In some cases, graduate students enroll directly in the PhD program with just a Bachelor's degree in computer science. There are various reasons why such students may later desire to obtain a Master's degree along the way to the PhD, including:

  • One might simply desire to have the additional credential of "Master's Degree" on his or her vitae.
  • Life situations may necessitate a move to a different institution, and one can at least move on with a Master's degree.
  • The outlook for completing the PhD might be uncertain, so obtaining the Master's degree can serve as a viable fallback option.

Fortunately, it is relatively straightforward for a PhD student to obtain a Master's degree on the way to the PhD degree. However, it is best done as soon as one contemplates this option, because it does take some planning and discussion with one's advisor.

What To Do

In essence, a student in the on-route-to-PhD Master's option will need to complete one of the two Master's tracks: thesis or courses-only. Each track requires a final comprehensive examination. A student will determine which track to follow in consultation with his or her PhD advisor. However, unless there are extenuating circumstances, the courses-only track is strongly recommended (see the FAQ below for the rationale).

Whichever Master's track is taken, the student must fulfill all of the requirements of that track (see the Master's Degrees homepage for a complete discussion of the requirements for each track). 

How To Do It

A student taking the on-route-to-PhD Master's degree option will need to fill out a Graduate Program of Study and Committee Form for the Master's degree in consultation with his or her PhD advisor and submit this form to The Graduate School.


Why is the courses-only track recommended for this option?

The courses-only track is recommended for students taking the on-route-to-PhD Master's option because all 30 of the course credits used to satisfy the courses-only Master's option will count directly towards your PhD degree. That is, you will only need to take 12 more course credits (along with 18 PhD dissertation credits) to satisfy the 60-credit requirement of the PhD degree (at the discretion of your PhD advisor, of course). In other words, for students desiring a Master's degree along the way to a PhD degree, the courses-only track represents the shortest path to the PhD degree. On the thesis track of the Master's degree one would take only 20 course credits along with 10 Master's thesis credits. However, Master's thesis credits CANNOT be transferred to PhD dissertation credits, so it makes no sense for a student in the PhD program to complete a Master's thesis (you would lose 10 credits and a lot of time completing the Master's thesis option).

Does this mean that the 10 credits of Master's thesis would not count towards my PhD credits?

That's right.

OK, but I have always thought that a Master's thesis would be the best preparation for pursuing a PhD degree.

There certainly is merit in doing a Master's thesis as preparation for pursuing a PhD degree. However, if you are already in the PhD program and doing well, we as a faculty are convinced already that you have the capacity for completing the research necessary for a PhD degree. You will get plenty of research and writing experience as you work on your PhD degree.

Well, then, who would ever take the Master's thesis track?

We will have the occasional Master's student (not simultaneously enrolled in our PhD program) who wants to do a Master's degree at MSU but who then wants to move on to another university for the PhD degree. A solid Master's thesis will help that student obtain admission to the other institution.

On the other hand, we will also occasionally have students in our PhD program who have advanced far enough that they have completed 20 or more credits of coursework, passed the PhD qualifying examination, and finished a substantial number of PhD dissertation credits, but who, due to life's vagaries, cannot finish the PhD degree. Such students can generally complete the requirements for the thesis track of the Master's degree with their completed course credits and a reallocation their PhD dissertation credits as Master's thesis credits (a thesis write-up would still be necessary).

Do you mean to say that you can transfer PhD dissertation credits to Master's thesis credits?

Yes, at the discretion of your PhD advisor. The Graduate School will allow a student to transfer PhD dissertation credits to Master's thesis credits, but not the other way around: one is not allowed to transfer Master's thesis credits to PhD dissertation credits.

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