Students who have successfully completed their undergraduate study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics frequently continue their education for two or more years in order to obtain an advanced degree. There are two advanced degrees commonly awarded in this country the Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) degree and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. An important component of most M.S. and Ph.D. programs is the completion of a thesis or dissertation that documents the completion of an original research project.
M.A. or M.S
The Master of Arts and the Master of Science degrees can be awarded either for coursework study or for completion of a program of study that includes some coursework and a thesis. These programs of study are typically two years long. In some fields of study such as engineering, the masters degree is normally considered the terminal degree while in other fields of study such as the physical sciences the doctoral degree is the terminal advanced degree.
This is the highest degree awarded for scholarly study in any field of study carried out at a university today. The Ph.D. is the normal prerequisite for those individuals who wish to pursue a career in academe. The Ph.D. degree is awarded for demonstration of aptitude and ability to carry out and effectively communicate independent research in one’s chosen field of study. The program of study usually includes completion of a minimum of a year of advanced coursework, passing a series of examinations often referred to as cumulative exams or “cumes”, and the successful completion of a written dissertation describing an original series of investigations in one’s field and the oral defense of this work before a committee of one’s peers. Unlike the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, there is no set period of study for the Ph.D. degree. Currently in the physical sciences, the average time-to-degree is approximately five years.
Teaching Assistantship (TA)
In the sciences and engineering students pursuing an advanced degree often receive financial support in the form of a teaching assistantship. This form of financial support is often awarded to students entering a doctoral program for their first year of study. Students supported on a teaching assistantship receive a stipend in exchange for teaching one or more sections of a recitation (problem solving session) or laboratory section of one or more courses each semester. Some graduate students beyond the first year of study are also supported on teaching assistantships. The disadvantage of being supported on a teaching assistantship beyond the first year of study is that the student must balance the demands of their teaching assistantship with those imposed by their graduate research advisor in the laboratory in order to make adequate progress on their thesis research project.
Research Assistantship (RA)
The other common form of financial support is a research assistantship. Students supported on a research assistantship receive a stipend in exchange for performing research that is frequently related to their thesis research. The advantage of being supported on a research assistantship is that it often allows the graduate student the time and energy needed to focus on their thesis research project. However, depending on the source of the financial support, the student may be required to work on a research project that will not contribute toward their thesis. If the source of the support is a private company then there may be confidentiality issues that may limit or even prohibit the presentation and publication of the research findings. Consequently, it is important for a graduate student accepting a research assistantship to inquire in advance concerning the issue of confidentiality in order to determine whether or the not research, in part or in whole, can become part of their thesis, to determine whether or not it can be presented publicly by the student at conferences, and to determine whether or not the work can be published in a peer-reviewed journal.