So You Want To Be A Physicist - Part 7
We are still stuck in the discussion of your fourth and final year of college. This time, I feel that a clearly explanation of the US graduate school system is warranted, especially to others from the rest of the world who intend to continue their graduate education in the US. This is because there is often a great deal of confusion, from the conversation that I've had, regarding what is required to apply for a Ph.D program in physics in the US.
The broad dichotomy of higher education in physics in US institutions can be lumped into (i) undergraduate education and (ii) graduate education. When you have completed your physics undergraduate education, you typically earn a degree of Bachelor of Science (B.Sc). (There are some schools that actually award a Bachelor of Arts in physics, but that's a different path that we won't discuss here.) This is what we refer to as your undergraduate degree. If you do decide to go on to graduate school, then the two different physics degrees available to you are the Masters of Science (M.Sc) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D).
Now the next step is where US institutions differ from many educational system throughout the world. If you intend to pursue a Doctorate degree in physics, you do NOT need to first obtain a M.Sc. degree. Practically all of the universities in the US that I'm aware of require that you have an undergraduate degree to apply to a Ph.D program. Your undergraduate degree and transcripts of your undergraduate class grades are the ones being used to evaluate your candidacy. This is different from, let's say, the UK system, where you first pursue your M.Sc, and then after completing that, go on with your Ph.D. In US institutions, if you are pursuing your Ph.D, you can get your M.Sc "along the way", since at some point, you would have fulfill the requirements for a M.Sc degree. In fact, I know of a few people who didn't even bother declaring for their M.Sc degrees. So you will see some people with academic credentials as "B.Sc in physics from so-and-so; Ph.D in physics from so-and-so", with the M.Sc degree missing.
These differences have created a sometime confusing discussion from people intending to enroll in the graduate program in the US. The first confusion comes in when they check the average length of time to complete a physics Ph.D. Most are shock that the average length of time to complete a Ph.D in the US is 5 1/2 to 6 years. I was told that it takes an average of 3 years in the UK. However, if you consider what I have mentioned earlier, the length of time for a Ph.D is taken from the enrollment into the program by someone with a B.Sc degree, whereas the UK number is taken from the start of the program after someone has obtained a M.Sc. or equivalent. It takes an average of about 2 years to complete a physics M.Sc in the UK, I think. So now there is a explanation of the apparent discrepancy between the length of time. The total length of time to obtain a Ph.D after someone has a B.Sc degree is still roughly similar in both educational systems.
The second, of course, is the idea that one must have a M.Sc degree before applying for a Ph.D degree. Again, if one were to browse through the requirement for acceptance into a Ph.D program at a US institution, one will see that the major requirement is an undergraduate degree. I know of many international students who either (i) stayed in their home countries to get their M.Sc and then apply for a Ph.D program in the US, or (ii) apply explicitly for a M.Sc program in the US even though their goals are to obtain a Ph.D, because they assume that one must obtain a M.Sc first, before going on to a Ph.D program. This can actually create additional annoying problems, because one sometime has to REAPPLY for enrollment into the Ph.D program (this means you may have to pay again the application fee, fill in application forms, etc...) They also must apply for a change of status on their visas, because they are now pursuing a different degree.... In other words, these are all messes and annoyances that could have been avoided had one understands the graduate school system.
So remember: check the requirements for admission into a Ph.D program for a US institution. A B.Sc degree is required, not a M.Sc. So if you intend to pursue a Ph.D, apply directly for a Ph.D program, using your B.Sc. degree.