Academia: What's the story with "consolation" master's degrees?

In this thread and elsewhere, mention is made of so called “consolation” master’s degrees that PhD candidates who are unable to complete their dissertation but who make it to some defined point are awarded. It may even be the case that PhD candidates at some schools are awarded the master’s degree as a matter of course when they reach a certain point.

  1. To what extent does the consolation master’s degree count for something other than on a nominal basis? For example, is it considered roughly equivalent to an MS or MA earned in a regular master’s degree program, or is it so tainted with the aura of “failure to complete program” that it’s practically worthless? Do high schools and community/junior colleges generally accept the consolation master’s degree as good enough to teach? What kind of an opinion do employers typically have? Does it depend on the field? Does getting a consolation master’s degree mark you as incapable and practically ban you from admission to a PhD program (i.e. trying again) down the road?

  2. Are there equivalents to the consolation master’s degree at any other level? For example, are there any bachelor’s degree programs that grant a consolation associate’s degree or consolation advanced high school diploma for people who flunk out (expelled for poor grades), quit, or are expelled for misconduct after earning X credits or X credits in sufficiently broad disciplines (e.g. at least one composition course, at least two hard science courses…)? Are there master’s degree programs that grant a consolation second bachelor’s degree if you get halfway but don’t finish?

I’m given to understand that consolation is used in a kind of joking manner. The requirements for the master’s degree must still be met. It just so happens that for a number of fields (Math and Linguistics are the only two I can name off the top of my head), one may begin working on the doctorate prior to earning a master’s degree.

I am familiar with the concept, as I was a physics major, and that seems to be one of those displines where you either get a Bachelor’s or a PhD, and if someone has a master’s in physics that means they couldn’t/didn’t finish their PhD for one reason or another.

It would only make a difference if your employer had different salary scales for people with Bachelor’s vs Master’s vs Doctorate’s degrees, I would think. You definitely aren’t going to be eligible for many physics related jobs with a masters in physics.

I’m not an expert though and don’t have a lot of experience dealing with it. But for the most part, one of these consolation masters degrees isn’t going to mean a whole lot other than in a few rare instances. You might as well have just had a bachelors.

My understanding is that’s true in a lot of science fields. Often, the coursework required for a Ph.D. will meet or exceed the requirements for a MS in that field, so if you then decide you don’t want to go through with research and a dissertation after all, you can apply to get a Master’s instead.

Don’t most people entering PhD programs already have Masters degrees?

In many cases people go straight from undergrad to a Ph.D. program.

As I mentioned about physics, it’s almost unheard of (completely unheard of?) to go from undergrad to masters to doctorate in physics. It just isn’t done. You ALWAYS plan on getting a PhD in physics if that’s what you want to do. Some people do wind up with just masters in physics because they had completed the requirements for one on the way to a doctorate, but then didn’t continue for whatever reason so just applied for the masters degree instead. And if what I heard was correct, they are basically meaningless degrees. They might make a difference to some employers. Maybe you can use it as leverage in negotiating a salary. It might mean something to someone somewhere. But in the world of physics research, a masters degree is essentially worthless. This is my understanding and take it with a grain of salt, please.

In my experience in grad school, there is no difference between Master’s that have been awarded as an intentional end goal, and those awarded to failing Ph.D. candidates.

In our group we had people who came in specifically to get a master’s degree as their goal. We had others who were struggling to get their act together and were finally essentially forced out with the ‘consolation’ master’s degree.

There was no discernable difference between the scenerios when applying for jobs. An employer may never know which scenerio was the case.

Incidently, I personally find a Masters degree in the sciences as an end degree to be pretty marketable. It gives you a leg up on the competition for bachelor level positions, while not putting you at a level where employers would pass you by as being overqualified. There are relatively few jobs that a Ph.D is favored, but a ton where a B.S. is required (and the M.S. gives you the edge over others).

This can only happen in programs that have existing Masters programs, as well as PhD programs. The student just gets transferred from the PhD program to the Masters program. As friedo said, often the Masters requirements have already been met by the PhD coursework. If not, the student has to make up the remaining coursework. If the school is feeling particularly generous, they might waive the Masters tuition as they would for the PhD program (in the sciences, at least).

As far as how the degree is viewed, it is a real Masters, so it doesn’t have any less validity. The key is how you represent the time spent in the PhD program. If you only spent a couple of years and list that as Graduate Assistant, most will think you did research while pursuing a Masters, which is good. If you instead list Doctoral Candidate and that period ends in a Masters degree, that’s not so good. The real problem is if you worked for 7+ years before the program gave up on you. No one will believe that you spent 7 years in a Masters program. Of course, as drewtwo99 says, this often happens in fields where a Masters degree is no better than a Bachelors, but that’s a different issue.

I agree with Sigene’s point that if someone does set a goal to get a masters degree in a particular field, it will be exactly the same as if they had tried for a PhD but then quit or got forced out and awarded a masters instead. A prospective employer would never know and both degrees would mean the same.

Some of the weaker candidates in my Ph.D. program had entered with a master’s degree, or had earned their master’s degree at the university, but then struggled to excel (a kind of euphemism) in the doctoral program. After a year or two of flopping around like a trout on a line, they were encouraged to drop out and it was often mentioned, “Hey, you still have your master’s, right?” as a kind of consolation, but it really meant, “You couldn’t cut it in the Ph. D. program, sorry. Sucks to be you.” If they persisted, they would be allowed to schedule their oral exams, which they would invariably flunk. Since it was fairly expensive to stay enrolled in the doctoral program, this wasn’t something that most people could keep doing indefinitely. Most got the message in a year or three. There were a couple of stubborn dumb fucks I wouldn’t be surprised are still paying fees to get a doctorate they’ll never live to see.

<slight hijack but may be of interest>

There are some universities that upgrade undergrad degrees to Masters simply if a student manages to remain alive for three years after graduating (cite). So that’s another case where someone may have a Masters without it being their original goal.

It used to be a common (and respectable) route into the pharma industry from chemistry graduate schools, back when the pharma industry was in rude health.

I did my postdoc at Penn and saw scores of students enrolled on PhDs leave with a masters at the end of their second year. They had a good year of strong classes under their belts, plus another year of what could be excellent lab work, so were pretty skilled and sought after by companies.

They would find it difficult (if not impossible) to get a leadership position within industry, certainly on the scientific track. You can’t really lead a research team in pharma without the credibility of having done PhD research yourself - although there are exceptions. Most PhDs don’t get leadership positions either, though, so leaving chem grad school with a masters is a great decision for many folk.

The consolation label would tickle a lot of these chemistry masters. A US PhD in organic chemistry must be in the top 5 (and maybe top 1) ball-breaking academic programs you could ever put yourself through. They get to swerve all that, a great job and in 5 years time when their contemporary PhDs are graduating who knows what the future will look like?

Where the MSc turns into a bit of a turd is when you commit to the PhD but make an almighty bollox of it, and have to leave in your third or even fourth year. Plenty of mental anguish there and not something that looks great on the cv.

When I studied in New Zealand (a few years back now), you could not enter a PhD program without a Masters degree or possibly a first class Bachelors with Honours. Having just checked the current prospectus of Waikato University, this is still the case.

So there is not any fallout path if your PhD does not work out - however, the requirements for your PhD could include study streams that qualify as a standalone Postgraduate Diploma. So you could earn those on your way to a failed PhD (if just your thesis work fails).


I went straight for a Ph.D. (in Ecology) without getting a Master’s en route. Several of my fellow Ph.D. students who couldn’t hack it decided to drop out of the program with a Master’s, since they had already satisfied most of the requirements.

We referred to this as being “let off with a Master’s.” (These same guys called meetings with their Major Professor “going to see the Warden.”):wink:

There was no particular stigma to such a Master’s degree. Most of the people I knew would end up in a business such as Environmental Assessment. In these companies, a Master’s would qualify you for better pay and maybe a management position. In fact, at that time the upper management of such companies was made up mostly of Ph.D.s who couldn’t find a job in Academia or people with a Master’s.

When I was in grad school, at least for my program, a Masters was normally required before a Ph.D. There was, however, a distinction between a “thesis masters”, which gave eligibility to enter the Ph.D. program, and a “course masters” which did not (and did not require a thesis, only courses, per the name).

It was relatively common for people to switch from a thesis masters to a course masters if their research was not going well, and they didn’t have any designs on going further, but there was no “consolation masters” for a Ph.D. program – if you were in the program you already had one earned outright.


I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. But I will point out that in my case the “consolation” master’s degree in physics actually has helped me in my career, although I didn’t go into physics research.

For graduate school I went to an Ivy League - type school intending to get a Ph.D. For various reasons it didn’t work on and I left with only a Master’s. I transferred to a public university, well respected but not quite at the same level. There I did finish my Ph.D. in physics

Many years later, I’m now a software engineer. When I present my resume, it’s amazing how often the prestigious university where I got my M.S. piques the interviewer’s interest. Of course I don’t tell them that I hated it there and almost flunked out.

I was in a five-year Bachelor of Architecture program where there was a portfolio review at (if memory serves) the middle of the third year or so. There were a few things that could happen:

  1. You pass the review and continue toward the 5-year degree. (most common)
  2. You fail the review, but they let you resubmit for reconsideration later. (somewhat common, most would pass the second review).
  3. You fail the review. (this happened to a few people)

If you failed it, or failed the resubmit, you could still earn a 4-year Bachelor of Environmental Science (again, if memory serves) degree. This was definitely not “as good” as the B. Arch and was a bit of a consolation, as you had put in quite a bit of time, effort and money at that point and they weren’t going to leave you high and dry.

In Canada, it’s expected that you’ll do a master’s degree in mathematics before doing a doctorate.