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Which Degree? Which Program?

Eamonn Callan

Deciding to attend graduate school is a momentous decision in anyone's life. You want to choose the right degree and the right program. Someone admitted to a Ph.D. who comes to realize that she is better suited to a Master’s program may have wasted much time and money before she comes to the realization. By the same token, one can choose the right degree but the wrong program at that level, and here again, a bad decision can be very costly.

Is a doctoral or Master’s degree the best choice for you? Master’s degrees at Stanford GSE are not inferior versions of doctorates. They are primarily intended for people who wish to return to the labor market after a short, intensive period of study, and thus they have a more explicitly vocational orientation than Ph.Ds. Our doctoral programs are intended to train individuals to make an original contribution to research in a specific field, and that training takes many years if it is to be done well. (Doctoral students at Stanford GSE typically take a little over 5 years to complete their programs.)

Within Stanford GSE, we offer many different programs at the doctoral and Master’s levels. In an effort to help you find the best fit, we offer a few tips.

Prospective masters students should read the websites devoted to our different programs very carefully. Pay close attention to program requirements, student profiles, and the expertise of faculty associated with the program. That will help you find the best fit between your academic interests and career goals on the one hand and the program to which you apply on the other. If you are admitted to a particular program and later decide that a different Master’s program would better suit you, we will not be able to accommodate a change of program for you.

For doctoral applicants, previous graduate level work (i.e., a Master’s degree) is not required though it can be advantageous. What is necessary is a well-focused research interest. You should know what kind of research you hope to pursue in depth while at Stanford GSE. Each applicant will want to find one or two faculty (or more) with whom they want to work to pursue their research questions. Finding a faculty member whose current research complements the research questions the applicant brings to the program is critical at the doctoral level.

To start the search for a potential doctoral advisor at Stanford GSE, read the faculty profiles. Some faculty have shifted their research interests over the years, so it is important to look at what they are working on now. If you find faculty with whom you think you share research interests, go online or to a library and look up their most current publications. This research can be labor intensive, but is worthwhile! This will help you understand their interests and help you decide if yours match.

Sometimes applicants want to contact faculty directly to find out more about them and their possible interest in working with new students. Before doing so, know that not all of them welcome contact with prospective students before reviewing applications. Some of them prefer to wait until they’ve reviewed all applicants before communicating with any of them in order to avoid any personal bias. Still, some faculty are willing to talk to prospective students before any application is submitted. In order to make the most of your conversation, do research on the faculty’s current work before contacting them. This will help give you reference points for the discussion.

Some prospective students who are sure they wish to pursue doctoral study are not at the point where they can identify a specific area of research that they’d like to pursue intensively. In that case, we recommend considering a Master’s program. A Master’s program can help to clarify and deepen your research interests, and thus it can be a useful preparation for doctoral study, even when the program is not intended as such.

Written by Professor Eamonn Callan. August 2011

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