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.