March 02, 2011

Is there a stigma associated with the chemistry MS degree?

As an undergraduate I had little understanding of the differences between a MS and PhD. I understood that both were advanced degrees, and the MS seemed more attainable while the PhD was something that only a super genius could earn. (My belief in PhD = super genius was totally eradicated in grad school by the way.) As a first year graduate student I still didn't know what the difference was other than the PhD took longer and would supposedly raise your earning potential, but another view of the difference between the MS and PhD degrees quickly emerged.

The MS is not formally offered by the Chemistry Department at Big U, instead only graduate students pursuing a PhD are admitted. In fact most large research universities have this policy. So where do the MS-holders come from at these schools? The MS is awarded to wash-outs, quitters, people who couldn't quite hack it. At least, that's what I believed as a first year graduate student, and honestly I continued believing it up until I decided to leave. I know I'm not alone as a graduate student in this belief. I think it's something we say to comfort ourselves; as we struggle through difficult classes and adjusting to the responsibilities and pressures of independent research it's comforting to look around and say, "I'm still here so I must be better/smarter/more dedicated than the people who aren't." It's a sentiment that spreads easily in academia, where many elitist attitudes prevail.
by flickr user ohdarling

This attitude, which I held myself, created a feeling of shame and inferiority in me as I struggled with the decision to quit. Statements like "there's no shame in taking a Masters" when spoken by professors leads the listener to believe that at least some must see it as shameful. I finally resolved my feelings, and made the important distinction that I was choosing to leave. There's some truth to the idea that "the MS is awarded to wash-outs", if a student fails any of the PhD requirements after completing their coursework and is asked to leave they will leave with a MS. But people end up leaving for a lot of reasons, and of the people I know that have left, only a couple were due to "wash-out". I chose to leave, with my head held high, knowing that I had the skills to finish. My question is, do employers and potential coworkers understand this distinction?

I only have a (small) view from academia, so if anyone from industry happens to read this I would love to hear your opinion. I'd really love to hear opinions from anyone actually. Maybe this distinction between choosing a MS and being given a MS as a consolation prize is most relevant for research positions and won't impact me in my search for an alternate career?

Anyway, this is why I'm always very careful to say "leaving with my masters" instead of "quitting". It's probably all in my head, but it makes me feel better.

**UPDATE (3/3/11, 10:30 pm)
I reached out to Chemjobber to provide an industry perspective, here's what he had to say:

Ms MS-mind: Is the opinion that the MS is a "wash-out" degree held by chemists in industry?

Chemjobber: I'd say, well, no and yes. No, I've never heard anyone make the statement that M.S. degree holders are washouts or that they are less capable scientists. Most Ph.D. chemists that I've seen treat the M.S.-level chemists with a good deal of respect and willingness to listen and follow their advice.

At the same time, it is well known that (in the pharma world) Ph.D. chemists have an easier time rising through the ranks than M.S. chemists. Is this because M.S. chemists are viewed as somehow less intelligent or worse scientists? No, I'd say that this is mostly about Ph.D. chemists thinking that leadership of other scientists is somehow best done by Ph.D. holders. While that doesn't really hold true, I think it's safe to say that it's conventional wisdom.

Ms MS-mind: Could this MS stigma be one reason why there are so few positions advertised for MS-degree holders? (My personal observation is that the vast majority of positions that mention the MS say PhD-preferred.)

Chemjobber: Tough to say, really, but I don't think it can be attributed to that theory.

Here's a couple of quick theories of my own: 1) there is a glut of Ph.D. chemists right now. Why not get a Ph.D. chemist for slightly higher than a M.S. chemist's salary? 2) the nature of the chemical/pharmaceutical business has sent tasks typically done by M.S. chemists overseas or 3) we're at a point in the R&D cycle in the US where more innovation is required, so more Ph.D.s are being hired, rather than M.S. chemists. All of those, of course, are fairly half-baked theories.

Ms MS-mind here again, thanks for the correspondence CJ! If you'd like to read more about this topic, I found a relevant post while digging through the Chemjobber archive. It references a comment thread with some passionate debate about the "wash-out" stigma.


  1. I'm an MS chemist who spent 12 years in pharma. Different companies look at MS chemists in different ways. The best companies look at them as important members of the team - maybe not the same as a PhD chemist but certainly valuable. Then there are the companies who see MS chemists as primarily a "pair of hands". You serve a purpose but they don't really want your input into higher level decisions. (I've had supervisors who felt this way, even at good companies. Somehow they can't figure out why all their MS chemists keep leaving.) But the only place I've run into real "prejudice" against MS chemists was in a couple of interviews at small biotech companies that were spun off from academia. I interviewed at one company where there were 6 or 7 chemists, all PhD's, and they decided to hire an MS chemist as an assistant. Although they said they wanted to hire a chemist with 5-7 years of experience, it seemed like they mostly wanted someone to wash glassware and run columns. And the salary they were offering was laughable. I told them they would never get a decent MS chemist with that approach and I got the "MS chemists are just failed PhD chemists" attitude. I just laughed - and 2 weeks later I was offered a professional position from a company that valued my experience. So I think that attitude is rare.

  2. @Kay - Thanks for your feedback! It's great to hear from someone with experience and to know that most decent people look at MS-holders with respect. (And really, didn't our mothers teach us to respect everyone?) I'm not surprised that the academics were the ones with the attitudes, although I wish there was some way we could instill some humility in them.

  3. I left a "big school, big man advisor" 4 months *after* passing my oral exam, head held high. I've worked at several large biotechs and pharmas, and usually would get "the question" during interviews. I would quite simply state the above, there would be some shock/horror, and that would be it.

    As for treatment by employers, it has ranged widely, from a glorified tech, to a truly important member of the research teams... but those were more of an institutional/departmental philosophy and maybe little to do with me per se.

    I think in the current (and future) job market, all bets are are off, and an MS could be quite a advantage for X (10?) years. After that, hard to say. There may not be much an industry at that point, and an MS will make it far easier to move into other fields, even if you might need different grad school to do it.

  4. @Eka - Thanks for your feedback!

    " MS will make it far easier to move into other fields..."

    That's what I'm hoping! I might end up being underemployed as a technical writer (depending on the industry), but I've been told that if I wanted to do something like library science that having a chemistry masters would set me apart as a very attractive candidate.

    **Also wanted to note that ChemJobber mentioned this post on his blog and a very lively discussion broke out there. Here's the link:

  5. As a BSc Chemistry students, I'm looking into graduate school and was wondering if anyone could pitch in about the difference in jobs that a masters and PhD (chemistry) would offer.

  6. FWIW, not all publishers want you to be a PhD to be an editor. I have an MS and I'm an editor at ACS Pubs.

    (Sorry for the drive-by comment; I happened on a link to your most recent post.)

  7. Thanks for the info, I'm happy to be corrected!