Thursday, March 5, 2015

What's better, a M.S. or a Ph.D.?

It's been a number of years since we've had this debate, so let's do the time warp again. From the inbox (just last week), an e-mail from an undergraduate: 
Something that many of the stories have mentioned is how they're happier to have gotten an M.S. job instead of a Ph.D. job (e.g. in KT's story, he mentions the geographical flexibility of having an M.S. job versus his colleagues with Ph.D.s). But I've also seen your posts on the ACS salary figures, which show that Ph.D. jobs generally pay better than M.S. jobs, and my understanding is that an M.S. chemist usually does a job more similar to a BS chemist than to a Ph.D. chemist. 
My question is, what are the pros/cons to getting an industry job as an M.S. chemist versus a Ph.D. chemist? Aside from salary, what are some other factors (e.g. upward mobility, geographic flexibility as KT addressed, stress levels, etc.)?  
I'm fairly certain I want to eventually end up working in industry, so I'm wondering whether I should be aiming for an M.S. or a Ph.D. if my end goal is just to get a good industry job. And what would "aiming for an M.S." even entail? My impression is that there aren't many M.S. programs. in chemistry, and most people who have an M.S. got one by quitting a Ph.D. program.
My response to my interlocutor:
My personal thoughts are that M.S. chemists are more easily hired (i.e. they are subject to somewhat less scrutiny in hiring) and they have more flexible slotting into a variety of job functions. It is fairly clear that M.S. roles and Ph.D. roles are well-delineated and it is very common at large companies for senior R&D management to be a Ph.D.-only club. I have seen a variety of instances where perfectly good management candidates are fundamentally ignored because they lack the magic three letters.  
I think that what would be best is to think about the different roles of a MS chemist and a PhD chemist (i.e. more bench-oriented, versus not) and think about what would truly make you happy, i.e. if you always want to be the boss, maybe you should be get a PhD! 
Finally, I note that it is typical for people to enter Ph.D. programs and declare their non-interest in a Ph.D. about a year or two into the process, i.e. it's strangely okay to fib and say "Yes, I want a Ph.D." when you really don't (maybe I'm wrong there - we will see what my readers have to say.)
[I should note here that I forgot to point out that there are M.S. programs where you can get a classroom/internship master's in chemistry (and pay for them, as opposed to being on stipend. It remains to be seen whether those programs are better or worse than the traditional graduate school option.]

So, beloved readers, let's tackle this again:
  1. What are the pros and cons of industry M.S./Ph.D. positions? Can Ph.D. positions make up the 2-4 of earning years that they give up? 
  2. Anecdotally, it is understood that there's a "glass ceiling" for M.S. positions on the medicinal chemistry side of the pharmaceutical industry. Is that true? Is it true for other subfields? 
  3. Is there more geographic flexibility? Do you trade lower pay for less/different stress? 
  4. What is the best way to get a master's degree in chemistry? Do people still do the "apply and fib" technique? 
Readers, what say you? 


  1. I am a MS process chemist at a well-known CRO that is also known for both overworking and underpaying all its levels of chemists. I decided late in my undergraduate career that I was interested in a MS but only a MS. I applied to a couple of schools relatively close to home that do fine work but are definitely not top-tier and was up-front with my desire to only get a Master's. That wasn't a problem with either department and my eventual advisor was also fine with this. The entire group was only about seven or eight people and was about three MS students, three PhD students, an undergrad, and a postdoc. Anyway, I started in Fall 2005, graduated in November 2008, and found this CRO job just as the economy was entering free-fall.

    I think there is definitely a glass ceiling in my position. I figure I can get one more promotion on top of the one I currently have but that it would be very unlikely for me to advance to even the lowest PhD position. And I think I'm underpaid for my experience and degree, but again, that's a corporate thing and not necessarily a MS thing. On the plus side, I don't have to deal with all the extra work the company loves to pile on its PhD chemists such as bid writing.

    Overall, I think the recession and the shrinkage in the pharmaceutical industry has hurt MS chemists. Probably not as much as PhD chemists, since an MS is cheaper to keep during layoffs, but I think companies are less willing to hire a MS, whether new or experienced. I have had no luck applying for entry-level PhD positions with other companies as an experienced MS and it seems like there's not a lot of positions out there for experienced BS chemists either where an experienced MS chemist could make a pitch for employment.

    1. I agree with your conclusion that MS chemists are competing more against BS positions than PhD positions. That is what I have observed as well. An MS degree could put you at the top of the resume stack for positions requiring a BS, but for those positions experience is everything. A BS chemist would likely have a couple years experience on an MS chemist in the early employment years so landing a solid first job after the MS degree is critical. I think the ceiling for MS degree is similar to a BS degree.

    2. Been there, Jon

  2. My Department accepts terminal Masters applicants - although not many people chose this route - and we also have a number of part-time Master students who are currently working in industry.

    I guess that my suggestion would be to look carefully for terminal Masters programs, or apply for B.S-level jobs in a company that sponsors (or looks favourably upon) part-time Masters degrees. I would be *really* careful about applying for PhDs with the full intention of leaving with a Masters: if your PI takes your "dropping out" announcement badly (and there are plenty of old school PIs out there who will) then you will have a lot of trouble getting a positive recommendation letter from them, or any letter at all.

    My other piece of advice to the undergrad who wrote in is to do an internship in industry to help make up your mind. For me, I realised that I wanted to take on a supervisory/project management role in industry, and that a M.S wouldn't help me as much as a PhD would (although I also saw folk on the "business/administration side" had science B.S/M.S degrees only). On the other hand, there are some industry jobs (such as on the Formulation side) where a PhD isn't really needed for career development.

  3. I'm a PhD in biotech (oncology drug discovery). I'd say that biologists with an MS are treated about the same as those with a BS, maybe a little better in terms of salary. Both are expected to be bench scientists. It's easier to find a job than with a PhD, and definitely easier to find work without moving to another state. Opportunities for advancement are very rare, though, and you "top out" at a significantly lower wage than PhDs. The easiest way to advance, and make more money, seems to be to move into either Project Management or other "business" aspects (and those might require an MBA). In biology, I don't see the point of "apply and fib" to get a Master's. You would probably get just as much salary with BS + 2 years experience as you would with MS + no experience. It isn't hard to get a MS after you've been working a while, if getting one will help you advance in your company, by doing a night-school-type MS in "biotechnology".

  4. I've always thought of a MS as more of an super-BS than a PhD-lite. I just don't think the MS shows even close to same commitment a PhD does.

    1) Salaries for top quartile PhDs, AFAIK, are much much higher than same MS' (though, note, I have no data to support this). I'm not sure a bottom quartile PhD would ever make up the difference compared to same MS.
    2) I've looked at 100s of biotechs over, and I can think of one (ONTY, which turned into a total s**tshow) in which head of R&D did not have a PhD.
    DK on 3 or 4

    FWIW, and as much as I dislike the idea of 'opportunity cost' in financial calculations, I would posit that maybe there is an 'opportunity benefit' to a PhD. As I get more into the workaday world I like Matt Groening's ( take that grad school is "the snooze button on the alarm clock of life". The obvious issue here (as with opportunity cost) is the lack of objectivity in valuation. For me I did rush to finish grad school quickly (4 years, w 8 decent publications). In hindsight, I might have spent a bit more time having coffee on the couch across from the HPLC.

  5. PhDs in good positions will easily make up for lost wages, even if they have to do 2-4 years of post-docs on top of graduate work. The salary differences in bigger pharma are huge. Even in small pharma, if you advance to the level of group leader (or similiar), you can easily be making over $200,000 a year. In bigger pharma, you need only achieve the level of project leader to attain similar levels of salary.

    In both small and large pharma, there is a definite ceiling for MS employees. I've worked at 6 companies, and at all but one I was pretty much restricted to one promotion only (to entry-level PhD). That being said, through hard work and steady salary increases at small pharma (7+% raises), I was able to achieve a great salary with only an MS. The hardest part of life is being satisfied with what you already have, instead of always wanting more. Keep that mindset, and you'll be ok.

    I've had much better geographical freedom than a PhD would have. That being said, chem jobs in the southeast, where I'd prefer to live, have dried up a lot in recent years. I have managed to avoid MA/Boston, however. I don't see how MS chemists can afford to live up there...

    The biggest stress you'll have with an MS is dealing with your boss, same as a PhD. A great scientist does NOT a great manager make. I've worked for some very difficult people, and I've worked for some terrific people. A great PhD manager is one who supplies you with lots of important work and then trusts you to go do with work and get good results, without having to check up on you every few hours. On top of that, they will make themselves available to help you at any time if you go to them.

    I still recommend a research-based MS. Go to grad school with the mindset of getting a PhD. If, after 1-3 years, it is no longer appealing, you can then choose to leave with the MS. That way, you'll be going through the more rigorous PhD-earning hoops the whole way, studying for cumulative exams, doing tough research, etc. It will make you more appealing as a job candidate with an MS.

  6. I'm an MS synthetic chemist with 20 years pharma experience at one of the biggest companies. After laying off more than half of the department in the last 10 years, they've begun hiring new people, but only people with PhDs and post-docs. The entry-level MS/BS jobs are now in China.

    Why they keep us non-PhD veterans, I can't tell. We've all been around long enough to get to the starting-PhD level, and others have moved one step beyond that, but that's not a sure thing for the rest of us. The PhD hires are expected to be promoted in 2-3 years, though.

  7. I am a PhD chemist in the commodity and at chemical industry. MS chemists are super BS chemists here. If you want to do research you need a PhD. The transition from hourly to salaried is rare.

  8. In Canada and elsewhere, it's not uncommon to apply to an MS or a direct to PhD program

  9. In Merck kgaa (aka EMD) if you don't have phd, you've got little chances of getting promoted above research scientist level.

  10. I'm a chemistry undergrad from the UK. To address Q4
    "What is the best way to get a master's degree in chemistry? Do people still do the "apply and fib" technique?"

    At my department, I have not heard of a single person who applied for a PhD and left with a master's. Here, if you want a master's, you apply for a masters (taught or research, some unis offer both, others combine the two), you can then apply to a PhD program. Alternatively, you may skip the master's altogether and apply to a PhD program with a bachelor's, and later graduate with a bachelor and a PhD, no master's. I'm currently doing the opposite: a five year master's (no bachelor's), then PhD.

    1. That's a UK thing. What CJ's referring to is a common path in the USA. In the UK, if you apply for a PhD and fail, you leave with nothing unless you can work something out for yourself (but it takes a lot less time).

  11. Big question is do you want to do the work (MS) or get credit for the work (PhD Powerpoint junky)? Do you want to rub elbows in beer drinking meetings with the people who determine layoffs (PhD) or be asked to submit your last 8 compounds before you turn in your badge (MS)?

  12. I entered the workforce with a BS and got my MS degree part-time while working at a major well known company and there got to what I think was close to entry level PhD level pay before getting laid off.

    I quickly got an R&D job at a pharma start up (with a bit of a pay cut) and after a few years was promoted to management... I was the only non PhD with an R&D management title there.

    I got laid off after the FDA was not impressed with our phase 3 results (which as also at the depths of the "Great Recession"). At that time I was making low 6 figures.

    The next job I got (after a long stretch of unemployment) was at a biotech in a different industry... Been there several years now. I am in my late 50's and still making low 6 figures.

    Despite starting my career with a BS, I have never been hourly.

  13. Regarding CJ's question 4 and also the comment from the UK student: how many departments in the US even have MS programs in their chemistry departments? When I got my MS I learned that my department didn't even have any formal requirements for it and that it was completely up to the discretion of my advisor. I had passed my preliminary exams so perhaps that counted for something, but ultimately the department and university left it completely up to him.

  14. Hi All,

    There are schools where they offer standalone MS and no PhD.

    Full disclosure: I teach at one of them, DePaul University, and I enjoy working with our MS students doing research (I have some doing research/thesis work in my lab). We have both a MS program and offer a BS/MS option for our undergraduates (they must apply to our MS program). Of course would love t have people come and do their MS degrees with us. Therefore, my comments are biased in that regard, and they are my comments alone and do not necessarily reflect anyone else's/the department's/the university's/etc.

    I think that going into a PhD program with the plan of getting just a MS is a little disingenuous and a MS vs a PhD program have very different expectations/timelines. If you are going into a PhD program, it should be planning for the long haul. A PhD is all day, all week, all the time. You are effectively married to it. If you end up deciding to leave with a MS, that's totally fine, but don't go in planning on leaving early because you won't get the most out of your experience. You also won't be able to give your advisor, your co-workers, and your department as much as you could if you were planning on a PhD. It's kind of like starting a long term job when you know you will be moving in under a year and not telling your boss or taking a class when you plan on not completing it. Yes, you get a MS out of a PhD program if you leave early, but that's not the goal of the PhD program. The goal of a PhD program is for you to be a PhD student and succeed in obtaining a PhD.

    If you want to get a MS part-time or want a few years more of class and research experience that is structured similar to a BS environment (but definitely a step up in terms of classes/responsibilities) before going into a job, a MS program is definitely something to consider. It will help strengthen your coursework and will give you more opportunities to interact with faculty doing research and build your skill set (especially if you are doing a thesis, in which case you may be able to turn that into a publication). You will also likely be able to TA and get more experience interacting with students, so it can help those interested in education-related jobs. It is also less of a commitment than a PhD. MS students often go part time or have other jobs/responsibilities they are taking care of. Our MS classes are all at night to accommodate that. In a PhD, you need to be in lab everyday, all day long (I knew of very very very few "9-5"'ers in grad school). Yes there is some flexibility in the time in a PhD, but if you aren't in lab every day, people notice (including your boss). In terms of the job market, in my understanding a MS is like a BS+experience and it will help with competing for those types of jobs.

    Our MS degree does have formal course requirements and we have a thesis and a non-thesis approach as well. A PhD that results in a MS is usually just a click of a button on your way out and isn't structured/based on clear criteria. I got a MS on the way to my PhD and it was just based on the number of credits I had enrolled in, which didn't align with the PhD requirements (which were based on passing my 2nd and 3rd year exams and my thesis defense).

    I have also worked in a PhD lab where we had MS students from the school working with us as well. Some PhD schools have specific MS programs.

    Again, these comments are mine alone (and I haven't had all my coffee today yet, so please excuse typos/unclear statements). If anyone wants to chat about MS degrees or our MS degree in particular, shoot me an email or contact me on twitter.

    Alright, now for more coffee.

    -Kyle Grice

  15. I've been an employer for quite a few years now, but I occupy a very different world than most of the commenters (inorganic chemistry and small business). I have to say, based on the comments above, small business provides more opportunities for advancement without regard to degree earned. It's all about contribution and the ability to solve whatever problem you're facing in small business. I've seen BS-level chemists soar and PhD level chemists founder in this environment, but I've also seen the opposite - I think it really has a lot to do with personality and drive. I would not hesitate to have a PhD chemist report to a BS chemist, if that is how the skill set and disposition sorts itself out. Seems like that would be politically impossible in some of the environments mentioned above (big pharma, I guess).

    In the end, whatever time you spend getting whichever degree you choose is such a small fraction of your overall chemistry career. The contributions you make during the 40-years you'll spend working will (or at least should) be deterministic of your advancement and compensation possibilities. If not, you're probably working for the wrong company.

  16. I've worked at both big and small companies, and the glass ceiling for BS/MS chemists only seems to apply at the former. At both kinds of places, there's still a glass ceiling even for PhD chemists, as the highest-level jobs are increasingly held by professional managers with MBA's instead of scientists who climbed the ladder. At my current job, not having a PhD is not an obstacle to promotion, but I could probably rise no higher than technical director without an MBA.

    I think the kinds of companies that do hard-core research that require PhD's, like big pharma, are on the decline. Small to mid-size manufacturers will always need formulators and tech service people, which a PhD would probably overqualify you for.

    As a bit of advice to undergrads, my top-10 graduate program does not accept terminal MS students (with the exception of a few special programs), but you can always sneak in the back door by applying as a PhD student and changing your mind early. I knew a few people who realized grad school wasn't for them early on, and by signing up for some classes the fall of your second year, you can be out with a coursework master's in as little as 1.5 years. You would have to ask for a TA assignment to keep your stipend and tuition reimbursement, but that's easy enough. Much easier than taking night classes and going into debt to get a master's in your 30s. Unless you end up at one of the remaining big pharmas surrounded by a bunch of PhD's, most people won't know or care whether your master's was thesis or coursework based.

  17. Do a German PhD, it takes 2-4 years less than in North America (3 vs >5), and you still get the degree without the lost earning years.

    Having Bachelor and PhD from different countries gives you much greater geographic flexibility unless you are dead-set on staying in NA.

    Plus, its a kickass life experience.

    1. I was under the impression that is you plan to stay in industry or academia in the US, your degree should be from the US (with a few exception like maybe ETH-Zurich).

    2. I thought european PhD programs required students to already have an MSc degree though.

    3. You need a MS to get accepted to a Ph.D. program in Germany. Almost all of them require a MS.

  18. Same anon as posted the original comment.

    I am sure for the generic positions, where they just want a synthetic org chemist, or a biochemist, etc, that if you want to work in the US, a US phd is far better. But if you have the goal of standing out in your field, and intend to look for jobs after where they need an expert in 'x', without geographic constraints, then the speed of the german route is better.

    I avoided the need for doing a MSc by applying for US/Canadian phd programs just for the acceptance letters. These were then sent to the German university (that required a MSc for PhD entry) saying "See! these guys would let me do a PhD without a MSc" The German uni let me in, on the condition that unlike other PhD students I do a few MSc classes. The German PhD system (or at least my mentor) had a much steeper learning curve than in North America. Was essentially shown a hood and told "make some papers". Would not choose this route if you want hand holding.

    In this way I had a phd at 25, and was making 6 figs at 27 at a job in the US. Currently looking to return to europe though.

    If I was going to go for a PhD again, I would go this route again without hesitation.

    1. You don't need to mention names, but did you work for one of the "well renowned" German chemists? Because as I said before (this is other Anon), it seems like in most cases a PhD from a less well regarded chemist in Europe isn't going to carry as much weight as from Random State University in USA. Obviously working in Europe with someone like Erik Carerria is about a good as it gets anywhere in the world.

    2. 11:32 & 2:55 anon again. Yup. I worked for a prof who is regarded as the world leader in our field.

  19. If you want to work at a company in the US doing research get a PhD. Execution work will continue to be shifted to China and India which will include the vast majority of the BS/MS positions in Pharma.

  20. Currently finishing the MS after switching from chemistry to chemical engineering. Hoping to god I don't have to do a PhD because I'm really not sure if I have it in me - I certainly will do my due diligence in picking my specialty and supervisor though. Plan A right now is play off the engineer angle as much as possible (if at all possible) and maybe do exams to get the P.Eng. if I land a job like that. Plan B is to either do law school or PhD in Europe (since it's only 3 more years and not some ridiculous thing like 6 or 7). I would never post-doc in academia.