(Astro) Offer advice

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uhurulol
Posts: 79
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 12:38 am

(Astro) Offer advice

Postby uhurulol » Mon Apr 27, 2015 8:17 pm

Hi everyone. So I'm sure you're all sick of seeing posts from me, but I need some advice on my final decision for the Fall 2015 app cycle.

Out of all my applications I received one offer---SFSU's astronomy program (master's only). The funding isn't ideal... before RA it works out to something like 10k/year, though RA could bring it up toward 20k. The RA positions have to be earned, though, and while I'm confident I'll get one there's no guarantee. In order for it to work financially it would have to be a 3 year MS as well.

I still want to go for a Ph.D. no matter what, so my options are as follows:

1. Take SFSU's offer, get a master's after 3 years, then apply for Ph.D. Current loans are at 42k and I'd probably have to take more out for this... likely ending up at about 65k in loans. I have heard that it's an excellent program, though.

2. Take a year off, work on research (which is available to me, albeit probably unpaid) and work a shitty job in the meanwhile, and apply for 2016. This would require me to retake the PGRE and I'm scared shitless because I'm just terrible in those types of testing conditions.

Would option 1 make me a more desirable Ph.D. student to a university? Do they prefer applicants that already have a MS? Also, would having a MS reduce my total time in a Ph.D. program?

Any advice anyone has for me would be appreciated. I'm really torn right now.

physmastersstudent
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Joined: Wed Dec 10, 2014 6:37 pm

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby physmastersstudent » Mon Apr 27, 2015 9:47 pm

Hi Uhurulol,

I sought out a Master's before applying to doctoral programs. I did not apply to doctoral programs out of undergraduate because I lacked many of the upper division courses required and had no research experience. I also wasn't sure if doing Ph.D. was right for me at the time, or what field I wanted to go in to.

I did a Master's program in southern California, and three years later I applied and got in to eight of the fifteen schools I applied to. While this route was right for me, I'm not sure I'd advise it to everyone. Looking back, I think I probably could have gotten into a few programs the year after I finished my undergraduate program had I applied at the time. I also did two internships in national labs just before and during my Master's program that really strengthened my application.

Getting a Master's will set you back 2-3 years. For every program I got into, I was required to jump through hoops to avoid re-taking courses. Some of these were just passing the qualifier, but others were more intense.

I TA'd and relied on financial aid, and ended up about 60K in debt after three years. In San Francisco (as well as in southern California) living will be expensive. I don't know if you get a tuition waiver if you TA at SFSU, I did not at my Master's program. This required me to TA/GA 2-3 courses a semester in addition to taking and working on research, and I still ended up in a lot of debt.

I also could not do the exact research I was interested in through my Master's program, not even in the same field. Before deciding, I would first try to visit and meet with professors and find out who is actually taking students. Also find out where previous students in the Master's program have gone to for doctoral programs. If you visit, also meet current Master's students and try to find out what they think of the program.

For me I think the Master's program made sense, but I'm not sure I would recommend it unless you are deficient in research, courses, or GPA. Even if you have a low GPA and improve it in your Master's program, Ph.D. schools will still look at your undergraduate GPA. Some of them will care that you did a Master's and showed improvement, others will not.

Either way you're going to have to re-take the PGRE. I think you'd have more time to study for it working a full-time job/research rather than while being enrolled in a Master's program. It sucks, and is intimidating, but if you put in the time you will get a good score. From just understanding all the questions on the practice tests and memorizing formulas I think you can get above an 800 easily.

So now, in response to your specific questions:
- It depends from school to school whether getting a Master's makes you more desirable. I don't think it would hurt. It gives you a chance to show your dedication, gain research experience, and get some good recommendations. I think that's more important than the degree itself. It may be possible to get these doing unpaid research. One other thing that may be of benefit is the connections the professors at SFSU may have.
- I have found no preference for Master's students over those straight out of undergraduate. Again, I think it's more about the experience you gain (also presentations, publications, connections) that can make you more desirable. But this depends on how much work you put in, if you do the bare minimum to succeed in your Master's program you probably will not get into any Ph.D. programs when you apply again.
- It varies from school to school. I am hoping to shave a year off my doctoral program, at the cost of three years in a Master's program. I could have finished in two, but I really wanted to take electives in areas that interested me and do a more thorough job on my Master's thesis. But when I was making the decision to finish in three years I was still uncertain whether I wanted to apply to Ph.D. programs. I started research at the end of my first year in my Master's program (June), so I really only had a few months to decide after starting research whether I wanted to apply in the fall or wait for the following year.

If you have additional questions feel free to ask them or message me. I don't know all of the details about your situation so I can't say what is the best decision for you. Are you applying straight out of undergraduate? Is the research you could be doing next year in a field you're interested in? What was weak on your application this time around? Did your mentor write you a recommendation for this round of applications? If you took a year off and did research, would that make you a more competitive applicant next time? Did you apply to too many prestigious schools?

If you are applying straight out of undergraduate, you could apply for SULI internships for next year. They are a semester long, and you can apply up to one year after you graduate. I believe your application is good for one year as well, so you can potentially apply for the fall, spring, and summer. I think this research and the connections I made doing it were another thing that really helped strengthen my application.

Good luck deciding!

astroprof
Posts: 95
Joined: Fri Feb 15, 2008 4:47 pm

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby astroprof » Tue Apr 28, 2015 10:30 am

Both of your options will improve your chances of admission to a PhD program. The advantages of an MS program are: (1) you will be able to demonstrate your ability to succeed in graduate level classes and also repair gaps in your undergraduate preparation; (2) you will be able to work on a different research project and thereby broaden your skills; (3) you will interact with new people and broaden your network; and (4) if you do well in classwork and in research, you will have strong letters from a well known (in astronomy) institution. However, if you choose this route, you should plan on only 2 years for the degree. Taking longer than that will be viewed as a red flag for PhD programs, as it will imply that you may be slow to complete your degree in our program as well.

In regards to your other questions: it is unlikely that you will significantly reduce time-to-degree in a PhD program by completing an MS degree. Most PhD programs prefer students to take their own classes in order to prepare best for their qualifying examinations, which are often based on the coursework. Thus, in an astronomy PhD program, you are likely to still be required to take 2 years of courses. Your advanced research skills may help you get started on your dissertation quickly, but you will still need time to propose, to obtain, and to process the data for your dissertation. Thus, you can expect to be on the low side of the time-to-degree distribution, but it is still likely to take you at least 5 years in a PhD program.

For our program, an MS does not make a student "more desirable," but it can help mitigate a poor undergraduate record such that we may consider a student for admission based on their success in a masters program even if their undergraduate GPA is low. In that regard, we expect to see indications that the student has matured and is now prepared for a rigorous graduate program, as evidenced by strong letters of recommendation and an improvement in the Physics GRE score. For the latter, you do not need to achieve perfection, you just need to have improved relative to your undergraduate score. In this context it is actually useful to provide all scores (i.e., not use score select) so that the committee can see the improvement over time.

Whichever choice you make, you will have a stronger record for the next application season. During the next round, though, I strongly recommend that you seek advice from your letter writers regarding the list of schools you apply to, and regarding the materials in your application (personal statement, etc), as they may be able to guide you more appropriately than an anonymous message board.

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

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby TakeruK » Tue Apr 28, 2015 1:24 pm

I'll start with the easier questions/advice first:

1. I am in a Planetary Science PhD program with a (Canadian) masters degree in astronomy and in this current program, the MSc does nothing to change the length of my degree. Here, students with prior graduate coursework are excused from core classes they already took, however, the total number of required courses is still the same (you just take the advanced versions of these core classes instead).

2. SFSU is a good place for Astronomy and also hosts some well known researchers in our field, exoplanet science. In addition, the Bay area is a good place for exoplanet science in general--lots of very interesting work happening at UCSF, SFSU, Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz is not too far away. I've heard a lot about meetings and collaborations in the Bay area for exoplanet science.

3. I think both options will help your chances in the future. Here are some pros/cons I would have with each option though:

SFSU MS option:
Pros: Structured program will demonstrate that you are capable of graduate level coursework. You'll also get to do new research with new people and be in the Bay Area, which is good for exoplanet science. Also, being officially enrolled as a student can make you eligible for certain opportunities only open to students, such as internships at various places or reduced conference registration rates (more likely your supervisor will send you?).

Cons: 3 years is a long time for a Masters degree (I am guessing you plan to take 3 because you would be working to pay the bills?). You do want a PhD in the end, so ultimately, the only use of the MS coursework is to prove that you can do PhD level coursework. Unless you do interesting new research and also take advantage of the other pros above, I don't think "improving GPA/coursework" will make enough of a difference in your applications to justify 3 years + $23k in debt.

Year off option:
Pros: You get to reapply faster and you won't be taking out huge loans. If you are close to publication in your research, this could give you the extra time you need to polish up your existing work and get it published.

Cons: It sounds like you might be continuing more of the same research? Maybe broadening your experience and your network is what you need and staying in the same place isn't going to help this. Also, as I wrote above, not having student status can make some things more difficult for you. And finally, from my own experience, "volunteer/part time research work" is very nebulous and it's pretty easy to end up not achieving very much (or not being able to put much time into because of other priorities such as paying the bills). This depends on you as a person, whether or not you want/need the structure of a MS program.

4. Overall, I think that when you reapply, if you want different results, you need to have a somewhat substantial change in your application package. I'm not exactly sure what your plans for research during the "year off" option is, but I'd be worried that it's not different enough or it might not add enough to your application (i.e. will it lead to presentations or publications?). Fall 2016 application season is only ~6 months away too, so it might be too soon to have enough done. On the other hand, while SFSU can potentially make a big change to your application package, there are greater risks attached. From just the information here, I'd slightly lean towards SFSU (but maybe aim for a 2 year finish) but that's mostly because I don't know the details of your "year off" option. My thought would be that if you can achieve a significant change in your application package with your "year off" option, I'd go for that.

5. Finally, what do you think about "2 years off to work" instead of just one....do you think you can get a term or somewhat permanent job as a research assistant somewhere? Or an internship at a NASA center.

Catria
Posts: 353
Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2012 4:14 pm

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby Catria » Wed Apr 29, 2015 8:59 am

Also, if you elect to go to SFSU, you may also want to consider European PhD programs on your graduation year...

uhurulol
Posts: 79
Joined: Wed Aug 27, 2014 12:38 am

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby uhurulol » Fri May 01, 2015 2:33 am

Catria wrote:Also, if you elect to go to SFSU, you may also want to consider European PhD programs on your graduation year...


I actually thought about this too---that'd be a really cool opportunity, and their programs are typically a little shorter due to the expectation of an incoming master's.

I appreciate all of the advice so far, but I'm still totally torn. The debt is really difficult to live with, and that's the only thing truly stopping me from accepting SFSU's offer. They want me to decide by tomorrow. Eek.

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

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby TakeruK » Fri May 01, 2015 2:24 pm

If you are not able to take on more debt (it does sound like a lot!!) then perhaps reapplying to Canadian programs (along with potentially European programs) could be an alternative idea. In Canada, we must do a Masters prior to a PhD and thus Masters degrees are always fully funded in our field.

In addition, because accepting a new graduate student is only a 2 year commitment, I think profiles like "strong research experience but low GPA" or "high GPA but no experience at all" are more likely to get accepted in Canada. The terminal Masters plan allows students and supervisors to end the program at a reasonable/logical time if either one decides that continuing on a PhD is not the best path forward. It also gives the student the option of a new project, a new supervisor, or a new school entirely when switching from MSc to PhD (as they are independent programs). Lots of flexibility!

Catria
Posts: 353
Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2012 4:14 pm

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby Catria » Fri May 01, 2015 2:39 pm

TakeruK wrote:If you are not able to take on more debt (it does sound like a lot!!) then perhaps reapplying to Canadian programs (along with potentially European programs) could be an alternative idea. In Canada, we must do a Masters prior to a PhD and thus Masters degrees are always fully funded in our field.

In addition, because accepting a new graduate student is only a 2 year commitment, I think profiles like "strong research experience but low GPA" or "high GPA but no experience at all" are more likely to get accepted in Canada. The terminal Masters plan allows students and supervisors to end the program at a reasonable/logical time if either one decides that continuing on a PhD is not the best path forward. It also gives the student the option of a new project, a new supervisor, or a new school entirely when switching from MSc to PhD (as they are independent programs). Lots of flexibility!


If you elect to go to an European school for a masters, not all programs (and not many) will even be fully funded... so pay attention to funding and tuition if you try your hand at European masters.

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

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby TakeruK » Fri May 01, 2015 2:44 pm

Indeed, and even some funded PhD programs in Europe don't have a lot of funding for non-EU citizens. My sentence about full funding (second one) applies to Canadian programs. The first sentence, when I refer to "not able to take on more debt", I was referring to taking a year away from school to work/save money and applying for Fall 2016. Just wanted to clarify :)

Catria
Posts: 353
Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2012 4:14 pm

Re: (Astro) Offer advice

Postby Catria » Sun May 03, 2015 9:28 pm

TakeruK wrote:Indeed, and even some funded PhD programs in Europe don't have a lot of funding for non-EU citizens. My sentence about full funding (second one) applies to Canadian programs. The first sentence, when I refer to "not able to take on more debt", I was referring to taking a year away from school to work/save money and applying for Fall 2016. Just wanted to clarify :)


Hence why I chose not to apply to European funded PhD programs, despite the time-to-degree being shorter. For example, Paris-Sud's doctoral positions last 3 or 4 years, while Minnesota's average time-to-degree is 5.7 years. But that could just be the coursework; Minnesota is rather lenient in awarding advanced standing for masters coursework as long as you get an A- and better and that the course actually is equivalent to one taught there (I could get all my MSc courses as advanced standing, but that second QM course taken as an undergrad can only be waived without any advanced standing granted); at other US schools, while you do not have to retake a course taken in a masters, you have to take advanced electives in their place.

Plus European PhD personal statements also ask that you outline a proposed doctoral project (the length of the proposed outline is highly variable though) as well. European quals really are more akin to a prospectus defense...




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