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Master's or PhD: Which One Should You Choose?

You know you want an advanced degree, but just how advanced? Keep reading to discover the key differences between master's and doctoral degrees.

Just as there are many reasons people choose to go to graduate school, there are many options from which they may choose. Do you want to attend full-time? Maybe you want to go part-time and work. Or perhaps an online program option will work best for you. But before you can decide on the format type of your program, you need to decide on your program. If you’ve selected a field of study, you may be wondering whether you should get a master's degree or a doctoral degree. Here are some things to consider to help you choose which one is best for you.

3 key differences between programs

Before you can properly weigh the pros and cons of a master’s degree vs. a doctoral program, you must understand the major differences between the two programs. And although that may sound like pros and cons in itself, a pros and cons list is based mainly on your personal preference. So before figuring out preference, you must consider the facts, and these are it.

Time

A graduate degree requires a significant investment of time. Master's degrees require less time than doctoral degrees. Typically a full-time student can acquire a master's degree in about two years. A PhD usually requires at least five to six years and many people take seven to nine years.

Money

The adage "time = money" was never so true as with graduate school. Since a PhD takes longer to complete, it also requires more money. (Not that a master's degree is cheap either!) The flip side to this is that a PhD may yield a higher salary upon completion and is therefore worth the increased cost long term. With both degrees, school costs money (tuition, fees, books, etc.). In addition, however, there is also a significant loss of money if the student is not working or is earning low wages through assistantships or part-time employment. Many people find they must either live a Spartan lifestyle for many years or find themselves strapped with huge loans when they graduate.

Commitment

Graduate school takes work. Most people are not going to argue with this. However, many students who drifted through college are surprised to find that graduate school requires a much larger commitment in terms of work and intellectual energy. Graduate schools are frequently very competitive. Students who are taking a full course load as well as teaching often find themselves overwhelmed. And of course, the many years of school required for a PhD require perseverance on a scale above and beyond what undergraduates must contemplate. The difference between college and graduate school lies in the ability of the student to focus on their field and the subjects and areas that most interest them. While graduate school requires more work, most students find the work enjoyable since it involves an area in which they are very interested.

Related: Great Expectations: How Grad School Differs From Undergrad

The what ifs of choosing a master's or PhD

So we know that graduate school requires time, money, and commitment for both a master's and a PhD. So which should you choose?

  • If all you want is a raise, a PhD is probably not the road to choose. A master’s degree will boost your career possibilities enough for the kind of raise you want.
  • If you love learning in and of itself, then the work required for a PhD may be worthwhile. Master's degrees tend to be more career oriented while PhD's tend to be more research oriented since they’re preparing people for highly academic, research-based careers.
  • If you want to save time and progress your career, a master's degree has benefits in that it requires less time and money than a doctoral degree but will still set you apart from those who only have a bachelor's. A master's can allow specialization within a field. The degree works well for those who’ve been working in a career for some time and hope to advance within their field.
  • If you’re looking for a new path in life, a master's degree can also be an excellent method of changing careers. For those who’ve found their career or undergraduate education aren’t leading them in the direction they would like to go, a master's degree can allow them to start fresh by gaining new knowledge and skills.
  • If you want to become a professor, a PhD is practically mandatory. Even for those few who can find teaching positions with only a master's, most schools want to see progress toward a PhD.
  • If you really want to impress, a PhD can also be helpful outside the world of academia in today's increasingly competitive job market. Businesses are searching for extremely qualified people who have demonstrated intelligence, perseverance, and the ability to learn. A PhD can open doors.
  • If you want to impact the world with original work, PhD work requires original research that contributes new information to your chosen field of study. People interested in pursuing a PhD should love their studies and be excited by the prospect of meaningful contribution.

Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Degree for Your Goals

Making your decision

To summarize, a PhD may be worth it if you truly love your field, enjoy your studies, and want the benefits and prestige associated with the doctoral degree. If you are simply looking to change fields or gain a promotion or do not think you could maintain interest through at least five to six years of school, then a master's is probably a better choice. However, it is worth noting that you may be able to get more financial aid for a PhD Since it takes longer, schools recognize that those trying to acquire their PhD's need more assistance than those who only want a master's degree. This adds an interesting dimension to the application process for two reasons.

First, if you think you may want a PhD but still are not sure, it is probably better to apply to the doctoral program. There is no penalty for changing your mind later and deciding to leave with a master's degree, and it increases your chances of getting financial aid. The second consideration is that the PhD program can be more competitive, and applying to it rather than the master's degree program might decrease your chances of admission. If you are denied entrance to the PhD program, you could ask them to then consider you for the master's degree program, but that may not be allowed.

Related: 7 Important Things to Do Before Applying to Graduate School

We’re glad you came seeking advice on which advanced degree program is right for you. It’s a big decision to make that you shouldn’t take lightly, and seeking the right knowledge to make an informed decision is only going to benefit you. Use this advice, take some time to think it over, and go forward knowing you’re making the best decision for your future goals and career.

Once you’ve made your decision on applying to a master’s or PhD program, start searching for just the right one with our Graduate School Search tool 

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