Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

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discovolante
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Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by discovolante » Sun Jun 21, 2020 2:26 pm

I saw on the old Twitter the other day Dr Petra Boynton sticking up for people doing masters degrees before PhDs in response to some comment about how it is kind of looked down on...

As I do not work in academia I have absolutely no idea what this is all about and why there should be any stigma, and what people are actually supposed to do. Can anyone explain where this comes from and why, and whether there is any sense to it?
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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by bob sterman » Sun Jun 21, 2020 2:38 pm

Can't speak for all areas of science - but in mine it would be tough to get into a funded PhD position now without an MSc.

If you don't have an MSc you'll be competing for a studentship against people who have excellent MSc qualifications, and given the pressure to get students to complete PhDs within 3 years of starting, applicants who already have some postgraduate training are going to be more competitive.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Fishnut » Sun Jun 21, 2020 3:01 pm

I have heard of the idea that Masters are for people who just want to get the 'edge' when going for 'real world' jobs whereas if you want to be in academia (which is, obviously, the only valid option) then you don't need to waste time with a Masters, you go straight from undergrad and getting a Masters first is a sign either of indecisiveness or a sign that you didn't do well at undergraduate level. It's a really elitist idea that I think is slowly dying because, as bob points out, there is an increasing recognition that the real world isn't the loser option but can provide some useful skills and perspectives.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by malbui » Sun Jun 21, 2020 3:17 pm

My doctoral school regarded a BSc as evidence of basic literacy and numeracy (sadly not always the case) and an MSc as evidence of some capacity for coherent thought. No chance of getting in without an MSc from somewhere reputable.
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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Bewildered » Sun Jun 21, 2020 3:58 pm

I don’t think there is going to be a general answer to this. It depends on specifically what funding sources are available and what pathways are standard routes. So it depends on subject, country and time. The distinction between a research masters and a taught one will also be important (but again which is better depends on field, time, place etc). There are probably some basic principals and situations that are very common though.

In my field when I was doing my PhD, in the UK, the standard pathway to a PhD in physics was to do the special 4 year undergraduate degree called MPhys (5 years in Scotland, due to the different school system and possibility to start uni earlier), which is a masters, but not a separate one you do after an ordinary 3-year bachelors degree. Doing a separate taught masters after a bachelors degree instead, or doing one after the mphys degree, may indicate someone who was on the weaker side and needed more preparation. However even there there are exceptions to this, like doing the part III taught masters at Cambridge (because it is well known internationally and covers a lot of useful advanced material).

I guess that in general if it’s not a standard pathway and it is slower, it may indicate a weaker student, and I can guess that is where the “looked down” things come from. It might be viewed that way by busy academics trying to figure out which candidate would be best for a PhD position from a bunch of applications, all of which have quite limited real evidence to differentiate them.

However that can also be badly wrong. Again in my field I feel the UK system is too fast and churns students out rather unprepared. Deciding to slow down and do a masters on top of the first degree can lead to a student that is just better prepared and more well rounded. Also academic careers unfortunately are very pressured and there are a lot of judgements based on number of papers and citations even at the level of applying for first postdoc after PhD. so some or many potential supervisors may like the slower path, viewing it as better preparation that can get them faster into research in the PhD, so they have a better chance of generating enough papers at PhD level that they will then stand out amongst the 100s of others postdoc applicants each job position receives. If they get a good paper during the masters that could be a huge boost and if it it is a good paper in my area then I have some actual evidence of research ability which you don’t get from grades. I think the UK has reduced the amount of time for PhDs in my field back to 3 years and this is not enough, honestly speaking, so this logic may apply a lot now and is more in line with how I would look at it.

Finally, which students are funded for a PhD may not be decided by the supervisors, but by administrators, so then it all depends on how they score things which may vary a lot.
Last edited by Bewildered on Sun Jun 21, 2020 4:07 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Holylol » Sun Jun 21, 2020 4:00 pm

Outside of the anglo-saxon world, it seems that a MSc is mandatory to start a PhD.
It was only when I did a postdoc in the UK that I discovered that it was possible to start a PhD without a Msc there.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by FlammableFlower » Sun Jun 21, 2020 4:29 pm

Nowadays it's almost always a Masters as a requirement to getting a PhD (in STEM subjects). How you get there can be different depending on subject.

The governing bodies of Chemistry and Physics in the UK (RSC and IOP) decided that a BSc wasn't sufficient training for a PhD, but MScs tended to be rather specific and underutilised and offered, so they introduced the MChem and MPhys undergraduate Masters degrees, which took off and have become the requirement. The MRes (although never in big numbers) was most frequently used by good students (in my experience) who discovered too late to get a good grade that they liked research and needed to improve on a 2.2 or they would never get accepted for a PhD.

Biology tried to introduce an MBiol but it didn't get well taken up and died out, so in the biosciences people tend to do a BSc and a separate MSc/MRes is then taken in the specific area you want to specialise in. I hear that they are now thinking of reintroducing the MBiol degree.

There has been a little bit of inflation in the Masters market - in that because you need to maintain certain minimum averages to remain on the undergraduate masters (usually 55% in year 1, 60% in year 2) it means that the better students are on those programmes and they come out with higher classifications, even if they have no desire to remain in academia. This in turn means that companies see that the "better" graduates generally have an undergraduate Masters and hence it ends up relatively devaluing the BSc.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by monkey » Sun Jun 21, 2020 4:54 pm

I did a PhD after a Master's, because I got a 2:2 for my BSc after finding out too late that I like research :).

I have never felt discriminated against because of that. In fact the opposite, I felt surprised when offered jobs because I know on paper that someone with a first and a PhD would look better than me. Maybe I am discriminating against my self for the same reasons.

Doesn't really matter no though, I have nearly 10 years extra experience and a publication record, which would seem to be more important than exactly how I ended up being a Dr.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Woodchopper » Sun Jun 21, 2020 5:13 pm

Holylol wrote:
Sun Jun 21, 2020 4:00 pm
Outside of the anglo-saxon world, it seems that a MSc is mandatory to start a PhD.
It was only when I did a postdoc in the UK that I discovered that it was possible to start a PhD without a Msc there.
Yes, a Masters is usually required, and a proper Bologna compliant one rather than the one year bargain basement ones you get in the UK.

Integrated Bachelors and Masters degrees are available, and they involve five years of study.

Its possible to do a PhD without a Masters, but someone wanting to do that would need to demonstrate equivalent experience gained from some other activity.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Bird on a Fire » Sun Jun 21, 2020 5:41 pm

Woodchopper wrote:
Sun Jun 21, 2020 5:13 pm
Yes, a Masters is usually required, and a proper Bologna compliant one rather than the one year bargain basement ones you get in the UK.
I'm not sure UK masters count as a bargain, as they're exceptionally expensive. When I was looking into options it was cheaper to do a two-year program pretty much anywhere in Europe than stay in the UK (except for places with an even higher high cost of living).

Doing a masters before PhD is really common in my field, and I've never heard of it being looked down on in the UK or elsewhere. And on a personal note I certainly feel that I benefited a lot from doing one before starting my PhD.
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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by bob sterman » Sun Jun 21, 2020 5:45 pm

Woodchopper wrote:
Sun Jun 21, 2020 5:13 pm
Holylol wrote:
Sun Jun 21, 2020 4:00 pm
Outside of the anglo-saxon world, it seems that a MSc is mandatory to start a PhD.
It was only when I did a postdoc in the UK that I discovered that it was possible to start a PhD without a Msc there.
Yes, a Masters is usually required, and a proper Bologna compliant one rather than the one year bargain basement ones you get in the UK.
Things got a lot worse a few years back when HEFCE (I think) decided to reward universities for Masters completion rates within 12 months. Previously, even an MSc that was notionally 12 months could be easily stretched to 16 months to allow for a substantial research project. Now students often try to squeeze their research project into May-Sep - with a commensurate decline in quality.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Woodchopper » Sun Jun 21, 2020 6:12 pm

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Sun Jun 21, 2020 5:41 pm
Woodchopper wrote:
Sun Jun 21, 2020 5:13 pm
Yes, a Masters is usually required, and a proper Bologna compliant one rather than the one year bargain basement ones you get in the UK.
I'm not sure UK masters count as a bargain, as they're exceptionally expensive. When I was looking into options it was cheaper to do a two-year program pretty much anywhere in Europe than stay in the UK (except for places with an even higher high cost of living).
Fair enough, cheap in terms of how much it costs to provide them. Cheaper prices elsewhere are due to subsidies.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by bolo » Sun Jun 21, 2020 8:20 pm

As Bewildered said, this depends on field, place, and time. Back when I got my physics PhD, ~30 years ago in the United States, masters degrees in physics existed more or less only as a fallback option for PhD students who were giving up or changing direction. The only contemporary of mine who got one had come in as a PhD student but didn't like it and quit after 2ish years to go to law school.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by TopBadger » Mon Jun 22, 2020 10:35 am

Bewildered wrote:
Sun Jun 21, 2020 3:58 pm
In my field when I was doing my PhD, in the UK, the standard pathway to a PhD in physics was to do the special 4 year undergraduate degree called MPhys (5 years in Scotland, due to the different school system and possibility to start uni earlier), which is a masters, but not a separate one you do after an ordinary 3-year bachelors degree. Doing a separate taught masters after a bachelors degree instead, or doing one after the mphys degree, may indicate someone who was on the weaker side and needed more preparation. However even there there are exceptions to this, like doing the part III taught masters at Cambridge (because it is well known internationally and covers a lot of useful advanced material).
No-one I've ever spoken to in industry regards the 4 year MPhys as special. It's regarded as a 4 year BSc that makes universities more money from students staying in education an extra year (the 4 year MPhys was bought in after fees were introduced). Ok - it allows students to broaden a little by allowing the time to take the 'other half' of the elective courses that the student didn't have time for in year 3 (and possibly 2) - but I've never seen an MPhys regarded as comparable to a specialist taught MSc. But then in the same vein - I've never seen anyone with MPhys + MSc looked down upon - they've simply been regarded as spending an extra year at Uni.
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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by discovolante » Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:34 pm

Thanks everyone, that's interesting to know, although/particularly as the answer seems to be 'it depends' (as usual ;))

I am of course partly asking for a friend, and in this case it is someone coming at it from a vocational background (i.e. sort of self-taught/trained) and potentially a willing supervisor already. A masters would probably be sensible to develop research skills etc (it would all be research based rather than taught).
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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by dyqik » Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:43 pm

discovolante wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:34 pm
Thanks everyone, that's interesting to know, although/particularly as the answer seems to be 'it depends' (as usual ;))

I am of course partly asking for a friend, and in this case it is someone coming at it from a vocational background (i.e. sort of self-taught/trained) and potentially a willing supervisor already. A masters would probably be sensible to develop research skills etc (it would all be research based rather than taught).
If they've got a willing supervisor for a PhD, then it may not be necessary (is the willing supervisor for a Masters or PhD?), except as a way to qualify for research council studentships if they don't have the requisite bachelors or equivalent.

There's also the option used in places like Oxford that may be available elsewhere (with different labels) of enrolling as an MPhil student, with the expectation of transitioning to be a DPhil student after a year of research.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by discovolante » Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:53 pm

dyqik wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:43 pm
discovolante wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:34 pm
Thanks everyone, that's interesting to know, although/particularly as the answer seems to be 'it depends' (as usual ;))

I am of course partly asking for a friend, and in this case it is someone coming at it from a vocational background (i.e. sort of self-taught/trained) and potentially a willing supervisor already. A masters would probably be sensible to develop research skills etc (it would all be research based rather than taught).
If they've got a willing supervisor for a PhD, then it may not be necessary (is the willing supervisor for a Masters or PhD?), except as a way to qualify for research council studentships if they don't have the requisite bachelors or equivalent.

There's also the option used in places like Oxford that may be available elsewhere (with different labels) of enrolling as an MPhil student, with the expectation of transitioning to be a DPhil student after a year of research.
Yeah I think it will be a case of asking the uni. Coronavirus has basically wrecked everything anyway (without going into loads of detail, not that I fully understand it all myself) so you just do what you can...
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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by FlammableFlower » Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:59 pm

dyqik wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:43 pm
discovolante wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:34 pm
Thanks everyone, that's interesting to know, although/particularly as the answer seems to be 'it depends' (as usual ;))

I am of course partly asking for a friend, and in this case it is someone coming at it from a vocational background (i.e. sort of self-taught/trained) and potentially a willing supervisor already. A masters would probably be sensible to develop research skills etc (it would all be research based rather than taught).
If they've got a willing supervisor for a PhD, then it may not be necessary (is the willing supervisor for a Masters or PhD?), except as a way to qualify for research council studentships if they don't have the requisite bachelors or equivalent.

There's also the option used in places like Oxford that may be available elsewhere (with different labels) of enrolling as an MPhil student, with the expectation of transitioning to be a DPhil student after a year of research.
It's my understanding that that's the case that for all UK (ok, maybe England... ok, definitely where I work) postgraduate degrees - you start on an MPhil and you then have your transfer viva at the end of year 1. You can 'cash in' then with an MPhil. In the last 22 years I've only known a few do that in my dept. One decided he wanted to do a medical degree instead. A few decided that the research life wasn't for them. For a couple it was a moment for academics to step in to point out that they really didn't see the student completing a PhD.

ETA - actually, that post is rather redundant in light of disco's next one.... ignore mine...

Sounds from disco's description that it's an MRes as opposed to an MSc so the course is heavily skewed to research skills and project(s) as opposed to the other way. Can only speak for where I am - both a full year programme but the credit weighting for the MRes is 1/3 taught, 2/3 research whereas the MSc is a taught postgraduate masters which is the other way around, so 2/3 taught, 1/3 research.

The MRes may well give them opportunity to pick up some more academic/theory stuff, that is area related, in a more supported fashion than just diving straight in.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Bewildered » Mon Jun 22, 2020 4:04 pm

TopBadger wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 10:35 am
Bewildered wrote:
Sun Jun 21, 2020 3:58 pm
In my field when I was doing my PhD, in the UK, the standard pathway to a PhD in physics was to do the special 4 year undergraduate degree called MPhys (5 years in Scotland, due to the different school system and possibility to start uni earlier), which is a masters, but not a separate one you do after an ordinary 3-year bachelors degree. Doing a separate taught masters after a bachelors degree instead, or doing one after the mphys degree, may indicate someone who was on the weaker side and needed more preparation. However even there there are exceptions to this, like doing the part III taught masters at Cambridge (because it is well known internationally and covers a lot of useful advanced material).
No-one I've ever spoken to in industry regards the 4 year MPhys as special. It's regarded as a 4 year BSc that makes universities more money from students staying in education an extra year (the 4 year MPhys was bought in after fees were introduced). Ok - it allows students to broaden a little by allowing the time to take the 'other half' of the elective courses that the student didn't have time for in year 3 (and possibly 2) - but I've never seen an MPhys regarded as comparable to a specialist taught MSc. But then in the same vein - I've never seen anyone with MPhys + MSc looked down upon - they've simply been regarded as spending an extra year at Uni.
Did you have to twist my words to make that point? It clearly is special type of degree, compared to the usual bsc and postgraduate masters, and that’s all I was saying there. whether you think it is “special” with a gold star connotation or special in terms of content is irrelevant to that.

Anyway it is actually special in terms of content needed for preparation for taking the subject further in academia, various topics that are crucial to different research areas can’t be taught in a 3-year degree. If students aren’t interested in doing that a Bsc may be fine, but if they want the option or want to learn these things which are fundamental things of value to know then an MPhys gives that. Universities making decisions on the basis of money wouldn’t surprise me at all, but there is a need for this degree.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Bewildered » Mon Jun 22, 2020 4:11 pm

discovolante wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:53 pm
dyqik wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:43 pm
discovolante wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 3:34 pm
Thanks everyone, that's interesting to know, although/particularly as the answer seems to be 'it depends' (as usual ;))

I am of course partly asking for a friend, and in this case it is someone coming at it from a vocational background (i.e. sort of self-taught/trained) and potentially a willing supervisor already. A masters would probably be sensible to develop research skills etc (it would all be research based rather than taught).
If they've got a willing supervisor for a PhD, then it may not be necessary (is the willing supervisor for a Masters or PhD?), except as a way to qualify for research council studentships if they don't have the requisite bachelors or equivalent.

There's also the option used in places like Oxford that may be available elsewhere (with different labels) of enrolling as an MPhil student, with the expectation of transitioning to be a DPhil student after a year of research.
Yeah I think it will be a case of asking the uni. Coronavirus has basically wrecked everything anyway (without going into loads of detail, not that I fully understand it all myself) so you just do what you can...
Yes it’s making everything tricky. Hopefully it will get resolved though.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Allo V Psycho » Mon Jun 22, 2020 8:46 pm

The majority of my PhD students started directly after their BSc, but I would have been perfectly happy with someone applying with an MSc (I only remember one). One of my PhD students decided that research/University politics wasn't her thing, and cashed in after a year with an MSc.

The reason that three years became the maximum for a PhD in my field was that the Research Councils (especially MRC) started to punish the supervisor (no moar grants!) and the Department (no moar studentships!) if a student went over three years. I thought it a mistake.

In my experience, the UK PhD is a bit sink or swim, and the output is variable. In my area, US PhDs were rotated through various labs for at least a year, so they had a bigger range of techniques at their disposal than UK ones. It's true that they hadn't necessarily demonstrated independent research skills to quite the same extent as UK students, but then I saw a number of good UK students 'sink' because they were unlucky in their choice of a project or supervisor.

I also think getting a PhD is more a matter of resilience than genius, but that's a separate topic.

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Jun 22, 2020 10:20 pm

Allo V Psycho wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 8:46 pm
I also think getting a PhD is more a matter of resilience than genius, but that's a separate topic.
I think the current pandemic is showing that up quite convincingly - staying productive right now is a struggle for everyone in academia I've been talking to.
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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by TopBadger » Mon Jun 22, 2020 10:32 pm

Bewildered wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 4:04 pm
Did you have to twist my words to make that point? It clearly is special type of degree, compared to the usual bsc and postgraduate masters, and that’s all I was saying there. whether you think it is “special” with a gold star connotation or special in terms of content is irrelevant to that.
Apologies if I've offended you but I didn't mean to twist your words. My point is that in the hires made in my business and others in my industry an MPhys is generally not viewed being notably 'above and beyond' a BSc.

A specialist MSc in the field is most certainly seen as more valuable to the company than a BSc or MPhys alone and I've never encountered a view in any hiring manager that an MSc indicated weakness in a candidate.

As an aside, on the numerous interview panels I've been on, interviewing both MSc and PhD qualified candidates, the MSc candidates often performed noticably better than the PhD candidates in the scored technical knowledge quiz.
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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by Bewildered » Tue Jun 23, 2020 3:44 pm

TopBadger wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 10:32 pm
Bewildered wrote:
Mon Jun 22, 2020 4:04 pm
Did you have to twist my words to make that point? It clearly is special type of degree, compared to the usual bsc and postgraduate masters, and that’s all I was saying there. whether you think it is “special” with a gold star connotation or special in terms of content is irrelevant to that.
Apologies if I've offended you but I didn't mean to twist your words. My point is that in the hires made in my business and others in my industry an MPhys is generally not viewed being notably 'above and beyond' a BSc.

A specialist MSc in the field is most certainly seen as more valuable to the company than a BSc or MPhys alone and I've never encountered a view in any hiring manager that an MSc indicated weakness in a candidate.

As an aside, on the numerous interview panels I've been on, interviewing both MSc and PhD qualified candidates, the MSc candidates often performed noticably better than the PhD candidates in the scored technical knowledge quiz.
Thats OK, no worries, I was more irritated than offended anyway. I think it’s odd that you think that though, and I have to essentially repeat what I rote in my first post in here, that you should not be able to make a broad brush inference like that. It is true that in most cases someone coming from abroad with an MSc in physics will have done more work than someone with an MPhys, but that’s mostly because the UK system is faster and it doesn’t mean a UK MSc is the same. It is the case that someone may do an MSc because they are not seen as good enough or ready for a PhD, that happens here in Australia, and has happened in the UK at some times anyway, as does getting an MSc after starting a PhD but turning out for whatever reason not to be able or willing to do the PhD. So it all depends...

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Re: Progressing from Masters degrees to PhDs

Post by sTeamTraen » Thu Jun 25, 2020 12:55 pm

I could have gone on to a PhD after I got my undergraduate degree in 1981. My supervisor discussed it with me briefly. But I wanted to get out into the wide world and earn money.

About six months later, I found myself stuck in a very lonely office and tried to give him a call. There was no answer, and later that day the project I was on changed for the better, and the whole question went away.

I did a Masters in 2011, but it wasn't so much "To do a Masters" as "To get some further education in a new area" (psychology, having been in IT). Then I fell down a rabbit hole and ended up doing a PhD.

From that experience, I would say that very few people who have just completed a typical UK bachelor's degree are ready to embark on a PhD programme. Doing a Masters, at least in a STEM discipline, lets you get a taste of what it's like (a) to study something where there is no answer section in the back of the textbook and (b) to specialise in a very narrow field. Without those I would expect quite a high drop-out rate among PhD students. Maybe someone in the top 1% of undergraduates who aced a first could skip the Masters stage without too much trouble, but I think we can overestimate how much someone with even a good 2:1 really understands about a topic.

(FWIW: I got a first from Cambridge and literally never set foot in the library the entire time I was there --- and not due to brilliance, as I simply didn't understand a third of the courses. I just worked strategically hard on the bits that did make sense. I also had never read a scientific paper until I started my Masters.)
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