Should I Get a Master’s or PhD?

by on March 17th, 2017

As you start thinking about grad school, you might be wondering, “Should I pursue a master’s or a Ph.D.?” The differences between the two can be confusing and nuanced. But, given how significant this decision is, you should assess the requirements and implications of each advanced degree carefully. Consider these factors when deciding which one’s right for you:

1) Time

A rewarding graduate education will take a lot of effort, but exactly how much effort depends on the degree. A master’s program typically takes 2 years (with full-time enrollment), whereas a Ph.D. degree typically takes a minimum of 5 years—sometimes upward of 8. Some students can’t imagine spending another half-decade or more in school, while others can’t imagine anything more exciting. Consider whether you would enjoy studying a specific discipline—and a specific problem within the discipline—for that long.

Time-to-completion differences might be important to you if you anticipate any major life changes soon (i.e., starting a family). However, you should note that it is no longer uncommon for students to balance graduate study with major personal commitments. In fact, many Ph.D. programs account for this and offer family resources and have leave of absence policies for unexpected life events. In any case, a master’s is the less time consuming option, and the time to completion is far more predictable.

Tip: If you already know you ultimately want to pursue a Ph.D., consider how earning your master’s first would affect the total time you spend working toward the Ph.D. degree (1–3 year for the master’s plus 5+ years for the Ph.D.). Are you willing to invest that extra time?

2) Funding

Master’s programs typically don’t come with funding, though school-based and external scholarships and fellowships can help defray the cost. Ph.D. programs, however, typically do come with funding packages—a mix of fellowships, teaching assistantships, research grants, and the like. Schools recognize that the amount of time spent in a Ph.D. program makes accessing other sources of income difficult, so many (especially highly-ranked) programs will guarantee financial support in some form for a fixed number of years, typically 5.

However, certain master’s degrees (especially the MBA) could produce immediate and substantial returns on investment, in which case the cost of earning them might not deter you. Moreover, Ph.D. programs come with an opportunity cost. Consider whether you are willing to forego 5+ years of professional income and live minimally on a TA salary or fellowship, for example. Also consider whether your employer or outside agencies would help you fund either degree.

Tip: If you think you want to pursue a Ph.D. but aren’t sure, you can apply for Ph.D. programs without being bound to finish them. Being a Ph.D. candidate can make you eligible for Ph.D. funding, and if you find that academia isn’t for you, you can still earn your MA before leaving the program.

3) Desired Outcome

Consider what you want to get out of graduate study. If you want to learn new skills to improve your current job position, qualify for a higher position within the industry, or teach at the high school level, a master’s could do the job. You’ll get targeted training and curriculum in a specific area, making it ideal for professional advancement. If, however, you want to pursue research in the field or become a professor (or both), you will almost certainly need a Ph.D. In fact, a Ph.D. can also make you a more competitive applicant for positions in the industry if that is your end goal (for some positions, though, it might make you overqualified).

Tip: If you want to pursue a Ph.D. but your bachelor’s degree isn’t in the field you want to pursue, earning a master’s in that field first could provide the background you need and increase your chances of admission into a Ph.D. program afterward. In fact, even if you have a bachelor’s in your desired field, a master’s might be a wise choice if your undergraduate grades were low, if your training didn’t sufficiently prepare you for graduate study (perhaps your undergraduate department wasn’t distinguished within the field), and/or if you are seeking admission into the top Ph.D. programs for your field. The best programs are extremely competitive, and a master’s can provide critical research experience, graduate coursework preparation, and even networking opportunities that may eventually set you apart.

Graduate study is the height of your educational career—but it is also a substantial investment of time, effort, and money. Think carefully about your end goals now so you can pursue the degree that best helps you achieve them. Good luck on your grad school application journey!

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