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183. Mailbag: Finding Balance, Master’s En Route, et al!

This week, we open the mailbag to answer your questions! We hear from a new grad student who has some old responsibilities, and learn about how to earn your Master’s degree while enrolled in a PhD program!

Under My Umbrella (ella ella)

Our first email comes from Cindy, who wants some clarification on a previous episode where we talked about how many applicants had applied to a particular PhD program.

Awhile ago, one of you mentioned the number of applications to spots at your university. I was discussing this with my brother in law who is a Biochemist cancer research scientist. Anyway, I was certain you said you received 1,800 applications for 300 spaces in your program. He thinks you meant that number is for all of the graduate school (all programs). So I just wonder if you could clarify.

We sure can! When Josh mentioned a PhD program he worked with, they did in fact receive over a thousand applications. They then offered interviews to about 300 applicants, and made offers to about 200 – all with the hope that 100 would actually enroll!

Those numbers are obviously rough estimates, but the applicant pool was large because it’s a type of ‘umbrella program.’ In this case, 14 different biomedical departments at one University host students who are able to do lab rotations in any one of their labs in the first year. So this isn’t one program with hundreds of spaces – it’s a group of smaller programs that operate together for efficiency and flexibility.

Hope that helps!

Master’s Degree En Route

Next up is Veronica, who shares a helpful tip about how to earn a Master’s degree on your way to a PhD, and why you might want to do that.

Just listened to the TA/teaching one and wanted to give some response. First, the “Master’s degree en route” to PhD is a super important point that you bring up. For myself, I enrolled straight in a PhD position without getting a masters first. I had no idea about the option of “MS en route” until I told one of my committee members that I wanted to teach, and she told me I should really work on finding out if my department does an “MS en route” which it turns out is the practice of awarding a MS after a PhD student has defended. For me, this was a great relief during that critical time in my PhD when I was considering quitting. I did not end up quitting, but knowing I coil quit and get SOMETHING from my experience was critical, and even helped me not quit just from stress.

Fast forward a few years, I am now finishing my PhD this semester but I was able to apply for a tenure track teaching position at a nearby community college. If I hadn’t submitted the request for my MS en route from my department, I would not have been eligible to apply for this position until my PhD was awarded! I am sure this is true for many positions that require a MS, and for a lot of research fellowships. This is something not a lot of students know about, I would have never known about it, but it is now critical for me that I got that MS!

This is a big deal – having that Master’s degree not only allows you to apply for teaching positions, as we learned from Dr. Alaina Talboy, but it also gives you peace of mind when that PhD still feels out of reach.

The requirements vary by University and department, but typically you’ll need to meet coursework requirements and pass a qualifying exam.

To find out if the Master’s Degree En Route is an option at your University, you’ll need to try a few different search terms, as it can be described a number of different ways.

Some things to try:

  1. Master’s Degree En Route
  2. Master’s Degree In Passing
  3. Master’s Degree En Passant
  4. Pass through Master’s Degree
  5. Ad Hoc Master’s Degree
  6. Continuing Master’s Degree

Here’s an example of Harvard’s description of the Master’s Degree En Route just to prove it’s a real thing!

If you can’t find it described on the University website, talk with your program advisor or Director of Graduate Studies. Maybe they don’t have a formal offering yet, but could create one to support their students.

Balancing Two Loads

Lastly, we hear from Mike, who recently enrolled as a PhD student in the same lab where he was a research assistant. Now he’s expected to do both jobs at once, and wants to avoid burnout.

I began to work [in my current lab] over a year ago both doing research and what I call “research-adjacent” jobs. Now I’m entering a PhD program as a grad student within the same lab.

If I continue these responsibilities as I enter grad school this fall, I will certainly be carrying more than my weight in the lab. I need to broach the subject of putting down some of these research-adjacent jobs indefinitely.

How would you suggest starting this conversation with my higher-ups? I can’t help but feel selfish despite knowing rationally that my request will be fair and necessary to avoid burnout.

Mike is in a unique situation, but not one that’s unprecedented. A lot of research assistants and lab techs go on to enroll in graduate school themselves. Sometimes they’ll start at a new lab at an entirely different University and don’t have to carry over any baggage from their previous tenure.

But in Mike’s case, he needs to make a clean break between Mike-the-RA and Mike-the-PhD-candidate. That means identifying all of the roles he fulfilled over the last year, and working with the PI to divide up the responsibilities with other lab mates or a new research tech so that Mike has time for classes, papers, and his own research project.

Getting ahead of the transition will help to avoid many long months of being the go-to-guy for tasks that are no longer under his purview.

If YOU have a question or topic idea, why not email us at We’d love to hear from you!

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