Skip navigation
The Black Hole

Why a PhD fast-track can be a bad idea

Earning a doctorate earlier may sound attractive, but there’s value in completing a master’s degree first.


This is a guest post from Hongyu Zhang. Mr. Zhang is a doctoral candidate in the department of geography at McGill University. He holds an MSc in geography from Western University and a BES in geomatics from the University of Waterloo. Before joining the Platial Analysis Lab, he was an engineering support specialist at Geotab. His research interests are behavioural geography, GIS, and privacy.

Fast-tracking (direct admission to a PhD program from an undergraduate degree or transferring from a master’s degree) is becoming more and more popular. On paper, it sounds attractive to earn a PhD degree earlier in life; however, only those on the inside understand the challenges associated with completing a PhD program and only those who have made it to the other side appreciate what it really means for career progression. For those considering applying to a graduate program earlier in their academic career, I’d like to offer some thoughts based on my and other colleagues’ experiences on why it’s important to be cautious when choosing a fast-tracking option.

A PhD program is a long journey

Uncertainty is part of thesis research and this can be a fascinating or disappointing aspect depending on one’s perspective –it’s important to remember research takes time and there will definitely be challenges, which may prolong the process or even kill the chance of getting desired results. Without taking this level of commitment into consideration, some students may struggle and consider withdrawing from a fast-track doctoral program. Sometimes, “back-tracking” (transferring registration into the same program for a master’s degree) is possible, and often the best option. However, as students typically do not (or are often not encouraged to) give up easily, the choice to back-track often results in feelings of failure and more time spent than would have been the case by choosing a straight-up master’s degree from the outset.

Missing the opportunity to explore other fields

While some graduate programs have strict prerequisites, others (e.g., geography) do not and are open to students from diverse backgrounds. Therefore, undertaking a master’s program before committing to a PhD provides students with a chance to explore a different field of research. Remember that a PhD is a very specialized degree and should be in an area you are planning to spend a lot of time thinking about. The number of researchers who are probing similar investigations can often be counted on two hands. Given that many students contemplating a fast-tracked PhD are in their early 20s and have just finished an undergraduate degree, with little to no practical insight into graduate school, it might just be a little early to find the right research niche. Exploring a broader discipline can often help with making a more informed choice.

A PhD does not guarantee a higher income

There are many well-paying jobs out in the world that do not require a PhD. It should also be noted that many PhDs are poorly paid and have insecure jobs (e.g., sessional lecturers). Although it has been discussed previously (see Dave’s column back in 2010), the primary goal of a PhD program is training future professors and research stars. What has not been baked into many PhD programs is the education for and exposure to non-academic career choices. A career centre on campus is auxiliary and only provides limited resources, often with nothing tailored to people in specialized fields. It is clear that a makeover of PhD programs is required, but it is difficult for professors who only have academic experience to promote this change. Therefore, under the current setup, the majority of PhD students will experience limited exposure to their future career options during their residency.

There are many reasons to be wary of a fast-track PhD, with a stand-alone master’s being an attractive alternative. However, for the type of person with a very clear career goal (and one that requires a PhD degree) who knows what they want to do in the next 10 years, the fast-track option may save some time – I just worry that it is becoming the preferred route for everyone and see this restrictive choice as a regressive step. If you are a student still early in your undergraduate program and you want to be proactive, consider participating in a thesis course or becoming a research assistant to get first-hand experience.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. David / October 12, 2022 at 15:05

    As someone who only holds a PhD, and from outside of North America with a successful 30+ year career as a researcher and university professor in both Canada and the US and also in other countries, I think the writer is expressing very much the North American perspective of the Masters to PhD pathway. And that’s fair enough. Most of the readership of UA is in Canada and went through either the Canadian graduate school experience or the US system, both of which emphasize the Masters to PhD pathway as typical.

    I had my PhD at age 27 with a ‘gap year’ between my 4-year bachelors and starting my PhD. I changed project and supervisor in the 1st year of my PhD but still finished and defended my PhD in just under 5 years. I was typical of my peers, but then I was at an Australian university which followed (then at least) the UK model of the Masters being seen as an alternative to the PhD, not as a steppingstone to it. At no stage whether in the US or Canada or Europe or elsewhere has my ‘fast track PhD’ had any negative connotations either in my capacity to do the job or in acceptance of my qualifications beyond ‘curiosity’ by my Canadian colleagues “Oh, you don’t have a Masters then?”

    However, talking to my North American peers, many commented on the long delay to getting professional positions ’til their mid to late 30s or older caused by the Masters then PhD pathway, and how this affected life-time earnings. As both a US and Canadian professor colleague said to me on getting their first full-time position “Finally, in my early 40s I can live like an adult and not like a graduate student”.

  2. Patrick McGrath / October 12, 2022 at 15:58

    There are advantages and disadvantages of both options. David Kent has outlined the disadvantages of a PhD fast track. The advantages are many. I did the traditional Master’s-PhD in clinical psychology and then led, as the first director, a fast-track PhD clinical psychology program. Fast-track is a misnomer. It is faster than a Masters-PhD but by no means fast. Canadian PhD’s are overly long by any standard. Fast track PhDs can improve progress through the academy, reduce long term debt and encourage students to get on with their lives. Don’t forget, most will do additional training in a postdoc or two after the PhD.

    Let’s look at ways of improving the experience of our PhD students. Shortening their programs is one way of doing that.

    • David Kent / October 13, 2022 at 03:59

      Hi Patrick – thanks for your comment. Just one quick point of clarification, this is a guest post from Hongyu Zhang – a PhD student currently in the trenches.

      Definitely hear what you are saying re: improving the PhD experience though – there is so much good work that we can do without much added cost/pain.

  3. Karl Pfeifer / October 12, 2022 at 18:09

    I always recommended the “MA first” option for students in my discipline of philosophy. I promoted it as an opportunity to acquire credible competence in two distinctly different areas of philosophy, which would serve the student well when applying for academic positions after the PhD and ability to claim teaching competence in several areas becomes an important factor. This is reflected in the American practice of specifying both an area of specialization (AOS) and an area of secondary competence (AOC) in job advertisements. I also suggested the “MA first” option as a dry run for a PhD program, in which the student could determine whether he/she was suited to graduate study in the field and could also acquire a modus operandi that would enable them to hit the ground running later when embarking on a PhD studies.

  4. Dr Khadry A Galil / October 12, 2022 at 18:18

    Fast-tracking is an excellent idea, I have been fast-tracked to my Ph.D. and I fast-tracked my students when I became a faculty, so I have an experience in that area. I have observed excellent students who would make fantastic Ph.D. students refusing to go to a Ph.D. In my area at Western university, we found that many master’s degree students do not want to pursue a Ph.D. for one reason, or another like for example they want to go to dentistry or medicine and so on… and others want to earn money.
    Fast Tracking has a big advantage in that the student is now really committed to his research and his Ph.D., also many times what you study in your master’s degree is usually different than what you study in your Ph.D. (only those who are lucky continue research in their master degree topic so why not go for a Ph.D. and study the topic thoroughly and become an expert.
    . We also know that those with Ph.D. have a better chance of getting a job than a master’s degree.
    when I was fast-tracked, I respected my supervisor, and he had confidence in me, and I made sure not to disappoint him by working day and night and sleeping in my lab to get that Ph.D. it was my greatest motivator
    I do remember when I was a senator at the university the president of the university encouraged all faculties to focus on getting more Ph.D. students, this was supported by a memo from the dean of graduate studies at the time. I will not get into the debate that Ph.D. gives the supervisor and the university more prestige and enhances the supervisor’s curriculum Vitae and his promotion and tenure career, which is a different debate.

    Dr.K.A.Galil.Professor of Medicine and Professor of Dentistry (active emeritus)
    DDS.,D.Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery
    ,PH.D,FAGD.,FADI.,Cert.Periodontist(Uof Michigan) (Royal College Dent Surg.Ont)
    Departments of Periodontics,Orthodontics and Clinical Anatomy
    Schulich School Of Medicine and Dentistry.
    University of Western Ontario, London,Ontario.

  5. Sarah S / October 14, 2022 at 09:10

    This is excellent advice for undergraduate students considering graduate school. If the student in question is interested in a career for which holding a Ph.D. is a minimum requirement, then the fast-tracking option may be beneficial. However, the perception that holding a Ph.D. is beneficial in all cases is incorrect and may produce unrealistic salary or job prospect expectations for students. The negatives or benefits of holding a Ph.D. will vary by discipline and industry, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Hongyu’s statement that many programs fail to expose students to non-academic career options is accurate, and I wholeheartedly agree that “it is clear that a makeover of PhD programs is required, but it is difficult for professors who only have academic experience to promote this change”. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Hongyu. It was quite refreshing.