I am currently trying to decide on whether I should get a Master’s degree prior to my PhD, go to a PhD program that offers an en route Master’s, or go straight into a PhD program from my undergraduate degree.

--Deciding Masters or PhD

Dear Deciding,

This decision is tough for many students to make because they want to earn their chosen degrees as soon as possible, but they want to gain the right kind of education and experience needed in the field after graduating.

You will need to consider many factors to make this decision, the two biggest being time and money. How much time and how much money you want to invest in your education can be a driving force in which route you should take.

Depending on what the program requires in completing courses, exams, and a dissertation, you could earn your PhD in 3–7 years. Of course, this also depends on which route you take, as you mentioned in your question. Many PhD programs offer more funding opportunities (e.g., internships, fellowships) than do terminal Master’s programs, which can be helpful if you have to leave another job to complete your PhD. Also, there are more options for PhD programs than there are for Master’s only programs, and many advisors would recommend that if you know you eventually want a PhD, you should start as soon as possible so that all your contacts and information are fresh.

In comparison, Master’s programs usually take 2–3 years to complete, significantly less time than PhD programs. However, Master’s students have fewer choices for financial aid. Another thing you might want to consider is the professional implications having a Master’s or having a PhD. In many fields, a Master’s is the only higher degree that people are concerned with; however, this is not always the case, with one of the largest exceptions being academia. You could talk to people who work in the fields in which you’re interested to learn what kind of degrees they have and recommend. In the end, think about your long-term goals and what you want to achieve in your career to help you decide whether to get your PhD or Master’s.

--René Paulson, PhD

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