Gambling with Degrees

Coming to MIT with a master’s
APR 2019
Guillaume
G.
Nuclear Science and Engineering

How many master’s degrees is too many? It’s not a very common problem to have. Yet for some of us that have already completed a couple years of postgraduate education before coming to MIT, the question comes up.

I must admit I hadn’t looked much at the course requirements for a PhD before applying. A PhD to me is 100% about research, since that’s mostly the way it is in my home country, France. But when reading my MIT PhD admission package, I discovered that it listed quite a few course requirements - most notably, my department required 120 (!) credits, or about two master’s degree worth of classes. While absolutely thrilled to have been admitted, I still thought that was annoying. In Europe, having already earned a master’s, I could have started my PhD straight away and not have to sit in full flights of exams again.

So I was left with a series of decisions that involved a bit of rolling the dice.

First gamble: choosing uncertainty at MIT

Given all these required classes plus the relative absence of guarantees on degree length, I decided that an expectation of 5 years for the PhD seemed likely, compared to only 3 in France. Despite this, there were many other reasons to come to MIT. Pursuing a PhD is a gamble anyway, so I went all in.

Having prior qualifications definitely helped. The content of the required courses that overlapped with my prior education only strengthened my understanding. Different professors have different ways of presenting the same material, especially in completely different education systems. In France we always insist on the maths, but here the focus is on implementation. I still felt like I was learning.

My previous coursework gave me enough confidence to take expedited course loads, and most of the requirements were satisfied in a year. Now I just take classes from all over, to broaden my horizons.

Second gamble: master’s or straight to PhD?

In the process of getting all the course requirements checked and preparing for the PhD qualifying exams, I — like most students — got about 80 percent of the way to a master’s. The only thing that was missing was a master’s thesis, which can take a couple months to write.

A good reason to forego the thesis would be to use that work as part of a PhD. Another would be to save time. After a year of mostly classes, it was about time for me to get started with the PhD. But on the other hand, getting a master’s provides a checkpoint in your time at MIT. It recognizes your past achievements, and if the PhD doesn’t go well, a master’s is still pretty good. No need to fear a gaping hole in the resume.

I ended up turning my first year of research into a Master’s thesis. Over the course of two master’s, I had done enough research on my topic, nuclear reactor design, and it was time to move on to something else. I changed research groups and am now working on numerical methods to compute the power distribution in a nuclear reactor, improving the accuracy of the tools one could use for reactor design.

The real jackpot is not a degree

A couple of years in my PhD now, I realize my degree concerns were not that relevant. While one hopefully gets a degree when cashing out from graduate school, this is not what the game is about. In my couple of years here, I’ve met extraordinary people, built new skills and never ceased to be amazed at the research going on here. Walking away from that table, the degree will be just one of many chips in my hand.