Originally Posted: Jun 20, 2011
Last Updated: Apr 24, 2017
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. If you have 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.
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 Ph.D. usually requires at least five to six years and many people take seven to nine years.
The old adage "time = money" was never so true as with graduate school. Since a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. 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 they find themselves strapped with huge loans when they graduate.
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 Ph.D. 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.
Pros and cons
So we know that graduate school requires time, money and commitment for both a master's and a Ph.D. So which should you choose?
If all you want is a raise, a Ph.D. is probably not the road to choose. If you love learning in and of itself, and you want to pursue a career as a professor, then the work required for a Ph.D. may be worthwhile. Master's degrees tend to be more career oriented while Ph.D.'s tend to be more research oriented since they are preparing people for research-based careers.
A master's degree has some definite benefits in that it requires less time and money than a doctoral degree, but will still set you apart from the crowd who only have a bachelor's. The master's degree can allow specialization within a field. The degree works especially well for those who have been working in a particular career for some time and hope to advance or gain new knowledge that will qualify them for a different position within their field.
A master's degree can also be an excellent method of changing careers. For those who have been in the workforce and found that their career or undergraduate education are not leading them in the direction they would like to go, a master's degree can allow them to start in a different direction by gaining new knowledge and skills.
However, there are things that a master's degree simply cannot do. For those who want to become professors, a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D.
A Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. can open doors.
One of the less tangible, though very important, aspects of getting a Ph.D. consists in the ideal of creating knowledge. Ph.D. work requires original research that contributes new information to the field of study. People interested in pursuing a Ph.D. should love their studies and be excited by the prospect of meaningful contribution.
Still not sure what to do?
To summarize, a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. Since it takes longer, schools recognize that those trying to acquire their Ph.D.'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 Ph.D. 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 you chances of getting financial aid.
The second consideration is that the Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. program, you could ask them to then consider you for the master's degree program, but that may not be allowed.