Are you ready for graduate school? As a potential applicant to graduate school, you have quite a few decisions ahead of you. If you are considering a graduate degree, you might wonder what the differences are between the Master’s and Doctorate, or which one is right for you. When you enroll in a graduate degree program, be prepared for a different experience from undergrad.

Eddie Machek describes the three types of higher education degrees perfectly: “At a bachelor’s level, you are going to go out and do what’s been done. At the master’s level, you are going to be in charge of the people who are doing that stuff. In a Ph.D., that’s a whole other thing because you are doing the new stuff. You are in a lab.”[1] When considering the merits of a master’s versus a doctoral program, remember that both will give you in-depth training in a specialized field. However, as I stated in my How to Deal with Grad School Competition blog, the usefulness of each degree depends on your academic and career goals.

 Comparison Chart of Basic Differences between Masters and Doctoral Degrees 




Types and examples

Academic or research (MPhil), Professional (MPA, MSW), Terminal (MFA, MBA)

Academic or research (Ph.D., Ed.D)
Professional (M.D., J.D.)

Why get this degree?

To research, is necessary for profession, is an intermediate step before doctoral, broaden your knowledge of an issue/subject area, increase your skill set for a job

To research, teach at the university level, is necessary for profession

Time to complete degree

1-3 years, full-time.
Longer, part-time.

2-8 years, full-time.
Longer, part-time.

Chart taken from “What’s the difference between a masters and a doctoral degree?”, LinkedIn 2015, URL:


What are Masters’ Degrees?

A master’s degree is the first level of graduate study and typically takes one to three years to complete. Master’s degrees are also considered more versatile than doctorates as they tend to be more career-oriented. Upon completion, program graduates are expected to have advanced knowledge within their specialized field including how to apply their newly acquired skills. Generally speaking, there are three types of masters programs:

Research Master’s

Although primarily used in the UK, the term Research Masters’ degree is the application of these types of degrees is typically for academic and applied research disciplines (e.g., Master of Arts in History or Master of Science in Biology). In some fields, earning a “research master’s” without a doctorate restricts professional options—as research jobs within government and industry labs are competitive, and tenure-track faculty positions are notoriously hard to obtain.

Professional Master’s

Professional masters degrees prepare you to do professional work by introducing the skills and frameworks for understanding the issues and services of that field. Professional masters degrees sometimes are also a means of qualifying you to practice in that field (e.g., Master of Social Work or Master of Business Administration).

Terminal Master’s

Most degrees considered terminal are doctorates, however, some master’s degrees “terminal” if the field does not offer a doctorate. Therefore, terminal masters degrees are the highest academic degree in their field (e.g., Master of Fine Arts or a Masters in Library Science). While some master’s degrees may serve as a steppingstone towards a doctorate, these are the highest academic accreditation in those fields.

 What are Doctoral Degrees?

A doctorate is the highest earned academic degree. Obtaining a doctoral degree means having an exclusive specialty in your field. Because of the nature of specialization, Ph.D. programs tend to be smaller than master’s programs, but the exact amount of completion time varies from four to eight years, as this is highly depends on the field, the student’s research topic, and skills. Doctorate programs prepare students to initiate new projects and discuss new ideas that add to the collective knowledge of the field. Doctoral candidates often seek careers as professors and researchers, but graduates also go on to nonprofit, public, and private sectors.

Doctoral Programs in Health Professions


There is a wide range of degrees available in the health profession (e.g., Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Nursing Practice). These programs prepare licensed health professionals for clinical practice and leadership roles. Doctoral graduates can also research, develop, and implement solutions for the health industry.

Doctoral Programs in Legal Professions

The most common doctoral degree in the legal field is a Juris Doctor (J.D.), although some schools do offer a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Law. J.D. students study general law before focusing on an area of concentration. J. D. programs also prepare students for a practice-oriented career such as an attorney, barrister, counselor, lawyer, or other legal professions as well as to succeed in the exams required to practice law in most countries. The Ph.D. in Law program is for graduates who have already earned their J.D. and primarily focus on research and a dissertation. Research areas in Ph.D. Law programs span international law, legal science, professors, researchers, and policymakers. Many graduates from these programs go on to leadership positions in high courts, humanitarian organizations, and government, to name a few.

Doctoral Programs in Biological and Biomedical Sciences

Doctoral degrees in biomedical sciences include several areas of specialization. Students can choose from concentrations such as biomedical engineering, developmental biology, molecular biology, neurobiology of disease, immunology, genetics and genomics, and gene therapy. These programs often include lab rotations and teaching training.

Honorary Doctorates

An honorary doctoral degree is an academic degree for which a university has waived the usual requirements (such as admittance, a dissertation, or the passing of examinations). Nearly all awarded by universities are one of the following: D.D. (Doctor of Divinity), L.H.D (Doctor of Humane Letters), LL.D. (Doctor of Laws), Litt.D. (Doctor of Letters), D.Mus. (Doctor of Music), or Sc.D. (Doctor of Science). The degree is typically awarded to someone who has no previous postsecondary education or prior connection with the academic institution.


Knowing your professional goals will help guide your choices for graduate study. Certain career paths, such as a lawyer or surgeon, are clearly outlined with the necessary steps, including the required educational level and graduate degree. Other career paths are less restrictive and you will need to conduct more research to find out the steps. Thoroughly research your field of interest and have a strong understanding of the skills and knowledge will help inform you which degree option makes the most sense for your goals.


Still unsure on what program to pursue? Remember, when going to graduate school, be prepared for a different experience from your undergraduate years. When you enroll in a graduate degree program, it’s best to be and stay motivated by professional and academic goals. Read about other things PhDStudent advises to consider when deciding to go to graduate school here, here, and here.




[1] Information taken from “Choose Between a Master’s, Ph.D. in Engineering,” US News 2015, URL:




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