Pros and Cons of Getting a Master’s Before a Doctorate Part 1: What’s the Difference?

Pros and Cons of Getting a Master’s Before a Doctorate
Part 1: What’s the Difference?

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.

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What No One Told Me about Graduate School

What No One Told Me about Graduate School

What I wish I knew

There are things no one will tell you about your first year of graduate school, and the Internet is full of postgraduate “advice” from former and current grad students warning people to stay out of graduate school. Some advice: If someone tells you what they wish they would have done or known before entering a graduate program, listen. There are a lot of problems you’re going to have to face in this adjustment period. Having watched others and gone through the process myself, I’m here to offer you my own two sense and help make the transition smoother.

Here's what no one will tell you about the next 2+ years of your life:

Grad school isn’t like undergrad. The atmosphere from undergrad to graduate school is a complete change of pace. As an undergraduate, you were most likely discovering yourself (such as your interests or political views). By the time you hit graduate school, most of the self-discovery has been found and all that’s left is the work. Graduate classes tend to be longer, smaller, and include much more self-paced work outside of the classroom. Remember, as a grad student, your academic future now depends on the success of your research.

SO MUCH READING. Everything is reading and as the work load increases, students suddenly find that they are expected to master 2-3 times the material that they were used to as undergraduates.  You may no longer have exams to study for, but you have pages and pages of reading every week. This can be intimidating, but don’t panic. Keep a large collection of highlighters and post-its handy and during this adjustment period you will be surprised at the extreme time management skills you will hone in order to get it all done on time.

Your classes will discuss those readings. Always read and take notes on your readings. You will be discussing these readings as a class (which counts towards participation).

There are no right answers. As you work towards your dissertation you’re exploring subjects that don’t necessary have a right or definitive way to address or answer them. The things you address as a grad student deal more with solving problems not yet resolved.

Grades are different in graduate school. It is time to think “differently” about grades. Grades were all important as an undergraduate, but as a grad student they become less significant. Don’t take this observations as to say that academic performance is not vital, however, be aware that time spent on coursework is time spent away from research.

You’ll need to be a self-starter. Unlike undergrads, advisors will not seek you out if a problem arises. Instead, you’ll need to track your own courses and find the people you need to speak with when issues arise. When it comes to research, you may work with a faculty member as an advisor, but when it comes to writing or conducting research, no one can push you in any one direction. You’ll need to be self-motivated.

Adapt or die. There is a large transition and adjustment period involved when relocating to a new city; leaving family and friends, and starting a new program all bring about significant personal change and adjustment. Allow yourself time to find your rhythm in graduate activities such as teaching and supervising students, as well as building new relationships and navigating within a new city and program.

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Your First Conference: Part 2

Your First Conference: Part 2


What should I bring to my presentation?

First, always double check your room location.  Sometimes room locations change or floor plans can be confusing, so try to physically visit the room if possible. Second, almost all rooms are set up with projectors and screens, but you will need to bring your own laptop if you want to utilize a visual presentation. If possible, test to make sure your computer works with the technology provided before your presentation. Third, you may want to bring hard copies of your paper or of key points that you wish to emphasize as part of your presentation to hand out upon request.

Prepare an “elevator speech.” You should have a short, roughly 30 second version of your speech explaining your research that can answer the “so what do you do?” question that you’ll get at the conference.

Send copies of your paper to your panel. This provides the discussants with what they need to give you feedback after the presentation. In turn, respondents should always provide you and the other presenters with written feedback as well as their presentation response. However, keep in mind that your paper should only be sent to the panel chair if the conference requires it.

Dress comfortably, but conservatively. Adhere to the formality of the conference when choosing your conference attire. The dress code for conferences are a little different than for a job interview or other events that require business professional attire; think business casual. Some great go-to options for anyone are:

  • Pants: Khaki or navy pants, neatly pressed are safe business casual for both men and women.
  • Shirt: Polo shirts, blouse, or a pressed long-sleeved, buttoned down shirt are an appropriate choice for this sort of environment.
  • Shoes: Be sure to wear shoes that are in good condition and comfortable. Athletic shoes and flip flops are not acceptable, and heels are uncomfortable during long periods of wear.

How do I get to know people?

Do not spend too much time alone. Mealtimes and snack breaks are a great time to network and meet scholars in your field. If there’s someone you’ve been trying to meet with, see if you can go with them to lunch. If you don’t know anyone, ask to join a group that’s headed to eat. Even if their topics of interest end up being outside of your research interests that can still be a good opportunity to practice your elevator speech, as well as a way to meet different people in your field. Additionally, there is sometimes a specific event for graduate students to meet, so plan to attend if there is one being held at your conference.

Read name tags. Pay attention to attendees in the audience, sitting next to you at lunch, or standing in the hall and consider approaching them. The best way to do this is by showing interest in them and their research instead of trying to sell yourself, make your conversations about them, not you.

Don’t be afraid to approach researchers. A good way to meet people, especially for graduate students/first time conference attendees, is through an introduction. Remember, every researcher was once a graduate student and know what it’s like. If you’ve read a researcher’s book or paper, it’s easy to start a conversation with them by saying that you’ve read their work, and sharing how you found it meaningful to your own research. If you want to get feedback on your research from them, don’t be afraid to ask.

Look for people who look like they don’t know anybody. Keep in mind that people at the conference are in the same situation as you. Look for people who look like they don’t know anyone either and introduce yourself. They are usually easy to spot and often first time conference attendees as well.



Answering audience questions and responding to comments is often the most anxious and dreadful part of the presentation, or even the entire conference. There can be many misconceptions among graduate students about panelists or audience members verbally attacking student presenters—in fact, it’s the opposite. Most conference attendees and researchers want to support graduate students, and often ask helpful questions and make positive remarks about their presentations. However, the best way to prepare is to practice and get feedback from advisors and other graduate students before attending the conference.

What do I do if someone asks me a question and I am uncertain of the answer?

Ask the questioner to restate the question in a different way or provide an example that illustrates what they are asking. This will give you a few moments to think of an answer and the questioner may be clearer in a restatement. Another option is to politely say that you are uncertain and suggest that another panel or audience member may have a good answer; and hopefully someone will be able to offer a good response. If not, the panel chair should interrupt and move the Q & A session forward.

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What is an Academic Coach? Do you need one?

What is an Academic Coach? Do you need one?


Academic coaching is an interactive process that focuses on the personal relationship created between the student and the coach. The coach challenges the student to think about his or her personal and/or professional goals in order to relate them to his or her academic/educational goals. In this learning process, it is important for the coach to encourage the student to become more self-aware by understanding his or her strengths, values, interests, purpose, and passion.” -National Academic Advising (NACADA) 

According to a 2011 study by Eric Bettinger and Rachel Baker, “college completion and college success often lag behind college attendance.” Bettinger and Baker say that a reason students struggle to succeed in college is they often lack key information about how to be successful.

Academic coaching is a service provided for undergraduate and graduate students with a trained academic coach who can help you improve your study skills and performance. An academic coach will listen to your needs and concerns as a student and work closely with you to develop personalized academic goals and suggest tools, resources, and strategies to assist you in reaching those goals. Investing in an academic coach improves the odds that students will make the best use of their time in college. Graduate and undergraduate students are expected to be able to manage themselves and their time independently and to be prepared for more rigorous academic challenges.

Academic Coaching versus Tutoring

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