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

My personal anecdote is that I went straight from a math BA into a statistics PhD program, but decided to get a masters on the way almost as an afterthought. I was about to get my first paper published and wanted my credentials to look better than just a BA. Since I already had all the course work and passed all my qualifying exams it just basically came down to writing a 12 page paper on some partial results on my thesis and defending it to my advisor and one other staff member. So maybe a week or so of extra work. I then went on to get my PhD several years later.

Most of the people who got consolation masters in my department did so because they couldn’t pass the qualifying exams at the PhD level.

Or you on the program. In my case, the reason to drop out of a PhD and take a “Master’s without Thesis” was that my research advisor had decided to start publishing my work without my name, with the assistance of the Graduate Program’s director and planning on doing so for over 10 years (“you’re the best researcher I’ve ever worked with and you’re a fucking foreigner, you can’t do anything without my permission. There’s no way I’m going to let you go in less than 14 years”)…

FTR and although I didn’t bother with a formal complaint because it would have complicated my life enormously for no visible benefit, I did get a couple of other professors to start looking at some things very closely. My former advisor now teaches at a CC and his most important paper is still the one which carries my name, the other one “retired due to a medical problem”.

The field was Chemistry, another one where most graduate students go directly for a PhD.

In CS, when I went to school, and Psychology now (my daughter is in a PhD program) you typically enter PhD programs with a bachelor’s degree. In my experience it is quite common to pick up a Masters on the way, and most of the engineering PhD resumes I see have a Masters also. The quals are a subset of PhD quals, as is the coursework, and if you have to do a thesis it is trivial compared to a dissertation. My daughter picked up one because her adviser bugged her to write the damn thesis already (it only took a month.) I moved from one school to another when my adviser died, and I got one pretty easily from the first - but I had already passed all my quals and orals, and could have stayed if I had wanted to.
In my school you had to achieve a certain level on the quals in the CS department to get a Masters. I know of one person who flunked them all 3 days, and got shuffled off to the EE department who didn’t require any quals. That may count as a consolation Masters, but the thought of this guy doing PhD research is somewhere between scary and hilarious.

I guess I have a consolation Master’s degree, though I never heard it called that :(. I went back to grad school in my early 30s with a family and a mortgage. It was the telecom bust (I was laid off) and I thought I would retool by getting a masters. I had a bunch of money saved up and my wife had a great job, so going back to school for two years was not a big deal. In the first year of the program, my adviser convinced me to go for a PhD and offered me a position as a research assistant. At the end of my second year, he hooked me up with a local start up that funded my research as I was a new parent and needed more money. I had finished all my course work (I received my MS by this time) so I went to work full time at the start up. They gave me my own lab with at least a million dollars worth of lab equipment, permission to publish most of my research, and a wide latitude to investigate what I liked. My thesis adviser was investigating related topics (well sorta, at least doing research using the same materials) and was happy to have his name on my papers. By having a relationship with me he was also given access to our proprietary materials and research results and even had a say in our corporate direction (i.e. he directed some of our research goals). I was on my way to a doctorate with a ~5-6 year lead time. I was very lucky.

During year 3 (after publishing 3 papers, doing 3 conference talks, one invited, and 2 posters) the start up went under and I was left with only a couple of options:
[li]My adviser offered me a position in his group and found a fellowship and some RA money for me that paid about half of what I was making at the start up. We talked about it and decided we could cobble together a dissertation using new research at the university and about 1/3 of the research I had done at the start up. The other stuff was just too specific and would not really fit into a coherent story (no one was willing to continue to fund the research I had been doing).[/li][li]I could finish my dissertation by doing a bunch of modelling in my free time and publishing it. This would fill the space around my existing work and I could most likely make a coherent thesis out of it. My adviser supported this path, but doing modelling at night while I had a full time job during the day proved a real pain in the ass. I tried this for about a year, but it was just too hard with the new job and young kids at home.[/li][li]I could just live with the Masters degree. This is where I am now.[/li][/ul]

It’s not that bad though. I still have the opportunity to publish though I have only done so once in the past 3 years (that may change, I have two papers I am being encouraged to publish this year). I still am doing PhD quality work for the most part. I have a couple of people who I direct including a PhD and a couple of interns working on their PhDs. I have nothing to complain about, and I make a hell of a lot more than a grad student. Though I am disappointed I did not get the doctorate and I can see the consequences in my career. I am slowly but surely moving more into management and away from the science side of things. :frowning: Ces’t la vie.

(From my experience as a Computer Science prof.)

There is no difference whatsoever. A Masters is a Masters is a Masters. (Although at one place we generally didn’t have Masters students, only PhDs. So someone could infer that it probably was a consolation Masters, if they knew that much about the program. But not with any certainty.) A prof. writing a letter of rec. might mention it. That would be a jerk move. Unfortunately jerks do exist. It says more about the writer than the student.

I could have gotten a Masters during my PhD program. Would have cost $50 (real money back then) and I already had one. So I passed. But it would have been just as real as anybody else’s. (In fact my Masters was sort of a waste. All it ever did was add a line to my vita. It was irrelevant to getting into the PhD program.)

People in CS generally go straight from Bachelor’s to PhD programs. No need for a Masters. Back in the old days, even a BS in CS wasn’t especially desired. (One big time department chair actually preferred them to not have a CS degree. Said it made them easier to toilet train. Nice.)

CS is a field that attracts a lot of people with grad degrees in other areas who want to get a PhD in a field with better job prospects. So I’ve seen people with Masters and PhDs in other areas like Math that quickly pick up a PhD in CS. One person even did it in two years!

The general rule I saw was that if you didn’t pass the quals at the PhD level but did at the Masters level (which we profs decided, of course), and you had enough course work (hours and core courses), then you could get a Masters. Not all places did this, especially those that required a Masters thesis.

The Masters in CS that no one respects are the ones that some schools hand out by the thousands for their local business’s employees. Night classes, secondary staff, very lax standards, high fees. Basically diploma mills.

When interviewing people, you ask about how they got their Masters and it’s pretty easy to tell in most cases if they were in a “$ for MS” program.

There clearly to be some better respected schools who use masters programs as cash cows. I get scads of resumes from one well respected private university, and the masters students, all of whom pay, have identical course work, no thesis, and pretty much identical resumes. I tend to not pick any of them since they are all so identical. (And the few who I have interviewed on the phone don’t come across that well.) This place has a good PhD program, to be sure.

In Electrical Engineering, at my school at least, you get a Masters, then go on to get a Ph.D, but it doesn’t sound any different, really, than the “consolation” Masters being discussed here.

To enter the Ph.D. program, you had to pass the qualifying exam. I think you had two or maybe three tries, if needed. If you didn’t pass, you still got a Masters (I think you had to pass at a lower level). Many people entered the Masters program with no intention of continuing for a Ph.D., and some were intending to continue on, but didn’t pass. Others, I think, entered the Masters program, and weren’t sure whether they’d continue for a Ph.D. Everyone I knew, whether Masters on Ph.D. track, was doing some research. A Masters thesis was optional, but I think it was only encouraged if you weren’t continuing for a Ph.D.

Really, the only difference is that people with a Ph.D. also have a line for a Masters on their resume.

Not true. My program doesn’t have a standalone master’s degree, but the standards for PhD students to pick one up are explicitly listed on our homepage. It’s mostly for students in other disciplines who are looking to pick up a secondary master’s, but a lot of our students do it as well, given that it’s really not a lot of extra work to get one.

I recall one of my undergrad professors referring to a Masters in his field (economics) as a “social disease,” although he didn’t bother to elaborate.

I would characterize that statement as asinine, belched forth by an arrogant Ph.D. Professor.
it’s been my experience that some professors can be annoyingly arrogant, and if you don’t have a Ph.D. like them, you aren’t shit. Yes, a master’s is limiting in academia; but not in industry.

Interesting answers.

Are there any similar situations with other degrees? Are there four year undergraduate programs where it is a simple matter to get an Associate’s degree after two years? Yes, I know you can get an AS or AA at a community college then transfer, but that’s similar to getting a Masters at UCLA and then getting a PhD at Virginia Tech.


Student: “I was looking at my degree progression and it looks like I have all my lower division requirements done.”
Advisor: “Yep. In fact, I think you might qualify for an Associate’s degree right now! Let me check, uhh, all you have to do is take the Associate’s Degree Capstone Literacy Test - that takes 2 hours and you’ll almost certainly pass - and then you can put one degree on your wall and go into your next semester as a proud degree holder, unlike the guys sitting next to you who only have a high school diploma. Here’s the exam registration form. If you pass, then fill out this degree request form and they’ll send you the degree in 6-8 business days.”

It’s pretty unusual for a single institution to offer both associate and bachelor degrees, largely due to the fact that the two-year college system is a very recent innovation. There might be something out there, but it’s not at all common.

I don’t think there is or could be. Associates degrees are school specific and can be subject specific. Some of them are trade degrees rather than academic degrees. There is no way to test for an associates degree level of general knowledge because the concept doesn’t really exist in the U.S. You can get credit for individual classes to transfer to a 4 year program but even that doesn’t give someone a blanket pass to skip all the courses in the first 2 years of a 4 year program. The coursework is considered individually.

Even among students enrolled in 4-year bachelor’s programs, it is very common to take different subjects at different levels and there is no significant difference between the first two years and the second two years except based on the coursework you already completed. For example, I still took some 100 (generally Freshman) level courses in my senior year of college to fulfill some requirements that I hadn’t done yet while taking graduate level classes in my major to finish it.

I was in a BA to Ph.D (actually I had a a B.Mus.), and threw in the towel writing my dissertation proposal. The master’s degree was always called “en-route.” So I’ve got one–just added three years more time and research, I guess.

However, a degree not mentioned yet is offered, certainly in at least some of the Humanities and universities.

If you have prepared a thesis proposal that has been accepted, you can (de jure?) receive a D.Sci. (Dr. of Science).

Wiki has a bunch on d.sci. I now see…

They actually can. Although it is probably unusual, there are institutions that offer both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in the same subject- for example, the New York City College of Technology offers both AAS and BTech programs in hospitality management. The course requirements for the BTech list the AAS as 60 credits of the degree requirements, so it appears that if you initially enroll in the bachelor’s program you’ll be granted an AAS along the way as long as you don’t wait to take a required core course for the AAS until the last semester.

I didn’t say that there was an exam that covered the entire set of requirements for an associate’s degree. What I meant to say was that it might be possible for a bachelor’s degree candidate to fulfill 95% of the requirements for an associate’s degree along the way. The “Capstone Literacy Test” was just that 5% extra. One of the posters above mentioned being in a PhD program (not a master’s program) and spending a single week or so working on a thesis to complete all of the requirements for a master’s degree. At the associate’s level, you don’t normally do a thesis, so I substituted an exam.

Worldwide, masters degrees seem to vary quite a bit. As noted earlier, certain universities automatically upgrade undergraduate degrees to masters after a time period. Also, worldwide and across industries the value of masters versus PhD varies. In some fields a masters is considered preferable - as it indicates capability, but not “useless” academic tendencies. (I kid you not.) Complicating things is the difference between a research masters degree, which is by thesis, and a coursework masters degree, which is often a money spinner for a university.

My old university eventually introduced a highly structured PhD programme, one clearly derived from hard won experience. This is in Australia, it should be noted that our PhD programme is based upon the UK model, and not the US.

It is no longer possible to enrol in a PhD directly. A student must enrol in a masters by research degree, and after at least a year, an assessment of progress is made, and subject to satisfactory progress they may apply to transfer to the PhD programme. Those that don’t transfer remain on the (two year) masters by research programme. Both programmes submit a thesis, and it is on the basis of the thesis that either degree is awarded. A masters thesis is a much lower bar, and is typically assessed my internal examiners, whilst a PhD thesis must reach a much higher standard and is externally examined.

The final examining of a PhD thesis may also deliver a masters degree. The examiners may consider that the thesis is not redeemable, but is worthy of a masters degree. Needless to say, this is not a happy outcome, but is possible. (I can’t think of this ever having happened in my field.) This would fit the idea of a consolation masters degree. However a supervisor (thesis advisor) that allowed a student to reach this point would probably be asked some seriously hard questions. There is a a lot of process and review that occurs on the way that is intended to avoid such things. (A student cannot submit without their supervisor’s assent.)

In California it is very common for people to go to a Community College for two years and then transfer credits to a UC or CU school. Lots of people do it because community colleges are significantly cheaper than four year colleges. In fact I was talking to a professor at a community college New Years Eve, and she said that they had different English classes for those intending to go on and those expecting a terminal AA degree.

  1. In the University of Florida Honors Program, an AA degree (with honors) was possible, if during those first two years or so you completed 4 honor classes (not sure if one of them was research-oriented or a special seminar or something). I was in the Honors program, but didn’t get the en-route AA simply because the “special seminars” didn’t interest me and I had no intention of writing some research paper (HAH!). Besides, I finished the whole bachelor’s degree in 3 years. But I do have a friend who got one, en-route to his degree.

  2. Some of the coursework master’s programs are intended for people who are interested in perhaps professional school (like veterinary school or medicine), but need to improve their GPA or show more experience or are biding their time while they re-apply. Before I was accepted to vet school, in the few weeks were it seemed that I would be denied admission to all my choices, I got to talk to one of the professors in my department about a coursework master’s program they had, so I could do that in case I wasn’t accepted to vet school. It would’ve given me more science coursework, and more exposure to animals (my degree is in animal sciences).

This is opposite of my experience. My grad school (physics) also had separate options for a “thesis masters” or “coursework masters”, but the thesis masters was recommended for those pursuing a terminal master’s degree, while the coursework master’s was recommended for those pursuing a master’s en route to the PhD. The thinking was that if you’re going to write a PhD thesis eventually, the master’s thesis was kind of redundant, and meanwhile the coursework requirement for the coursework master’s was essentially the same as the coursework requirement for the PhD, so you’d be getting it anyway.

We had a mix of different routes students were pursuing: A significant number (probably close to half) of the students had an MS as their goal right from the outset, in order to work in industry. Others started off pursuing the PhD, but left early (usually with an MS) when they got job offers doing what they wanted to do, at pay that they found acceptable (most of these students probably could have completed the PhD, if they had so chosen). Yet others started off pursuing the PhD but found themselves lacking at some point (most often while taking the comprehensive exam) and settled for the MS. And of course, some completed the PhD.