Masters students: Second class citizens or academic geniuses in the making?



I am an archaeologist and chose to do an MPhil because I wanted to specialise in geological archaeology. I thought a masters would give me time to learn about the field, but I have not been feeling much love from my university, supervisors or colleges in the six months I have been enrolled.

A few days ago I was introduced to my new class. As everyone was introduced as a doctor or PhD student, they got to me and said, “This is Belinda, she is a post graduate student”. I was left feeling a little put off about the comment. It wasn’t until I discussed it with my friend Hannah, who had also had a similar experience, that I realised there was something not quite right. Why wasn’t I identified as Masters Student? Slip of the tongue or something more sinister?

The primary question posed (almost on a daily basis) is “why aren’t you doing a PhD?” Quickly, I realised the question had a bit of a negative tone to it. What’s wrong with doing a Masters? Are you insinuating that I am not as intelligent enough to undertake a PhD? Am I not good enough? To add to this, in many of my supervision meetings, I would be asked when I would be up-grading to a PhD. Even my initial acceptance letter from our Graduate Research School said “congratulations to your admission to a Doctorate of Philosophy”.

All this attitude has caused me to question my motivations for under taking Masters: is there something wrong with my decision? Some days it feels like an interrogation, it shakes your confidence to the core, leaving you with feelings of inadequacy.

While I had been troubled by these issues, I had not thought too much of it until later in 2012. My School released research funding money twice a year, open to both Masters and PhD students. This funding was designed to enhance a student’s work through non-essential research to enrich their dissertation. My application was for experimental radiocarbon dating work. My application was rejected for funding on the basis of being a masters student.

I was furious. How is my research any less important or significant than those of a PhD? So I complained, and policy was changed. But I still feel like have been a victim of institutional discrimination. Why am I being treated like a second class citizen? Might it be related to financial incentives the University may receive once I graduate?

Riding high from my policy changing triumph in 2012, I threw myself into 2013 with the excitement of submission year. However, the feeling of being a second class citizen of the academic world still remains. The structure of the post graduate system is designed to assist and foster PhD students.

The view of some at my university, and no doubt other universities across Australia, is the Masters by research is pointless and obsolete degree. Is having such a view creating under prepared, underqualified Doctorates who aren’t on par with the rest of the world? The Australian post-graduate system has its failings, and I may have raised issues which are far beyond this post and the challenges I face with completing a Masters’ degree and getting to graduation.

Graduation is yet another avenue for segregation and discrimination. When you graduate with a PhD, you are seated at the font on the stage with the other academics and distinguished guests. You will make your Doctoral debut with you research present and acknowledged for its brilliance. I know when I graduate, my research won’t be identified and I will be left sitting in the audience with the undergraduates waiting to be mustered on stage. However, facing such discrimination and dealing with these issues has made me more determined to finish and to graduate. In that spirit, here’s five tips for asseting your right to be a masters student!

Be pro-active.

Knowing that I don’t have the same opportunities has forced me to get off my butt and be pro-active, e.g. signing up to do school seminar presentations, networking with other academics etc. A good friend who has since moved on to very green pastures told me to remember that at the end of the day you will mostly be on your own, you need to make things happen. Take the bull by the horns!

Be confident

After bringing up my issue on twitter, a common response was to be confident! You belong, your research is important and you deserve every opportunity. You’re research as new and inventive as any other PhD, contributing novel work to your field of study.

Stick to your convictions

Undertaking a Masters is for the good of your future, regardless of whether you follow on to a PhD. You will be a better academic/employee/human being for it. You made the decision to enrol and you are doing it for yourself, not for the university.

Be prepared

Have that confident fast fire answer to the annoying age old question… why aren’t you doing a PhD?

Be a squeaky wheel

Don’t fall to the wayside, be noisy and get what you need. Complaining gets results (How to complain and get heard)! I once lived in fear about rocking the boat and feared getting in trouble for wanting to get things done, but often it’s necessary step.

Look to the future

Having long term goals has kept me on the straight and narrow, dreams of working overseas keeps me focused, despite the negativity. When I finish my Masters’, I know I will be entering a workforce fully prepared and qualified to work in an international market.

While my advice isn’t ground breaking, I hope that it gives other Master’s students the confidence to continue on with the feeling that they are not alone. To all those down trodden Masters students, stay strong and positive in your conviction. You’ll be better for it in the long run.

Author Bio: Belinda Duke is doing a Master of Philosophy in Archaeology at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia. Her research is based in NE Thailand at the site Ban Non Wat. Belinda has travelled and worked in NE Thailand since 2008 and also southern Laos since 2010 through a consultancy project under James Cook University, in association with the Department of Cultural Heritage (Lao PDR) .