What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing an integrated masters degree (e.g. MPhys or MSci), as opposed to a BSc degree followed by a postgraduate masters degree such as an MSc?
Historically it was much cheaper to do the 4th year of an integrated masters programme than to do a standalone 1-year masters degree, although this is no longer the case (for UK-based students), especially since student loans are now available to postgraduate students as well as to those on undergraduate/integrated programmes. Ultimately it comes down to individual student preferences, e.g. if there is a standalone specialised 1-year MSc course somewhere which particularly interests you, and whether you have any particular plans for afterwards (careers, PhD, etc.). For physics it is still true that the integrated MPhys is still the “industry standard”. The great majority of UK-based physics PhD students (at Durham, at least) come via integrated masters programmes, although a few do come with a BSc plus separate MSc. In fact some entrants to PhD programmes don’t have a masters degree at all – they have a BSc – although it is likely that they will have been required to perform very well in it (e.g. First Class). Occasionally students with a BSc register for an MSc then transfer to the PhD.
Even in continental Europe, practices and perspectives differ among countries and even within countries. Integrated masters programmes do exist, but they generally include the award of a bachelors qualification after the first three years, followed by a further one or two years of research-led study leading to the award of the masters-level qualification. In some institutions the masters-level part is fairly specialised but in others is more rounded (more like the UK MPhys). There is certainly no universally-held view that UK integrated masters degrees are better or worse than a BSc+MSc combination, as preparation for doctoral study.
As stated on the IoP web site (http://www.iop.org/careers/i-am-at-school-college/undergraduate-courses/page_57508.html), “An additional benefit of studying for an accredited MPhys or MSci is that you will have met the educational requirements for Chartered Physicist status.” All the Durham physics degrees are accredited by the IoP, but the above means the subsequent professional recognition might be easier to obtain with an MPhys degree than with a BSc possibly in combination with something else. If you’d like more details about this then it is probably best to contact the IoP directly.
For completeness we also mention that we have encountered one instance of a former student seeking employment outside Europe (in this case, the Far East) and having difficulties convincing the employer that a UK MPhys degree was actually better than a BSc, and that the fact that (s)he did not possess a bachelors degree was not a cause for concern. The employer’s standard application criteria were too constrained to accommodate such a scenario. As far as we can tell, such problems are rare, and are certainly not specific to Durham graduates: in general, outside academia and the scientific professions, especially outside Europe, there is much less awareness about integrated masters degrees.
Finally, for some students, the fact that an integrated masters degree provides an extra year of study in an environment with which you have become very familiar, and among people you already know, is an advantage. For other students the prospect of moving somewhere new instead, e.g. to undertake an MSc, is attractive and stimulating.
Your academic adviser may have her/his own views on this topic – you may wish to speak with her/him about it.