Should you work towards a Master’s or Doctoral degree? Which is right for you?

Should you work towards a Master’s or Doctoral degree? Which is right for you?

If you are considering going to graduate school, you are probably wondering which degree to get. The choice should not be too difficult once you understand the differences among the two types: doctorate and masters. Graduate school is a lot of work and can be very competitive. Many students who floated through undergraduate work are surprised to find that graduate school requires a much larger commitment. Students who are taking a full course load as well as teaching or working other jobs often find themselves overwhelmed. The difference between college and graduate school lies in the ability of the student to focus on their field and areas of most interest.

When considering the advantages of each, remember that both will give you in-depth training in a specialized field and the usefulness of each degree depends on your academic and career interests/goals. However, the higher the degree, the longer it takes to earn and the more specialized the focus becomes. For that reason, here are some things to consider.

What is a Doctoral Degree?

The most common doctorate, and main focus of this post, is the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Obtaining a Ph.D. degree means you have exclusive specialty in your field of choice. Bear in mind that one of the 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. In order to earn your Ph.D., you will be required to pass comprehensive exams and a dissertation. What many students don’t know is that they can apply for a Ph.D. program directly after completing a bachelor’s degree, although some schools do require a master’s degree before entering a Ph.D. program.

Purpose and Uses of a Doctorate

In terms of possibilities, there are things a doctorate degree can do that a Master’s simply cannot. For those who want to become professors, a practically mandatory as a doctorate demonstrates a person’s competence in research and knowledge of the subject of choice. Even for those few who can find teaching positions with only a master’s degree, most schools want to see progress toward a Ph.D. and an increase in publications.

Other reasons that exist to get a Ph.D. include the desire to be called “Doctor,” or the romantic notion of earning a Ph.D. from a prestigious institution, but these reasons will not be enough motivation for you to stick it out through the end if the program- especially if your professional goals do not require the degree.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Ph.D.?

A Ph.D. usually requires at least five to six years and many people take seven to nine years (although it really highly depends on the field, the student’s research topic, and the student’s skills towards writing their dissertation).

What is a Master’s Degree?

Master’s degrees tend to be a more career-oriented program and requires less time (and money) than a doctoral degree, while also setting you apart from the Bachelor degree crowd. The master’s degree also produces specialization within a field, but are more flexible than doctoral degrees, and have a wide range of professional and academic applications. There are three types of masters programs: research, professional, and terminal.

Purposes and Uses of a Master’s Degree

The variety and uses of master’s degrees are vast and prepare students for a range of pursuits through specialized study. Research master’s enhance a student’s research skills and prepare them for a Ph.D. program, while professional and terminal masters teach students skills they will need as practitioners in their respective fields.

Research masters degrees are typically for academic and applied research disciplines that are a stepping stone to a doctorate degree. Examples of the research master’s degree include Master of Arts in History, or Master of Science in Biology. If you are considering a research masters, discuss your options and career goals with professors, advisors, or professionals in your field of interest.

Professional masters degrees prepare a person to do professional work by introducing practical skills and frameworks for understanding in their field of interest. Professional masters degrees may also qualify a person to practice in their field, for example: social work, architecture, or teaching.

Masters degrees that are the highest academic degree in their field are called terminal masters. As mentioned before, while some master’s may serve as a step towards a doctorate, master’s such as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing or a Masters in Library Science are as high as you can go for academic accreditation.


How Long Does it Take to Earn a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is the first level of graduate study after you finish a bachelor’s degree and usually requires 1-3 years to complete.

Which is higher?

On the academic path, a master’s might come before a Ph.D., but the Ph.D. is a higher and more prestigious award. Students do not always have to follow the path, but typically the Bachelor’s degree is a “first” degree, the masters “second,” and a doctorate is terminal.

Which Costs More?

Either way school costs money (tuition, fees, books, etc.), however, there is also a significant loss of money if you are not working through assistantships or part time employment. With that in mind, because a Ph.D. takes longer to complete, it requires more money than a master’s. The up side to this is that a Ph.D. will most likely yield a higher salary upon completion.

Keep in mind…

As quoted by fellow blogger Ryan Krone, please keep in mind that “if you intend on financing graduate school using student loans, take into consideration the 4-5 years of time it takes to complete the PhD compared to the masters and be aware of the debt burden that will place on you after you finish your doctorate.  University positions may not pay well enough for you to pay back your student loans, forcing you to take a private sector position in order to make ends meet. 

Most people when they first start this process don’t understand how much debt they’ll acquire at the end of the day and they don’t realize how onerous that debt burden will be once graduation day comes till they get hit with the bill.

If want to pursue a doctorate be sure to do one of two things:

1)      plan for a high paying job come graduation, or

2)      seek other financial assistance such as grants, scholarships, stipends, or fellowships to supplement loans” (see my How to Find Free Money series for more information).

Salary Differences

After looking at the different commitments the two degree programs requires, consider the average salaries for master’s and Ph.D. graduates. Below is a 2014 income chart from the United States Census Bureau about employee earnings based on occupation and education levels attained.


As you can see, overall, the average earnings of doctorate holders are higher than other degree holders within the same industries or field. However, the earning gap between Master’s and Ph.D. holders varies on different majors or fields of study. For example, in psychology occupations, a Ph.D. holder earns 33% more than that of a master’s. While in some other fields, such as engineering, there is only a difference of 7 percent. So if you are looking for ways to improve your career and earning higher wages, obtaining a MBA degree, for example, may be worthwhile financially as graduates of M.A.’s receive similar earnings as those with doctorates.

Weighing your Options

Still not sure what to do? To summarize, Master's tend to be more career-oriented while Ph.D.’s are more research-oriented. A doctorate may be worth it if you truly love your field, and want the benefits associated with the doctoral degree. But, if you are simply looking to change fields or gain a promotion, 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 doctorates take longer to achieve, schools recognize that those trying to get a Ph.D. need more financial assistance than those pursuing a Master’s. So during the application process, keep these two things in mind: First, if you think you may want a Ph.D., apply to the doctoral program as there is no penalty for changing your mind later and deciding to leave with a Master’s degree-this only increases you chances of getting financial aid. Second, Ph.D. programs are more competitive, and applying to it might decrease your chances of acceptance versus a Master’s program.


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 to consider when deciding to go to graduate school here and here.

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