Master’s vs. PhD Programs


Should you be considering master’s or PhD programs? What’s the difference between the two, anyway?

A Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy degree, or doctorate) is a more advanced degree than a master’s. It usually requires three years of graduate coursework, plus satisfactory performance on comprehensive exams (‘comps’) and completion of a significant piece of original research (usually presented in a written dissertation). It often takes five or more years for a doctoral candidate to complete all of their degree requirements.

Anyone who earns a Ph.D. should be justifiably proud. The degree is much more than an academic or professional credential. It represents acceptance into a community of scholars and researchers. Earning one requires enormous personal commitment and ongoing effort. Admission to, and success in, PhD programs demands much more than just good grades and high test scores. Commitment to the field of study, an ability to think broadly and creatively, and competence in establishing and maintaining productive professional relationships are just some of the additional attributes expected of doctoral candidates.

Master’s programs usually require two years of full-time study. Some are academically focused, and prepare students to go on to doctoral study. Others have a practical or professional focus, preparing students to advance in their careers. Some master’s programs require a written thesis. Others require a ‘capstone project’ that demonstrates the student’s ability to apply what he or she has learned in a practical setting.

An important factor in comparing master’s and doctoral programs is how the degrees are treated in the field you want to go into. In some disciplines, it is expected that people progress from a bachelor’s to a master’s to a doctoral degree. You may not even be considered for doctoral study until you’ve received a master’s – which takes the master’s-vs.-doctoral decision out of your hands.

phd programs

Many traditional PhD programs focus on preparing students to conduct scholarly research at 4-year universities.

There are other fields, however, where the decision has much greater consequences. Some master’s degrees are ‘terminal,’ meaning they lead to no higher level degree. A Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing is one example – there are no Ph.D. programs in creative writing. (There are, of course, PhD programs in literature, but they draw on a very different set of skills than MFA programs do.)

At the other extreme are fields where master’s degrees are of limited use. For example, many top psychology programs don’t even offer master’s degrees. The MS in psychology programs that do exist often prepare people for technical specialties such as measurements and testing, and may not be of particular value in preparing students for doctoral study. Anyone who wants to work in psychology on the professional level should think seriously of applying directly to doctoral programs.

If you’re not sure about whether you want to apply to master’s or PhD programs, you should take the time to think more about what you want out of graduate school, and to research the different programs that interest you. As always, your goal should be to select the educational program you are comfortable with, and that serves your unique interests, goals, and needs.

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