand knowledge of the Canadian PhD, so don't take me as gospel. Not that I'm saying you should ignore the issue--you should find some statistic to put your mind at ease regarding the particular schools: see if you can find out the number of masters students who move on to a PhD there, or some other such metric. Same goes for US schools, you should be aware of qual pass rates, number of entrants to the program who successfully defend, etc. These aren't perfect metrics--students leave for reasons unrelated to being kicked out--but knowing them is better than not knowing them, and a low pass/retention rate is a bad sign.

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: UBC masters to PhD transfer situation?

Postby TakeruK » Wed Feb 19, 2014 12:24 am

Galois2199 wrote:I suppose the only other thing I'd be slightly worried about is finding a professor/adviser in only one year! That seems almost more intimidating than committing to US programs where you have a few years to figure that part out. When do you really start delving into a research project? Almost immediately upon your first arriving Fall?

Thanks again, you're very helpful!


At UBC, it's kind of recommended that you figure out what you want to do for a Masters project sometime during your first semester there. At some schools in Canada, admissions is completely based on the fact that a prof is willing to take you on and at my Masters program, my offer letter specifically said I should decide on one of the two that has "accepted" (and are willing to fund) me. I had to decide before I started the program. At the PhD level, UBC requires you to have a supervisor preferably before you start or at least within the first month.

However, I know grad students at UBC who took 2 semesters to decide on a supervisor/project. The first summer of the MSc is when you really start the bulk of your research, so you need to have it figured out by then.

But remember, you are totally able to change your project / supervisor when you start the PhD. This is why it might take 4 years on top of a Masters if you don't continue with the same project since it will take another year or so to get up to speed / expertise in your research topic. You can also view it another way--it's true that you have to make some decisions before you start grad school, but I was very nervous to start a PhD program from scratch in the US not knowing what my final PhD thesis will be! So I think there are merits to both ways but I would personally prefer knowing that I have a spot in a specific group before I arrive (like being hired for a specific research position).

Most Canadian schools will promise funding for 2 years at the Masters level and 4 years at the PhD level. But if you are staying at the same place then this can be combined into 6 years of total funding. In my MSc cohort, I was the only one that actually finished and defended in (almost exactly) 2 years because I was going to another place for my PhD. Others in my year (or previous years) was able to take their time and they defended and officially finished the MSc requirements somewhere between 2 years, 3 months and 2 years, 9 months after they started. But if you are staying with the same advisor for your PhD then it doesn't really matter (as long as you finish within MSc time limits, which is usually 3-4 years). You can use whatever papers you get out of your Masters as part of the collection of papers that make up your PhD thesis too.


So yes, I think the biggest difference between the first few years in Canada and the US is just the name of the program. Another minor difference is that coursework in Canada can be spread out over your whole degree, while you have to get it all over with very fast in the US. In my MSc program, some of the PhD students in my Jackson E&M class were taking it in their last year just to meet the very last PhD requirement. I am not sure UBC lets you do this with required courses though (they tend to have stricter rules).

Finally, it's not that surprising for Canadian MSc students to graduate and be happy with a MSc. I think about 40% to 60% of MSc graduates continue to a PhD. The majority of the ones that do not continue chose to not continue though, not because they were not allowed. With a MSc in Canada, you can do a lot of things like work as a science advisor for a museum, be a lab manager, be a staff scientist, teach at colleges, etc. It gets you way farther than just a BSc so a lot of people who are not interested in being a professor / PI-like position (or find out that they are not interested along the way) use the MSc as a way to get better credentials and expertise for a job in their field. In the US, I think the stats on students not completing a PhD is about the same, but dropping out in year 3 or 4 means you've wasted at least a few years. Also, many programs in the US quote numbers like only "5% of our students fail the qualifying/comprehensive exams" or say something like we have never kicked out a student in X years. However, in many cases, when you talk to the grad students there, there is a larger number of students who did not pass the exam the first time but chose not to take it again, so thus they did not "fail" and they were not "kicked out", but left for other reasons.




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