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Stanford Phd student on MS vs Phd

28 May 2008 14 Comments
Hi All..

Today I have a very close friend of mine – Santhosh to share his gyaan about MS Vs Phd & apping.. I wont give any formal introduction about Santhosh.. What I am going to tell will speak volumes of Santhosh..

While a lot of us yearn to make it to Stanford.. A prof from stanford calls up Mr. Santhosh asking him.. if he can join Stanford! Thats “Stan-thosh” for you.. πŸ™‚

Without further ado, over to Santhosh..

Hi CWS Readers,
I am Santhosh Kumar S. I am a doctoral candidate at Stanford University. I joined the university as a Masters Candidate after which I managed to get into the doctoral program by clearing the qualifier examinations. My field of expertise is in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Specifically I major in COmputational Fluid Dynamics wherein I try to implement a physical model for fluid flows in a computer algorithm and hence try to simulate the flow numerically and obtain results which when compared to actual experiments would validate my physical model and numerical implementation. I did my undergrad at IITM.

A common thought in the mind of undergrads who want to obtain a higher degree in term of education is “MS or PhD”. The common source of confusion is because these two programs have very different timelines. While a PhD would on an average take 5 years, a MS would in general take 1.5 years, giving around 3 years of work experience on the completion of the 5 year period. Hence one begans to debate of its worth doing a 5 year research study or obtain valuable work experience during the same time. In my thoughts, I would say, the two programs have a very different design and layout, meant for very different streams of interest and apptitude. One should seriosly debate on if one posses the ability to work on research independently or if one has the ability to do well in an industry.

In most of the technical fields a MS is considered as equivalent to one year of work experience. Most of the MS programs are designed to give a brief overview of the topic, in the sense, a revision of the syllabus covered over the entire course of Bachelors, and moving a little furthur by presenting practical situations, real life complications, or present study and findings. Most MS programs around the globe have course requirements along with some basic research requirements on completion of which a candidate is endowed with the degree. In most cases the course requirements are dominant over the research requirements. The research leg of a Masters is only aimed at providing the student some way of a independent thought and to test and improve his/her ability to do independent research and work in phase with a guide. Hence this does not require the candidate to contribute to the research as such in a major way. Also the timeline given for research to a candidate is small, a few months to a year at most; during which the candidate is expected to familiarise himself with the present work through a literature survey and frame a goal for his own research and then obtain results.

Coming to the more practical issue of funding, most of us Indian find the fee structure and cost of living in the US universities exorbitant. This is because while education is considered a basic necessity in India its a luxury in the US. Most of us would look for financial aid in terms of Research Assistantship(RA) , Teaching Assistantship(TA) or Fellowships to fund our education/living costs fully or partially. Most of the funding given for Masters students is only in terms of fellowships and few by TAs. This is because the RAs are reserved for candidates from whom the university/dept/professor would benefit in terms of research advancement, hence they are generally only offered to PhD candidates who will remain with the university on a long term basis. As there are more number of RAs than TAs and Fellowships in most universities in general there are much higher chances of obtaining funding for a PhD candidate than a MS candidate. There is another suttle issue here, so in the case one does not obtain funding, does that mean spending around 60K$ over a MS is not worth it? From what I find, candidates who sponser their entire education in top universities are able to make up for the money in a year or two of working in the US. This again totally depends on the scope of industry work for your field of interest and the reputation of your university. Hence its a compromise and one needs to gather information from people who have been in similar situations before taking a decision. But obtaining a degree from a reputed university in a industry oriented field is certainly worth the money and I would consider that money an investment.

The PhD program on the other hand has a very different structure to it. It is designed to focus on the ability of the candidate to conduct independent research while working with some guidelines provided by a professor. The candidate is given lot of time to familiarise himself with the present work in the field, and to frame a problem of interest. The candidate is expected to not only work towards obtaining that goal but is also expected to defend the choice of the research topic. As in “WHY” are you working on that problem? What is the need for it? Is it worth the money and time that is been spent on it. What are the practical consequences. The candidate is expected to address each of these questions and then come up with a solution to each of these issues. In a nutshell, the PhD program is where a candidate chooses a particular problem, and develops detailed understanding of each of its aspects, fragments the problem into sub problems and fragment them furthur and obtains solutions to each of them. In this process over the time, the candidate obtains the best understanding of the problem and becomes an expert in that particular problem.

Now one may ask, so what is the scope of PhD? Is it that one can only join a research lab or a university as a professor because the candidate only has a detailed understanding of one particualr topic in a specific field. Is there no scope of industry work? I would say no. Though many PhD students join universities as professors, research labs as associates etc a majority of them join the industry! And not just the industry that focuses on their field of research. Varied industries, consultancy firms, financial markets etc demand for PhD candidates. The reason is very evident if one just looks into the structure of the PhD program. The candidate obtains expertise in conducting independent research, focusing on the practicalities of the problem, developing solutions models to them, implementing them to obtain results. This require considerable focus, logic, practical thinking and ability to defend ones stand. These are skills every industry/firm/company looks for. Hence the scope after PhD is wide.

Hence each of these programs have their own needs and cater to different minds. The apptitude of the candidates is very different, each having its own strengths. Most students apt for a MS initially, and while in that program learn and find if one has the apptitude to do a PhD in the field before committing to it. It is for this reason that most universities advice you to do a MS with them before continuing for a PhD because then one can keep their options open.

Thanks a lot Santhosh..
Readers, hope you enjoyed this episode of Coffee With Experts. For previous episodes, click here.




  • Deepthi said:

    Awesome post Mr.Veteran! You almost walked me into a PhD program… πŸ™‚

  • AM said:

    This post has reinforced my thoughts.

  • me said:


  • Rostan Rodrigues said:

    That was really good information.
    Appreciated and thanks a lot.

  • mohit BIndra said:


    well what a wide talk on phd vs MS …well i would say MS and phd …cause both better than the best ….anywaz now i can think upon phd acc to my aptitude …but hats off to you sunder …for taking interview of such legitimate person

  • trishita mishra said:

    it was so enlightening…… its my as well as my parents’ dreamto do my ph.d ….. i would b very kind if i get some more info on pursueing my aim and dream

  • tanweer alam said:

    thanx a lot…
    It is very helpful…
    I guess it has cleared some doubts in me πŸ™‚

  • prafula kumar said:

    u gave mch useful information on both MS and phD , nd cleared my doubts on taking phD ,
    tnkzz bro

  • Ershad Ahamed. C said:


    I am a regular reader of CWS especially the posts related to apping, PhD etc. I am currently a masters student in Mechanical Engineering (Solid and Fluid Mechanics) at TU Delft. I am aspiring to to PhD after my masters especially at Stanford or Caltech. I want to get in contact with Mr. Santhosh so that I could clear so of my doubts. It will be very helpful as he belongs to the same trade as mine. Thanks in Advance.


    Email – come2ershad@gmail.com

  • ravi teja said:

    thank you very much for the post, it was very informative.

  • Sanketh said:

    thank you so much. This is really what i was looking for. A proper insight into the reality. Thankyou.

  • Rishabh Thareja said:

    Really nice and helpful. This article really clears the picture of the MS/Phd program in US . Very beneficial for students who are worried about spending huge amount of money on higher education from US.