What advice do you have to give to someone who wants to pursue a Masters in the future?

A student asked me:

What advice do you have to give to someone who wants to pursue a Masters in the future?

Here’s my reply:

You should only do a Masters if you have a clear idea of what the Masters is for. A Masters should not be pursued for its own sake. A good number of students I spoke to have expressed interest in doing a Masters because they want to continue being a student for a bit longer (and also, they are quite afraid of the working world). If that is your motivation, please don’t do that. You’re shortchanging yourself and undermining your future. Instead of using the time to learn important life skills, the Masters would just be an excuse to hide in a bubble. It’s not healthy at all.

There are two kinds of Masters: (1) a research Masters that trains you in important research skills; and (2) a coursework Masters that is meant to help you advance in your career (there are different kinds of coursework Masters for early, mid, and late career individuals).

A research Masters can help you become eligible for specific jobs, like teaching at tertiary level or prepare you for a PhD. Though if you have first class or second upper for your Honours, a direct PhD is possible.

Coursework Masters often cost more because you’ll be taking many modules, and the value is also in the network of your course mates. Some of these kinds of Masters cost a lot because you are essentially paying to join this network of people whom you will work with in the future, whose connections you will tap to get stuff done.

If you intend to do a PhD (because the goal is to be a researcher – nothing else), then you should be aiming to do a research Masters instead. I should warn that this path is not as glamorous or as fancy as you think. It’s often a lonely journey because no one else is doing research similar to yours, so you don’t have anyone you can really talk to deeply about your work, and you have to endure years of very low pay (stipends essentially). And getting a PhD doesn’t mean you are guaranteed a job. Some months back, a senior who just finished his PhD came begging me to hire him as a TA (I don’t even have a PhD!) because he can’t get a job. It was very heart-wrenching to witness this.

And even if you get hired as assistant professor doesn’t mean you will make it. You still need to spend the next 3-10 years working to get tenure. A lot don’t get tenure and so it means that these people who spent so many years of their lives researching, cannot continue on the path they spent so many years on. So don’t say you weren’t warned about this very perilous journey.

I don’t want to sugarcoat this because too many people have embarked on this journey with a very idealistic picture of what academia means, only to get very disillusioned along the way. You must know what you are really signing up for. Some people are cut out for this kind of thing, and they have my greatest respect for being able to come this far.

If your question pertains to the path of research, then I’ll say, make sure you save up a lot of money because chances are, you’ll be very poor for a while. And having relationships will make the path very difficult. Some drop out of pursuing academia because their other-half is tied down to being in Singapore, so they can’t bear to do their PhD overseas after completing their Masters. As for what you can do now, if you can, try to be a Research Assistant and learn have a taste of what research is really like. Don’t wait until Honours Thesis. And if you want to go far, make sure you learn how to socialise and network, and do public speaking. Because these are what will help you go far as an academic. Many profs think that you should go directly to a Masters after graduation. I beg to differ. I think it helps to go out and work for at least one year. It helps to get some perspective in life, and I found it very beneficial to see what kinds of problems there are out there, and this gave my research purpose, because I saw my research as an attempt at solving a real problem.

If your question pertains to career advancement, then you shouldn’t do such a masters so soon. Go work first. And only then can you start to question which type of Masters will be strategic in advancing your career forward.