Education

Master’s vs PhD: The key differences

The two most common types of graduate degrees are master’s and doctoral degrees:

  • A master’s is a 1–2 year degree that can prepare you for a multitude of careers.
  • A PhD, or doctoral degree, takes 3–7 years to complete (depending on the country) and prepares you for a career in academic research.

A master’s is also the necessary first step to a PhD. In the US, the master’s is built into PhD programs, while in most other countries, a separate master’s degree is required before applying for PhDs.

Master’s are far more common than PhDs. In the US, 24 million people have master’s or professional degrees, whereas only 4.5 million have doctorates.

Master’s vs PhD at a glance

The table below shows the key differences between the two.

Master’s PhD
Career prospects Usually intended for a career outside of academia. Prepares for a research career, ideally as a university professor.
Length of time 1–2 years 5–7 in the US (master’s degree included); 3–5 outside the US (after a separate master’s degree)
Structure Mostly coursework, often with a semester-long thesis or capstone project at the end. 2 years of coursework (in the US), followed by 3–5 years of preparing a dissertation, which should make a significant original contribution to current knowledge.
Cost Varies by country, university and program; usually higher upfront cost with limited financial aid available. Tuition fees are usually waived and a living stipend provided in exchange for being a teaching or research assistant.
Graduate salaries Wage premium (compared to earnings with a high school education) is 23% on average. Wage premium is 26% on average.

Which is right for you?

A PhD is right for you if:

  • Your goal is to become a professor at a university or some other type of professional researcher.
  • You love research and are passionate about discovering the answer to a particular question.
  • You are willing to spend years pursuing your research even if you have to put up with a lot of dead ends and roadblocks.

A master’s degree is the better choice if any of the following apply:

  • You want to continue studies in your field, but you’re not committed to a career as a professional researcher.
  • You want to develop professional skills for a specific career.
  • You are willing to pay a higher upfront cost if it means finishing with your degree (and thus being able to work) much faster.
  • You want the option to study part-time while working.

Length of time required

The length of time required to complete a PhD or master’s degree varies. Unsurprisingly, PhDs take much longer, usually between 3–7 years. Master’s degrees are usually only 1–2 years.

Length of a master’s

Master’s degrees are usually 2 years, although 1-year master’s degrees also exist, mainly in the UK.

Most of the degree consists of classes and coursework, although many master’s programs include an intensive, semester-long master’s thesis or capstone project in which students bring together all they’ve learned to produce an original piece of work.

Length of a PhD

In the US, a PhD usually takes between 5 and 7 years to complete. The first 2 years are spent on coursework. Students, even those who choose to leave without finishing the program, usually receive a master’s degree at this point.

The next 3–5 years are spent preparing a dissertation—a lengthy piece of writing based on independent research, which aims to make a significant original contribution to one’s field.

Career prospects

Master’s degrees tend to prepare you for a career outside of academia, while PhDs are designed to lead to a career in research.

Careers for master’s graduates

There are two types of master’s degrees: terminal and research-intensive. The career prospects are different for each.

Terminal master’s degrees are intended to prepare students for careers outside of academia. Some degrees, known as professional degrees, specifically prepare students for particular professions; these include the Master of Public Policy (MPP), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), and Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees.

Other master’s degrees, usually Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Sciences (MS or MSc) degrees, do not necessarily lead to a specific career, but are intended to be a final degree. Examples include an MS in Communications or MS in Data Analytics.

In research-intensive master’s programs, students take coursework intended to prepare them for writing an original piece of research known as the master’s thesis. Such programs are usually intended to prepare for further study in a doctoral program.

Careers for PhD graduates

As research degrees, PhDs are usually intended to lead to an academic career. A PhD can be thought of like an apprenticeship, where students learn from professional researchers (academics) how to produce their own research.

Most students aspire to become a university professor upon the completion of their degree. However, careers in academia are highly competitive, and the skills learned in a doctoral program often lend themselves well to other types of careers.

Some graduates who find they prefer teaching to producing research go on to be teachers at liberal arts colleges or even secondary schools. Others work in research-intensive careers in the government, private sector, or at think tanks.

Below are a few examples of specific fields and non-academic careers that are common destinations of graduates of those fields.

Job prospects after graduation vary widely based on the field. In fields like management, computer science, statistics, and economics, there’s little underemployment—even graduates from less well-known programs can easily find jobs that pay well and use the skills they’ve gained from the PhD.

However, in other fields, particularly in the humanities, many PhD graduates have difficulty in the job market. Unfortunately, there are far more PhD graduates than assistant professor roles, so many instead take on part-time and low-paid roles as adjunct instructors. Even non-academic careers can sometimes be difficult for PhDs to move into, as they may be seen as “overqualified”  or as lacking in relevant professional experience.

Because career options post-PhD vary so much, you should take the time to figure out what the career prospects are in your field. Doctoral programs often have detailed “placement” records online in which they list the career outcomes of their graduates immediately upon leaving the program. If you can’t find these records, contact the program and ask for them—placement information should play an important role in your choice of PhD program.

Costs and salaries

Although PhDs take far longer to complete, students often receive a living stipend in exchange for being a teaching or research assistant. Master’s degrees are shorter but less likely to be funded.

Both master’s degrees and PhDs lead to increased salaries upon graduation. While PhDs usually earn a bit more than those with a master’s degree, in some fields, the wages are identical, meaning that no financial benefit is gained from going on to a PhD.

Cost of a master’s

The upfront cost of a master’s degree is usually higher than a doctoral degree due to the lower amount of financial aid available. However, increased salaries also arrive faster than with a doctoral degree, because people graduate much earlier from a master’s program.

Some master’s students do receive stipends for their degrees, usually as compensation for being a teaching or research assistant. In addition, many people complete master’s degrees part time while working full-time, which allows them to fund their living costs as well as tuition.

The cost varies significantly by school and program. Public schools are usually cheaper than private ones. Some master’s degrees, such as MBAs, are notoriously expensive, but also result in much higher wages afterwards that make up for the high cost.

The master’s wage premium, or the extra amount that someone with a master’s degree makes than someone with just a high school diploma, is 23% on average. Many universities provide detailed statistics on the career and salary outcomes of their students. If they do not have this online, you should feel free to contact an administrator of the program and ask.

Cost of a PhD

PhDs, particularly outside the humanities, are usually (though not always) funded, meaning that tuition fees are fully waived and students receive a small living stipend. During the last 3–5 years of a PhD, after finishing their coursework (and sometimes before), students are usually expected to work as graduate instructors or research assistants in exchange for the stipend.

Sometimes students can apply for a fellowship (such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program in the United States) that relieves them of any obligations to be a teaching or research assistant. Doctoral programs in the US tend to be better funded than in the rest of the world.

Sometimes, PhD degrees can be completed part-time, but this is rare. Students are usually expected to devote at least 40 hours a week to their research and work as teaching or research assistants.

The main cost of doctoral programs comes in the form of opportunity cost—all the years that students could be working a regular, full-time job, which usually pays much better than a graduate school stipend.

The average wage premium for PhDs is 26%, which is not much higher than the master’s degree premium.

Application process

In the US, the application process is similar for master’s and PhD programs. Both will generally ask for:

  • At least one application essay, often called a personal statement or statement of purpose.
  • Letters of recommendation.
  • A resume or CV.
  • Transcripts.
  • Writing samples.

Applications for both types of programs also often require a standardized test. PhDs usually require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which tries to measure verbal reasoning, quantitative, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. Many master’s programs require this test as well.

Applying for a master’s

Master’s degrees programs will often ask you to respond to specific essay prompts that may ask you to reflect upon not just your academic background, but also your personal character and future career ambitions.

Who you should ask for your letters of recommendation varies by program. If you are applying to a research-intensive master’s program, then you should choose former professors or research supervisors. For other programs, particularly business school, current work supervisors may be a better choice.

Some professional master’s programs require a specific test. For example, to apply to law school, you must take the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT. For business school, you must take either the GRE or the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT).

Applying for a PhD

When applying for a PhD, your resume should focus more on your research background—you should especially emphasize any publications you’ve authored or presentations that you’ve given.

Similarly, your statement of purpose should discuss research that you’ve participated in, whether as an assistant or the lead author. You should detail what exactly you did in projects you’ve contributed to, whether that’s conducting a literature review, coding regressions, or writing an entire article.

Your letters of recommendations should be from former professors or supervisors who can speak to your abilities and potential as a researcher. A good rule of thumb is to avoid asking for recommendations from anyone who does not themselves have a PhD.

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