Tuesday, November 24, 2009

4-year Masters

Harvard, like many other places, has an option by which students (with "Advanced Standing" from AP classes) can obtain a Master's (in some programs) as well as their undergraduate degree in 4 years. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and CS in particular, offers this option.

Every year some students I advise are interested in and want advice about the program. My first question back is always why do they want to do it -- what do they think they'll get out of it? Often, they don't have a good reason; it seems they just see it as an opportunity to get an additional degree, which I don't think is a particularly good reason in and of itself. (Harvard students are, after all, high-achievers and trained to respond to such incentives.) Some possible reasons that come up include:

1) They're going into industry, and they believe that the Master's will give them a higher starting salary (which may, over a lifetime, translate into a substantial benefit).
2) They're going into graduate school, and believe the degree will allow them to move faster through their graduate program, or at least allow them to take fewer classes.
3) They're coming from another area, like economics or chemistry, but have found late in the game that they like computer science, and would like to have a credential in that area in case that is where they move in terms of their career.
4) Their parents have figured out that they can technically graduate in three years and are unwilling to pay for four, but can be convinced to pay for it if there is a Masters degree involved.

Are there other reasons? And how good are these reasons? Is there still a "Master's premium" in starting salaries, even for a "4th year" class-based Master's program? Does starting with a Master's of this kind really get you through graduate school faster anywhere? (Personally, I already think graduate students don't take enough classes, so I'm biased against reason 2.) The third reason -- a student coming in from another field -- is reasonable, but Harvard does now have minors (called "secondary concentrations" here) instead. Pressuring parents is not a reason I can throw support behind, but I can certainly understand it. Maybe it's the best reason on my current list.

Of course, it's important to consider what, if any, are the downsides. Here's my starting list:
1) A loss of flexibility in choosing classes. Doing the two degrees in four years saddles a student with so many requirements they lose the chance to take that art or history class, learn a language, or do some other exploratory things in college. Isn't that part of what college is supposed to be about?
2) It often ends up taking the place of other college experiences, like doing a senior thesis or other research. For students who want to go to graduate school, I'd personally recommend doing a senior thesis over a 4th year master's degree, so that they can begin to get some insight into how research works -- and if they'll really like it.
3) It can be hard. Most graduate courses have large-scale final projects; trying to 6-8 such courses in two or three semesters can be a real challenge, and is certainly a time-commitment.

As always, my biggest goal in advising students on such matters is to make sure they're well-informed and have thought through the various implications of their choices. I'd appreciate any thoughts anyone has on the matter, either from their own personal experience or their experience with students who have done such programs.


Mark Reitblatt said...

It seems (from my limited experience) that a 4/5 years Bachelors + Masters plan is best treated as a terminal degree. Yes, many companies still have a different starting salary for master's degrees, even for recent college graduates. Now is staying an extra year and getting the degree financially advantageous versus an extra year of (slightly lower) income? Depends. Of course, the job you get after 4 years with a master's is likely different than the one that you would get after 3 years with a BS, so it's really hard to quantify the break even point without more data. Even so, it seems almost certain that the best outcome would be to simply graduate and then have your employer pay for a master's a couple of years down the road.

As for graduate school, you'd be more qualified to comment, but I imagine that having a master's might put you at a disadvantage for admissions at some schools. That is, you might be seen as a master's student w/ a light load of graduate courses instead of as a bachelors student w/ a strong load of grad courses. It also sucks up a year of eligibility for things like the NSF GRFP.

Anonymous said...

I think an advantage is that Master's programs can be a good way for a student to determine whether they like research and would like to pursue a Ph.D. With a program like this, they can do this without extra cost in time (because it's 4 years total) or inconvenience in moving (because it is at the same university). Beyond convenience, they may simply prefer to conduct this "test of research aptitude" while their undergraduate friends are still around and they are in a familiar environment. Some of the traumas of grad school are due to grad school itself and others are simply due to being in a new city where you don't know anyone; getting a Master's as the last year of undergraduate factors out most of the stresses not directly related to grad school so allows a clearer judgement of whether one likes grad school itself.

They may not be far ahead once they start a Ph.D. (although but they will at least have had a little research experience), but more importantly, they will not be behind relative to other recent Bachelor's graduates if they choose not to go for a Ph.D.

Another advantage to doing a Master's at the same school is having publication(s) when applying to other grad schools. This would of course also apply to a > 4 year program at the same school, but does not apply to the common tactic of getting B.S. at one school and both M.S. and Ph.D. at another.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #2: Our Master's program is "class-based", and often doesn't involve a research component. As I said in my post, if a student is interested in experiencing research in preparation for graduate school, I would opine the better way to go is to do a senior thesis. Obviously, other 4-year master's programs may be different.

Avik Chaudhuri said...

At IIT (India) some of us opted for a similar dual-degree program, although it was a 5-year affair (instead of the usual 4-year Bachelor's). The Bachelor's thesis requirements were merged into the Master's thesis requirements, and we were encouraged to take Master's-level electives much earlier than others (3rd year and sometimes even earlier). Overall I thought it worked out great. Many of my PhD course requirements here were waived thanks to these electives, which meant a speedier start into PhD research. And before that, there was a smoother transition from undergraduate work into the Master's thesis work than in other places. (I already knew who I'd be working with, had done several courses in preparation, etc.)

B. said...

As a reason not to take this option, you mention that "it can be hard." I kind of think that this reason may also be a reason to take the option: to get a job (for example), people may try to use this fact ("I did something hard") to convince they are "good" (whatever this means).

Frisky070802 said...

When I got my Ph.D., students coming in with a masters were given one less semester to pass their "preliminary exams" (software, hardware, theory, and an oral advanced exam). Coming in with an almost artificial masters might put such a person at slight risk if they then went on for a PhD and the program had this distinction.

such.ire said...

I did the 4-year MA at Harvard, and I'd do it again. The main reason I did so was because it allowed me to lop off some of my distribution requirements (going from 7 to 5 core classes) and fill them with more classes I "wanted," as I was changing fields. Even though the MA was still in my original field, getting it did allow me to take more graduate level interdisciplinary classes that spanned the fields I was moving between, which definitely helped in picking schools and labs.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your conclusion. First, you do not properly address all the reasons you mention for getting a fourth-year Master's.

1) The "Master's premium" is a legitimate reason, something you do not bother denying, but you do not even have to consider salary. A quick look at Harvard's eRecruiting portal shows several jobs that are open only to Master's or PhD students. These jobs can be more interesting than the ones open to everyone, and it is silly for students who would be taking graduate classes anyway to be held back from applying to these jobs solely because they lack the actual degree.

2) Taking fewer classes is only part of the story, and in fact I would argue a small or nonexistent part for everyone I have spoken to about the program. Again, many of the people who consider the fourth-year Master's would be taking graduate classes whether or not they were getting degree credit. The point is that the graduate courses are more challenging and, yes, often more interesting, than the undergraduate ones. When these fourth-year Master's students enter PhD programs, they might not reduce the number of courses they take, but they can appreciate the material they (re)learn much better. In other words, they may not save time spent in class, but they can save time spent trying to truly understand a concept at a deeper level. Focusing on the number of classes is missing the point.

3) For students a bit less sure of their commitment, a secondary might be a good idea. However, if the student is going to be taking graduate classes anyway, I see no reason not to get the Master's. Furthermore, a Master's has several benefits over a secondary, such as greater interaction with actual grad students (something that is often overlooked), plus #1.

4) I have never actually heard anyone give this reason before, so I wonder if it is a bit of a straw man, but to say that it is "maybe the best reason on [your] list" does the other reasons a disservice.

Second, your downsides are not quite that bad and can actually be upsides.

1) College is not "supposed to be about" exploring a bunch of random topics. It is supposed to be about achieving a balance between curiosity and discipline: you must have the curiosity to explore enough areas to find what interests you, but you must also have the discipline to focus on a few areas. (As an analogy, you can think about choosing an appropriate cooling schedule in simulated annealing.) Some people will have slower cooling schedules: their college experiences will include those art or history classes, and that is just fine. Others will have faster cooling schedules: they will start taking graduate classes in their second or third year and probably not have time to get that language citation, and that is just fine too. At one point perhaps there was too much pressure to specialize early, but I find this sometimes goes to the other extreme now.

2) I actually agree here: a senior thesis is probably more valuable than a fourth-year Master's on average if you are looking for research experience. I say only "on average" though because it is possible to structure your Master's program to allow for extremely rich research experiences. For example, as you yourself go on to mention, "[m]ost graduate courses have large-scale final projects" - do these not count as research? Furthermore, material learned in graduate courses can vastly enrich a senior thesis, and closely studying papers and implementing them through a seminar-type course teach valuable lessons for thesis writing.

3) If it were so easy, where would be the fun in it?

The only really bad reason I can think of for getting a fourth-year Master's is purely to add another degree to your resume. But if you know what you want to get out of the program and are ready for the commitment, nothing and nobody should stop you from trying.

Geoff Knauth said...

By offering it is you give students more choices. You attract better students. For well-organized students, it's a great deal. For others, it could be a trap. It should be limited to people who know exactly what they want.