The demise of the research masters (in the sciences) is a bit of a pity I think. Sadly, it is now almost seen as a sign of failure – something one receives if you’re not making it at PhD level. As a holder of an MS from Cornell, I sometimes wonder if people who know the American system think that I flunked my PhD qualifiers!
In a field like engineering, there are lots and lots of problems that are ideal for an 18 – 24 month project and I can immediately think of half a dozen of good masters projects in my own area of research. (I’d imagine that this is not true of all fields where there might be a very large learning curve). Personally I found completing a masters a huge learning experience both in terms of learning how to think independently but also in terms of writing a thesis and writing for a journal. When I started my PhD, I was much more capable and confident than a raw graduate. In fact, I think industry generally would benefit greatly from having people who have done masters by research and I’m not sure whether there is a huge amount to be gained (for industry) by looking for people with PhDs.
A lot of research these days is done in large groups, often in centres of excellence where the students seem to be very closely supervised by a postdoc and it seems to me that this is the perfect environment for doing masters projects. I sometimes wonder if it is always the best environment for doing a PhD where the student should technically take ownership of the project but, at the same time, the group or centre as a whole might have to meet specific targets. I don’t know – I’m not an expert on these things by any means.
Anyway, what sparked these thoughts was the fact that I have been involved in various examining roles in a number of PhD theses recently and I have to say, I have had some concerns. It seemed to me that all the PhDs I examined tried to cover a lot of ground but in an often quite superficial way. It almost seemed that the projects were too ambitious and needed to focus a little better on fewer aspects of the problem in much greater depth. I thought that some chapters were simply left with too many unanswered questions before moving on to the next one. Perhaps it was because of the way the project was funded but there was a sense of ‘where’s the PhD stuff?’. It was almost like the thesis was a few masters-like projects stuck together.
Sadly, I don’t think there’s a solution to this. The rise of the taught masters which can be completed in a calendar year means that the masters by research will continue to disappear.