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Some students are so excited about starting their careers or worried about losing academic momentum that they want to earn a PhD as quickly as possible. So, they look for PhD programs that accept students without master’s degree.

Even though some public health PhD programs do this (See my April 18 post for an example.), it is not the best option for everyone, and here is why.

PhD level training requires an understanding of theory and methods at the highest level, both in general and specific to each discipline. To prepare students, typically, PhD programs require a couple of years of coursework. Also typically, PhD programs are designed for students with a demonstrated affinity for research and some level of statistical and analytical training. The large majority of undergraduate students do not have enough opportunities to conduct research or gain graduate level analytical training that can help them succeed in a PhD program.

That typed, some public health PhD programs do accept students straight from undergraduate degree programs who have remarkable potential or experience or have in other ways inspired the admissions committee.

Here are some reasons to enter a PhD program immediately after completing an undergraduate degree (or for starting your career as soon as possible):

  • More time to complete additional degrees or training, if you want to (e.g., dual MD/PhD)
  • More time to start your career before starting a family
  • A sooner start on making a difference in the world
  • A sooner start on making a living for you and your family
Here are some reasons to complete a master’s degree or work a few years before entering a PhD program:
  • If you have any uncertainty about the value of  a PhD, the time between and undergraduate degree and a PhD program may help you make sure that you are choosing the right level of training for you.
  • Master’s level training or work experience may help you learn the higher level doctoral concepts faster or more easily.
  • If you are choosing among different schools, a master’s degree or work experience may also help you make the best choice.

In sum, the choice to pursue a PhD straight from undergrad should reflect consideration of a variety of factors.

If you are the exceptional undergraduate student with the level of maturity, research experience and/or intellect that inspires a PhD program to admit you without a master’s degree, here are some factors to consider:

  • What does the program have in place to specifically support students without graduate level training? E.g., Do they give you time to take extra classes? Do they offer seminars or other resources that can help students acclimate to doctoral training?
  • There may be times in your training when you feel that you are at a disadvantage. You may feel that you cannot compete with other students for research opportunities or have to work harder to make progress. If you are ever frustrated about this, remember that the program would not have admitted you if they did not think that you could succeed in their program. Yes, you may have more challenges. And, yes it can be worth it!
Finally, PLEASE do not take this post to mean that undergraduate students should not be accepted directly into PhD programs. My TAKEAWAY is that there are advantages and disadvantages to starting a PhD program straight from undergrad… and there are no shortcuts to earning a PhD!
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