Since I started, one of the most frequently asked questions I get from people is “oh, why did you choose to do a masters?” It’s not an unfair question. Masters, at least in humanities in Australia, are losing popularity. Most people go straight into a PhD as long as they have the required grades from Honours, so Masters has gotten a bit of a bad rap as the back-up option for people who want to transfer to a PhD but didn’t get in straight away.
This may be true for some people, but in my experience that’s not why most people decide to do Masters.
(Also, for those not familiar with the Australian system, a Masters is usually around 40,000 words at takes typically 2 years, a PhD is around 80,000-100,000 words and takes 3-4 years)
For me, there were three key factors that influenced my decision to do a Masters, before setting off on my PhD adventure.
- Changing Area: I wrote my Honours thesis on the evolution of the Scottish Highlander from treacherous savage to symbol of the nation in Lowland Scottish Enlightenment writing, and its impact on Scottish national identity. When it came time to apply for postgrad (after taking a year off in Scotland), I realised I really want to study New Zealand/Pacific history for my PhD. Only problem? I didn’t even do Australian history in undergrad, let alone New Zealand history, and I didn’t feel confident enough to just jump right into a research proposal. Masters is my gateway. I’m still focusing on something I’m fascinated by, whilst also developing the skills and knowledge I feel I need to go and do a PhD in New Zealand in a few years.
- General indecision. I am one of the most indecisive people I know. It’s actually ridiculous. This is particularly true when it comes to things I’m passionate about. Knowing I have another project (and an even longer one) coming up after I finish my Masters stops me from having those 2am crises where you question your project and your life and end up eating an entire packet of TimTams whilst desperately googling ‘changing research topic half way in’ advice. Well, they don’t happen as often. Knowing there’s something else big coming up in the future helps me avoid second-guessing myself, and as someone who really struggles with regret, that’s super important for my mental health.
- Options open. I’ve known I wanted to do a PhD since I was in year 11 (year 12 at the latest). So that’s 6 years ago, which is a long time in the scheme of things. But hey, from age 7-12 I wanted to be a professional netballer, and from about 6 to 15 I wanted to graduate from VCASS/VCA/become head flautist in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (dream big, kiddos). My point is, goals change. Now, I know that realistically a PhD is only a year longer (in theory) than a Masters, and that I could still change my mind about everything at the end of a PhD. But for some reason, my brain enjoys knowing that Masters keeps my options open (even if I know my choice will be to do my PhD). Also, having a Masters under my belt gives me more time to work on networking, attending conferences, working towards publications, learning Maori, and working out where I actually want to go for my PhD and what I want to do it in. I need the time, dammit!
There are countless more reasons why someone might choose to do a Masters before a PhD (or instead of one). Maybe mine don’t make sense to you, but that’s ok too. All that really matters is that I’m happy with my decision.