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Master’s vs. Ph.D.: What’s the Difference and Which One to Choose?

November 2021

If graduate school is on your radar, one of the first things to consider is what type of degree you should pursue. While a bachelor’s degree is required for any postgraduate study, many people think you need a master’s to pursue a Ph.D., but that isn’t always the case. While there are benefits to receiving your master’s degree before your Ph.D., it’s not always necessary or required. However, there are important differences to note when deciding which type of program to apply to.

Master’s degree

A master’s degree usually takes about two years to complete full time. There are programs that allow a student to attend on a part-time basis, but that of course extends the completion time. Many master’s programs require a thesis to be completed, but not all. A thesis is a research project that is completed during the final year of a master’s program under the guide of your program chair or advisor.

Under the master’s umbrella, there are quite a few specific degrees you can obtain. Your professional path will determine which of these you pursue.

  • Master of Arts (MA) is given for disciplines in the arts and social sciences.
  • Master of Science (MS) is given for sciences, health, engineering and statistics.
  • Master of Research (MRes) is focused on training students to become researchers. This is advantageous to a student if they’re pursuing a research-based career or planning to apply for a Ph.D. program.
  • Master by Research (MPhil) is similar to a MRes but is more advanced and focuses on particular research topic to be explored in depth. It’s often considered a precursor to a Ph.D. program.

Specialized master’s degrees

There are numerous specialized master’s degrees that are categorized by profession. These are often (not always) preceded by some professional experience prior to undertaking these types of advanced degrees.

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Library Science (MLS, MLIS, MSLS)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Laws (LLM)
  • Master of Education (MEd, MSEd, MIT, MAEd, MAT)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
  • Master of Architecture (MArch)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Divinity (MDiv)

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

There are many Ph.D. programs and, in general, it’s considered the most advanced type of research degree you can obtain. Ph.D. candidates are required to complete a dissertation to obtain their degree. Unlike a thesis, a dissertation is longer and consists of original research conducted throughout the entire doctoral study. In some cases, students may be awarded a stipend, or pay, to complete the doctoral program and dissertation.

Ph.D.’s take a considerably longer time to complete than a master’s, five to eight years on average, and they carry a rather high rate of noncompletion due to time and financial commitments. Many Ph.D. programs have stipends available, so it’s important to inquire about that when researching a particular program.

Specialized doctorate programs

As with master’s degrees, there are a number of specialized doctorate programs specific to different disciplines and areas of study:

  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Engineering (EngD/PhD)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD/D.Ed)
  • Doctor of Social Science (DsocSci)
  • Doctor of Professional Studies (DProf)
  • Doctor of Architecture (DArch)
  • Doctor of Theology (Th.D)
  • Doctor of Divinity (DD/DDiv)
  • Doctor of Science STEM (Dsc/ScD)
  • Doctor of Science Arts & Humanities (DLitt/LitD)

When deciding which one to get, consider your immediate or long-term career goals — which degree would serve you best? In some cases, you can obtain a Ph.D. with just a bachelor’s degree, but often it’s recommended you get a master’s first for the research experience that will be required for a Ph.D.

As with anything, there are exceptions. Students in law school obtain a J.D. (Juris Doctor) but can then further obtain a master’s in a sub-specialty like tax or immigration law. The health care occupations of physical therapist and pharmacist are also doctorate programs obtained post undergrad.

Making your choice

As with any decision, weigh your options, list pros and cons, and go from there. Once you’ve narrowed your options, take advantage of the matching methodology employed by GradSchoolMatch.com to provide a precise list of programs and institutions generated for your specific goals.

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