PhD vs. Master’s Degree: What’s the Difference? 

Read on to understand which graduate degree program is right for you.

The progression of degrees in the United States goes as follows: diploma, certificate, career training associates degree, transfer associates degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctoral degree, and professional degree. Each progressive degree is designed to provide the student with a greater amount of knowledge. Despite this, not everybody needs to obtain the highest degree level in order to be successful in their career. Continue reading if you are considering graduate school but are unsure which degree is the best fit for your career goal.

Before the differences are outlined, let’s talk about the similarities between a master’s degree and a PhD. Both are programs designed to provide you with a higher level of education in the field. In these programs, you apply the information that you learned to tangible reports or projects, depending on your major.

In both graduate programs, you will be required to put a greater amount of effort into your homework, research papers, and projects than you did during your undergraduate education. Long gone are the days when you could sleep through class and get by with rote memorization tactics. In graduate school, it’s essential that you come to class prepared, with all of your work completed, ready to contribute significantly to the class discussion. In essence, it should be treated like a job. Your passion and sheer enjoyment of the subject are important whether you are getting a master’s degree or a PhD. After graduation, both degrees will give you a better advantage over an undergraduate when applying for a position.

PhD vs Master’s Degree

When it comes to a master’s degree vs PhD, there are a significant number of differences. Typically, a master’s degree helps to prepare a student to enter the workforce by providing more in-depth education and skill training within a focused area that goes beyond what the student learned in a bachelor’s degree program. A masters may also be a first step towards earning a PhD, though not all students go on to complete this terminal degree.

Why Get a PhD?

What is a PhD good for? Could it help you? A PhD is a terminal degree meaning it provides the highest level of education and training in that field of study. Most often, this path is ideal for those who want to embark on a research-focused career or those who wish to teach at the university level. This type of path typically requires a significant amount of coursework, usually for two years, followed by preparing for a dissertation, which is a contribution of some original theory or other offering that’s added to the current knowledge of that subject.

Why Get a Master’s Degree?

How can a master’s degree help you? A master’s degree is typically beneficial to those who are planning to complete a career outside of academia, for example working a job in healthcare or public service. Most often, students spend their time completing coursework and may also have a thesis project or a capstone project completed towards the end of that educational path.

How Long Does a PhD Take?

Timing is a big concern for many people, especially those who want to get out into the world to start contributing to this area. How long does a PhD take? There is a lot of flexibility here in that students in some fields may study longer than others. Typically, a PhD program will take 5 to 7 years to complete. This includes the first years of earning a master’s degree. If the student already has a masters in the field, it may take another 3 to 5 years to complete their PhD studies.

How Long Does a Masters Degree Take?

How many years does it take to get a master’s degree? Like a PhD a master’s degree can take some time, but the length is dependent on factors such as the type of education and field of study. Most of the time, a master’s degree takes 1 to 2 years after the completion of a bachelor’s degree.

Admissions to Masters Degree and Doctoral Degrees Programs

Applying to any graduate program is going to be competitive. However, a PhD program is more competitive than a master’s degree program simply because it requires a greater amount of work and time to complete. In order to make yourself stand out in either program, make sure you highlight your commitment to the field and do the best you can in your undergraduate studies.

The amount of financial aid received is greater for a PhD candidate than for a master’s degree candidate because the time requirements are so much more intensive that the government, schools, and private organizations want to reward those students for taking on a higher level of commitment. Also, doctoral programs are typically more expensive than a master’s degree program and warrant a greater amount of financial aid.

There are two types of assistantships in grad school: a research assistantship and a teaching assistantship. In both positions, the student is hired by a faculty member to assist them with teaching or research. They are paid a small stipend from the school that helps to decrease the cost of their tuition. It is more common for a doctoral candidate to receive an assistantship than a student in a master’s degree program.

How to Apply to Get Your PhD

It may be possible to enter into a master’s – PhD program or go from completing your master’s into a different PhD Program. The application process can be complex and requires a lot of details to apply. Here’s what to focus on.

  • Build a resume that showcases your skills in the particular field. This may include any work experience as well as research completed in a master’s or bachelor’s program.
  • Work to get published. To be clear, you don’t apply for your actual PhD until you’ve completed the coursework, but to get into a PhD program, you’ll need to work to get published, a step that often takes working within research projects for some time. Seek out research projects within the college, nearby research hospitals or centers, or third-party programs.
  • Submit letters of recommendation. These may come from professionals or professors you’ve had. Seek out professionals with a PhD themselves.

Be sure to follow all directions when applying for PhD programs provided by the college. It’s often beneficial to hold a meeting with the professors, discuss your future, and be very academic-focused.

How to Apply to Get Your Masters Degree

Completing a bachelor’s degree is often the first step prior to applying for a master’s program. Each school has specific requirements for students who wish to pursue a master’s program. You will need to follow these steps.

  • Determine what the admission requirements to the master’s degree program are for that student. This may include GPA requirements, GMAT requirements, personal statements, reference letters, and a transcript from your previous university.
  • Apply for admission into the school with the goal of entering into the master’s program. Many colleges have a limit on the number of students within each master’s program. Apply to that program with your best credentials (work experience, educational accomplishments, and desired goals) to get into the program.
  • Consider asking previous professors in that field to write a letter of recommendation. In highly competitive master’s programs, this may be essential.

Applying for a master’s is a bit easier than a PhD program because this degree path is more readily available. Nevertheless, the school you get into here is important for your future goals as well.

Time Requirements for Masters Degrees and Doctoral Degrees

The most basic difference between a master’s degree and a PhD is the amount of time it takes to complete your degree program. A master’s degree can be completed in two years if you are attending school full-time, while a PhD can last anywhere between five and nine years. The time commitment directly correlates to the amount of work you will be doing in each program.

Careers Paths for Earners of a Masters Degree and PhD

Many people pursue a master’s degree to advance in their current careers or to switch careers completely. A student may pursue a PhD to advance their career, but usually, they are in the program in order to complete original research. They are expected to contribute new knowledge to academia with their findings. As a result, a master’s degree is more geared toward students who desire more credentials and knowledge for their chosen profession, while a PhD is for academics who are excited about contributing original research to their chosen field. Graduate students who leave school with a PhD are typically going into a field of research or plan to teach higher education.

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