An MSc degree is a funny thing, because it means very different things to different people. There are as many different philosophies about what skills should be learned during an MSc as there are advisors overseeing students in these positions. Yesterday I had a conversation with a senior colleague (SC) about a student that SC is supervising and how SC would never take on another MSc student again because they have to be handed a project and can't take a long view. This struck me as odd, because I have never seen an MSc student as a PhDlite, but after talking with SC for a while it was clear they did.
For me, I see an MSc as an intro to science. I don't mean that in a condescending way or to imply that a BSc (including undergrad research) doesn't give you a feel for science, but an MSc degree is the first time many students have some ownership of a project and need to plan things. At the same time, I don't generally give an MSc student the kind of leeway to figure out what they want to do, as a PhD student might get.
Part of my reasoning is based on time (you can't spend a year of an MSc degree kicking the tires of various projects) and the other part is that it is very hard for a student at that level to see both the forest and the trees. A masters project needs to be tight enough to fit in the time frame, yet contribute to the broader picture and I don't think it is fair for us to assume that students fresh out of undergrad can identify a project of that nature and execute it in 2 years. There is also the issue of funding. A PhD student can pursue a couple of topics, and thus stray a bit more from the projects the lab has funding for, but an MSc student needs to keep their focus on the project at hand, which is often one that moves the lab forward along the lines of on-going projects.
In the end, I think an MSc degree should provide students with a solid background in critical thinking, science as a process and give them ideas as to what the next step is. For many, that will be getting employment related to their field with an increased appreciation for, and ability to perform, the science behind their job. For others it may be that they want to go on and tackle a PhD, but the MSc degree put them in a place to know what questions they want to ask and how to get at them. From that perspective, I don't see the MSc as a truncated PhD or a consolation prize, but a unique degree in it's own right that can be extremely helpful for those students.
Another one of my SCs uses the thesis of MSc students as the basis of manuscripts, but modifies them for submission themselves rather than have the student do it. The paragraph above is also the reason I do not write my student's manuscripts for them. Yes, I will edit them and work them through the process, but the students are responsible for the initial draft and all revisions, based on feedback. Writing is a critical skill for students to learn and if they want to continue in science I want them to know what the submission process is like. Obviously, if a student finishes up and decides not to pursue a publication, I will do it myself, but I have only once seen this happen over my time in academia.
In any case, I would be curious to hear how others see the MSc degree.
8 hours ago