Masters vs PhD - What Are The Differences?

Masters vs PhD Degree - Which Is Right for You?

If you’re thinking about continuing your education after earning an undergraduate degree, you might wonder what the differences are between a Masters vs PhD. As many reasons as people have to pursue a graduate degree, there are just as many degrees available to you.

As a result, there are many things to consider when choosing between a Masters degree programs and PhD programs, including which degree is higher, which one costs more, and the types of degrees available.

masters vs phd

Which One Is Higher: A Masters or a PhD?

For most students, a bachelor’s degree is the 'first' degree, a Masters is the 'second' degree, and a Doctorate degree, such as the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), is a 'terminal degree'. But that doesn’t mean it’s the same path for everyone or for all subjects.

For instance, some nursing schools offer nursing bridge programs, which allow students to go straight from an ADN to MSN, or an entry-level MSN, which is designed for students with a non-nursing degree.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's Degree?

Usually a full-time graduate student might acquire a Master's degree in about two years. Master's degrees typically require less time than doctoral degrees. Either way, earning a graduate degree is a significant investment of time.

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD?

A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) usually requires at least five to six years in an accredited graduate school. Many students might take seven to nine years to complete depending on exams, coursework and dissertations required.

Which One Costs More?

Because a PhD takes longer to complete, it usually costs more money. The flip side to this is that a PhD may yield a higher salary upon completion and is therefore worth the increased cost long-term.

Whichever graduate degree you decide to pursue, you’ll have expenses, such as tuition, fees, books, and others. In addition, there is also a significant loss of money if you’re unable to work or only earn low wages through assistantships or part-time employment. Student loans are always an option to pursue, but they may have high interest rates that can take years to pay back.

Another thing to consider is that each school charges a different amount for graduate degrees. Therefore, be sure to consider the cost of each school before making a final decision.

Masters vs PhD: Weighing your Options

We know that graduate school requires time, money and commitment for both Masters and a PhD. So, which should you choose?

Masters degrees tend to be more career-oriented while PhD's tend to be more focused on research since they are preparing people for research-oriented careers or in academia. If all you want is a raise, a PhD is probably not the road to choose.

On the other hand, if you love learning in and of itself, research, and if you want to pursue a career as a professor, then the work required for PhD may be just for you. Also, many PhD programs require that you have earned a Masters, though there are exceptions. Therefore, check with the admissions requirements of all schools and programs before applying.

What Is a Masters Degree?

A Master’s degree is a second-cycle academic degree and the first level of graduate study, which means it is after a Bachelor’s degree and before a PhD.

how many years is a masters degree?

The Master's degree can allow specialization or concentration within a field so that you can focus your studies in-depth on a particular aspect of a subject. Pursuing a Master’s works especially well if you’ve been working in a particular career for some time and hope to qualify for a leadership position within your field.

A Master’s degree can also be an excellent method of changing careers. If you’ve been in the workforce and found that your career or undergraduate education are not leading you in the direction you’d like, a Master's degree can allow you to start in a different direction by gaining new knowledge and skills.

Benefits of Earning a Master’s Degree

Some of the benefits of earning a master’s degree are:

  • Less time and money than a PhD
  • More career-oriented than a PhD
  • Sets you apart from those with only a Bachelor’s degree
  • May have greater employment opportunities
  • May lead to greater career advancement

What Is a PhD?

Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, are considered terminal degrees, or the highest degree you can earn. PhDs are research-based academic degrees which are awarded in many fields. One of the many reasons to get a PhD is if you’d like to become a professor because a PhD is practically mandatory to become a postsecondary teacher.i Even for those few who can find teaching positions with only a Masters, most schools want to see progress toward a PhD.

A PhD can also be helpful outside the world of academia in today's increasingly competitive job market. Businesses are searching for extremely qualified people who have demonstrated intelligence, perseverance and the ability to learn in a variety of fields, including engineering, information technology, or many others.

Benefits of Earning a PhD

PhD work requires original research that contributes new information to the field of study. One of the less tangible, though very important, reasons to get a PhD consists in the idea of creating knowledge.

Some of the benefits of earning a PhD include:

  • You’ll be regarded as an expert in your field
  • Enhance your transferable skills, such as critical reasoning, problem-solving, and in-depth analysis
  • Add to the research and knowledge in your field
  • Improve your analytical skills
  • You can include Dr. in your title

Don’t forget, if you can’t or don’t want to relocate to earn your graduate degree, there is always the option of earning your degree through distance learning. Search for accredited online graduate programs for additional online masters and doctorate programs.

Commitment to Earning a Masters vs PhD

There’s no way around it, graduate school takes work. However, many students who drifted through college are surprised to find that graduate school requires a much larger commitment in terms of work and intellectual energy.

For instance, graduate schools can be very competitive. On top of a full course load, many students are working or teaching, plus trying to balance their personal and family responsibilities. This competitiveness between students, added responsibility, and number of courses that require in-depth analysis and reading, leads many students to find themselves overwhelmed.

This is true for both masters and PhDs. However, the number of years required to earn a PhD requires perseverance on a scale above and beyond what both undergraduates and those pursuing a masters degree experience.

One of the key differences between undergraduate and graduate degrees, whether you pursue a masters or PhD, is the ability of graduate student to focus on a field and subject in which they are very interested. Plus, while a graduate degree may jumpstart your career, it is not perceived as mandatory as an undergraduate degree can be. Therefore, pursuing a masters degree or a PhD can seem like your choice, which motivates some students to perform better.

Still Deciding Between a Masters or PhD?

To summarize, a PhD may be worth it if:

  • You truly love your field
  • You enjoy your studies
  • You want the benefits and prestige associated with the doctoral degree

On the other hand, if you are simply looking to change fields, gain a promotion, or are nervous about five to six more years of school, then a Masters is probably a better choice.

However, it is worth noting that you may be able to get more financial aid for a PhD. Since it takes longer, schools recognize that those trying to acquire their PhD's need more assistance than those who only want a Masters degree.

This adds an interesting dimension to the application process for two reasons:

  1. It is probably better to apply to the doctoral program because there is no penalty for changing your mind and deciding to leave with only a Masters degree, and it increases your chances of getting financial aid.
  2. PhD programs can be more competitive, and applying to it, rather than the Masters degree program, might decrease your chances of admission. If you are denied entrance to the PhD program, you could ask the school to consider you for the Masters program, if that’s allowed at that particular school.

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Finding the Perfect Masters or PhD Degree for You

Depending on your previous education, professional experience, and your future career goals, there are a wide variety of graduate degree programs for you to choose from.


[i] bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm#tab-4 [ii] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-4

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