To Master’s or PhD: a beginner’s guide to North America

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This article is part of the 2023 September International Student Perspectives Collection.

Here are a few things to consider while applying to graduate programs in the US and Canada. And yes, applying to a master’s program differs slightly from applying to a PhD program. In this article we will discuss our experiences applying to master’s and PhD programs, but this is not a fact sheet.

  1. US News is a good resource for narrowing down your options regardless of what type of graduate programs you are interested in applying to. Use those filters wisely.
  2. You don’t have to apply to the same field you received your undergraduate/master’s degree. If a graduate program catches your eye, look at their requirements. Often, you will either meet their program’s prerequisites or if you do not, you may have to take a few extra courses. It is also sometimes helpful to email the program coordinators if you have any questions or concerns.
  3. Applying to graduate schools is an expensive and time-consuming process. Many master’s programs do not offer teaching assistantships or stipends (few do), whereas most PhD programs in science offer either options or both and will cover your tuition for the duration of your degree. Because of this, PhD programs are often more selective compared to master’s programs in accepting students. Few PhD programs do not take international students based on funding sources since international students are not eligible for many NIH-funded grants on an F1 visa. While ten schools might be a good number of each to apply to for a master’s, consider applying to more programs will increase your chances of getting invited for an interview. Interviews are also another difference between master’s and PhD programs. Almost all PhD programs have an interview process before offering you a formal acceptance, whereas with most master’s programs, often may not interview candidates.
  4. Many schools have waived the GRE requirements. Like the application process, standardized tests are expensive. Check the requirements before taking your GRE. You will save valuable time and resources if these test scores are optional.
  5. Some programs are more selective than others and only accept a handful of students. For example, neuroscience PhD programs are notoriously selective, whereas biomedical PhD (umbrella) programs may accept more students. However, there is an overlap between labs and research, and applying to biomedical science programs won’t limit you from doing neuroscience research. Choose your program wisely. I wish I had done this before I started applying to PhD programs.
  6. If you are getting paid as a student, you must pay taxes. If you own a car, you may have to pay property tax depending on the state. Keep this in mind as you plan. Save some money in your rainy-day account just in case.
  7. There are many excellent schools and programs that are less well-known in and outside the US. Do not be disheartened if you do not get into your top-choice school.
  8. Graduate school is expensive, and certain cities (Boston, New York City, anywhere in California, Seattle) have a high cost of living. Consider these factors as well when you choose your schools. The stipend offered may differ based on the cost of living but the NIH does have cap’s on what graduate students can make during their training.
  9. Reach out to alums on LinkedIn. Many people are responsive and love to offer advice or talk about their experiences. The worst that can happen after you reach out is you will be ignored.
  10. Sell yourself and your experience. If you have work experience, write about it in your personal statement, but most importantly, make sure to list it and your skills in your resume. Highlight your accomplishments. Your work and research experience are vital for PhD programs because they show your interest and passion. Don’t be afraid to make yourself stand out. Keep your resume to one page unless it’s a CV and use action words. Follow the simple rule of show, don’t tell. If you worked under a professor or had an independent project, or worked after your undergrad, write about the skills you acquired and tailor to skills to fit the program you’re applying to. Your skills are transferrable. I am a pharmacy major doing my PhD in neuroscience. Don’t be afraid to branch out.

If you are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in Canada, here are some considerations:

  1. You cannot directly apply to many PhD programs with a bachelor’s degree. Instead, you will need to apply to a master’s program with an option to transfer to a PhD program after 1-2 years. This would require a research proposal to be submitted and approved by your advisory committee.
  2. Enrolling in a master’s degree in Canada usually comes with financial assistance in the form of both teaching and research assistantships. Hence, if you would rather have a master’s degree, you will not have to worry about securing a loan or working part-time to fund your living costs.
  3. The master’s programs in Canada are more research based with much importance given to your thesis project. You would be expected to present at conferences and contribute to manuscripts even as a master’s student. This also has the added benefit of having a minimal course load as most of your time is dedicated to lab work.
  4. As the course of these master’s programs is determined by the pace of your dissertation research, you should not be discouraged if it takes longer than two years to finish your program. Many students graduate after 2.5-3 years in the program.
  5. Unlike in the US, you must apply to a program after finding a PI willing to support you financially. Upon secure admission to a lab, you would apply to the program. This would also mean sending well-crafted emails to multiple professors describing why you like their research and how you are a good fit for the lab. It would be wise to begin this process 4-6 months before the program application deadlines.
  6. There are no rotations even for a direct entry PhD student (if you have a master’s degree). You would be in your dissertation lab from day one of your program. This could be advantageous as you do not waste any time before stepping into your research. However, it doesn’t leave you much room to easily transfer to another lab in expediting circumstances. So, it would be pertinent to reach out to former and current trainees from your lab to assess the lab environment and see if you are a good fit for the lab (and vice versa).
  7. For international students, the fee is higher (although cheaper than in the US), and the tuition is not covered by the graduate school, unlike in the US. However, some universities, like the University of Manitoba, offer the International Graduate School Entrance Scholarship that would reduce the fee to at least the amount that local students pay.
  8. Although most federal scholarships have citizenship requirements like the US, there are prestigious PhD fellowships such as the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and a fair amount of provincial and university fellowships open to international students.
  9. Students in the same program are not guaranteed to have the same stipend. Negotiations between individual supervisors and students usually decide upon the stipend. They can vary based on how much funding the student has already secured and how much the supervisor is willing to pay.
  10. One advantage to studying in Canada is that fellowship stipends are non-taxable. Since you would also be paying fees and have additional financial obligations such as rent, you could file for tax returns and receive refunds.

This article was co-written by Sai Nivedita Krishnan and Deepa Anjan Kumar

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