Am I Better Off Considering a Ph.D. in Astronomy at the Same School I Got My Masters?

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For astronomers, a master’s degree typically isn’t the end of your formal education. Whether you’re already working toward your master’s degree or not there quite yet, it’s smart to look ahead to your doctoral studies. Students often wonder whether they can or should earn a Ph.D. from the same institution where they received their master’s in astronomy degree. There are both advantages and disadvantages to doing this, including prospective employers’ perception of this path.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Graduate and Doctoral Study at the Same Institution

Staying at one school for both your master’s and your Ph.D. in astronomy has its good points and its bad points. The major benefit of staying in one place is consistency. If you’re happy with the research opportunities you have and the professional and personal relationships you’ve developed while pursuing your master’s degree, earning your Ph.D. at the same school allows you to continue these experiences into your doctoral program.

The downsides of seeking a Ph.D. at the same institution where you earned your master’s degree are primarily the loss of new opportunities. You won’t have a chance to live, work and study in a new place. Your research opportunities are largely limited to the same types of research in which you have already been involved. For students who aren’t keen to continue in these research paths or who just want to explore other research opportunities, this can be a big drawback, although students who are content in the research opportunities available to them may feel differently.

For many prospective graduate students, a bigger concern than what their experiences will actually be like is what prospective employers in the field will think. Conventional wisdom has held that earning a Ph.D. at a different school than the institution where you earned your master’s is ideal. Often, the reasoning behind this belief is that students benefit from working with more diverse groups of people with distinct research interests and having access to different sets of resources available at different schools.

That said, not every employer will take issue with astronomers whose graduate and doctoral degrees are from the same place, especially if your school is highly regarded in your field. Some employers care far less whether students earned their master’s and Ph.D. at different schools and more about the research they undertook and the publications they achieved during their graduate and doctoral programs.

Although students may think that earning a master’s degree first helps to keep their job options open, most astronomers need a Ph.D. According to O*NET, 64 percent of the occupation reported having post-doctoral training, and another 27 percent have a Ph.D.

Suggestions for Students Considering Earning Both Degrees at One School

If you have a compelling reason for staying at the same school for your Ph.D. as you did for your master’s degree, it may be okay to disregard the conventional wisdom that gives preference to earning master’s and Ph.D. degrees at different places. However, wise students make an effort to show a diversity of thought and experiences in their curriculum vitae (C.V.) in other ways.

For example, you should gain experience working in different research labs under different professors. Presenting research findings at scientific conferences and publishing them in peer-reviewed scholarly journals is a good practice to get into during your graduate and doctoral studies, period. However, taking these actions is especially important for students who worry that their academic pursuits alone don’t show enough diversity of experiences.

Consider doing a summer research job or another type of graduate-level internship or co-op to gain valuable research experience outside of your academic institution. Basically, take advantage of as many opportunities as you can to broaden your learning experiences and achievements beyond the one university where you earned your master’s degree and your Ph.D.

Where you studied is important, but so are factors like what you gained out of your studies and what you have to show for your education in terms of research experience, conference presentations and articles published in academic journals.

Earning Your Master’s Degree While Working Toward Your Ph.D.

One instance in which it may be better to earn a master’s and Ph.D. at the same school is when these programs are combined. Some graduate schools only offer a master’s in astronomy as a stepping stone toward the Ph.D., not as a standalone program.

If you know early on in your studies that you want to earn a doctorate and are willing to commit to the Ph.D. program now, you might consider jumping right from your bachelor’s degree to a Ph.D. program that awards a master’s degree along the way. This option saves you the effort and hassle of applying for graduate school twice, first seeking a master’s degree and then a Ph.D.

Students who stay at one school also have an opportunity to build relationships with faculty and work on longer-term research rather than having a rigid delineation between master’s-level research at one school and doctoral research at another school.

Additional Resources

Should I Have Already Decided What My Thesis or Master’s Project Will Be When I Begin My Master’s in Astronomy Program?

What Courses or Topics Are Usually Covered in a Master’s in Astronomy?

Other Than Research, What Are Some Jobs That I Can Get With a Master’s in Astronomy?