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Masters vs Ph.D.
Masters vs Ph.D.
Masters vs Ph.D. – Key Differences
Masters vs Ph.D.
What is a Master’s Degree?
Masters vs Ph.D.
What is a Ph.D. / Doctorate Degree?
Masters vs Ph.D.
Masters vs Ph.D. – Details of Differences
Masters vs Ph.D.
Masters vs Ph.D.
Additional Resources

Masters vs Ph.D. – Difference between Masters and Ph.D. / Doctorate Degrees

Masters vs Ph.D.

There is always a raging debate of Master’s vs. Ph.D. among students in higher education that never seems to reach the end of the tunnel! Some students opine that a Master’s program is all one needs for a lucrative career, while others insist that a Ph.D. is substantially better. In reality, though, neither one is better than the other because they have different purposes and cater to different needs. The Master’s and Ph.D. are essentially two different levels of educational attainment. Which one is better suited for an individual largely depends on the person’s career aspirations and personal and professional development needs. This resource guide touches upon both programs, the many benefits they offer, key differences, and other insights, all of which can help those at the crossroads of deciding between a Master’s and a Ph.D.

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Masters vs Ph.D. – Key Differences

It is important to note and understand that a Master’s and a Ph.D. are two different levels of education. That is the foremost and key distinction between Masters and Ph.D. All other differences are structural, programmatic, or conditional. And although there are similarities between the two, it is like comparing a motorbike to a car – both are vehicles, both have their similarities and dissimilarities, but both serve different purposes and cater to different needs.

Some of the key differences between a Master’s and a Ph.D. are in areas such as:

  • Admission Requirements,
  • Program Requirements,
  • Program Delivery & Duration, and
  • Cost.

Here are a few other highlights that differentiate the two programs:

Is more career-orientedIs more research-oriented
Offers more career opportunitiesHelps in becoming an expert in the chosen field
Costs less than a Ph.D.Can cost more than a Master’s
Is of a shorter duration than a Ph.D.Tends to be of a longer duration than a Master’s
Is a step above an Undergraduate DegreeIs a step above a Graduate Degree
No title is bestowed upon graduationThe title of Dr. is prefixed to a graduate’s name
Less preferred for certain work settings (clinical, education, etc.)More or always preferred for teaching at the highest level, for research, and in clinical settings

Another useful difference to note is that a Master’s degree is better suited for individuals who want to change careers. For example, a student who has earned a Bachelor’s Degree in a humanities disciple can easily move on to a Master’s Degree in a scientific discipline. On the other hand, Ph.D. programs allow further specialization only within the chosen field of study taken up at the graduate level.

All of these differences, along with the benefits and disadvantages of each program, are detailed in other sections of this article.

What is a Master’s Degree?

A Master’s Degree is a graduate-level program that mostly requires completing an undergraduate Bachelor’s Degree to enroll in. This degree typically consists of basic courses, electives, practicum experience, internship, and thesis. Master’s Degrees also offer concentrations and specializations across a wide range of topics, making it easier for students to prime themselves for unique jobs in various work settings. Depending on these key aspects and the type of degree, students generally require 1 to 3 years to graduate.

Some of the most common and popular types of Master’s Degrees are:

Some other common but less popular Master’s Degrees are:

  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil) – one of the best foundations for a Ph.D.
  • Master of Law (LLM)
  • Master of Education (MEd)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Research (MRE)

Master’s programs further branch out into several specializations, which demonstrate how they tend to target specific careers and sectors, such as:

  1. Business and Management
  2. Criminal Justice & Legal
  3. Computers & Technology
  4. Education & Teaching
  5. Engineering
  6. Liberal Arts & Humanities
  7. Healthcare
  8. Math & Science
  9. Psychology

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is another fine example of a Master’s that offers several specializations leading to promising careers. An MBA degree can be earned in:

Understanding why a Master’s should be the preferred choice in a Master’s vs. Ph.D. conflict is important. A Master’s program is best suited if:

  • the student’s career is based on it and a requirement for it; or they
  • wish to advance their subject knowledge, far more than what a Bachelor’s program has to offer; or may
  • have to shift careers from one field or discipline to another.

What is a Ph.D. / Doctorate Degree?

The Ph.D. is an abbreviation for “Doctor of Philosophy” and is the highest academic degree one can achieve. To enroll in a Ph.D., a Master’s Degree is required. The program consists of coursework, research cores, a comprehensive exam, and a dissertation. By and large, this degree entails substantial research work that may typically stretch the time to graduation from anywhere between 3 and 8 years, making it a time-consuming pursuit.

A Ph.D. Degree is also best suited for educators at the university level, either in teaching, research, or both. Many students pursue their Ph.D. while simultaneously doing academic work.

Another type of doctoral degree is the Professional Doctoral Degree that focuses on building specific career skills and teaches students how to apply research to practice within their field. This type of degree is better applied to sectors outside of education and is best suited for students interested in professional careers rather than academic careers. Some examples of Professional Doctoral Degrees include:

  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)
  • Doctor of Healthcare Administration (DHA)
  • Doctor of Public Health (DPH)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
  • Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
  • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
  • Doctor of Information Technology (DIT)
  • Doctor of Computer Science (DCS)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Juris Doctor (JD)

Whether or not a Ph.D. is a good pursuit when deliberating a Master’s vs. Doctorate depends on certain crucial arguments. A Ph.D. program is best suited if:

  • the student’s career is based on it and a requirement for it (especially senior positions in educational settings, such as a University Professor); or they
  • would like to take up or contribute to research in their chosen field of study, or they
  • want to earn the title of ‘Dr.’ that is prefixed to their name.

Note:  A Ph.D. has become increasingly important even in sectors other than education. Many modern businesses and nonprofits employ doctorates for top jobs and research with their organization.

Masters vs Ph.D. – Details of Differences

The main difference between Master’s and Ph.D. is who they target. A Master’s Degree is tailored for students interested in professional careers, whereas a Ph.D. is tailored for those who prefer to work in academia and research.

Typically, a Master’s Degree entails moderate amounts of research for learning, allows students to gain deep and industry-specific knowledge, and leads to rewarding careers in senior management and leadership positions.

On the other hand, a Ph.D. is typically oriented around intensive and original research, enables contributions of original knowledge to the field of study, and leads to lucrative jobs in top executive positions in industry or senior faculty positions at universities. 

Several other factors differentiate the two degrees, which are illustrated in the following sections.

Masters vs Ph.D. – Difference in Admission Process

While the process of admission to a Master’s or Ph.D. program is largely the same, there are some key differences in their eligibility criteria and other admission requirements. Here is a chart that highlights some of these Masters vs. Ph.D. admission differences:

Eligibility Criteria/RequirementsMaster’sPh.D.
Bachelor’s Degree from an Accredited UniversityYesYes
Master’s Degree from an Accredited UniversityYesYes
A Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.0 or higherYes, in the Bachelor’s DegreeYes, in the Master’s Degree
Standardized Test Scores (GMAT/GRE/LSAT)Sometimes requiredNot required
Relevant Work Experience of at least 2 to 5 YearsPreferred, but required for some programsAlmost always required
Application Form & FeeYesYes
Official Academic TranscriptsYesYes
Résumé*Sometimes requiredMostly required
Personal Statement*Sometimes requiredMostly required
Statement of Purpose*Sometimes requiredMostly required
Letter of Intent*Sometimes requiredMostly required
Essay (Varied Length & Topic)Rarely requiredMostly required
Reference Letters or Letters of RecommendationYes, at least 1 or 2Yes, at least 2 or 3
Proof of Proficiency in EnglishYes, if English has not been the main language of instructionYes, if English has not been the main language of instruction
Research Proposal / Prior ResearchNoYes
Personal InterviewRarely requiredAlmost always required

*Either one or more than one.

When it comes to admission, a Ph.D. will almost always require students to submit any research work they may have undertaken in their graduate studies and face an interview, either one-on-one or in front of a select committee. Master’s programs generally do not require or consider research for admission and seldom ask applicants to appear for an interview (although some business schools do).

Masters vs Ph.D. – Difference in Degree Requirements

Both the Master’s and Ph.D. programs can be demanding on time, effort, and cost. They also require higher levels of dedication and commitment than one expects from undergraduate programs. Students should know what it takes to pursue these challenging degrees and complete them by understanding their many requirements. Here are the typical Masters vs. Ph.D. degree requirements:

A Master’s degree typically requiresA Ph.D. typically requires
  1. Eligibility: a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited University.
  2. Credits: anywhere between 36 and 54 credit hours.
  3. Program Culmination: a Capstone or Thesis.
  4. Duration: anywhere from 1 to 3 years to complete.
  1. Eligibility: a Master’s degree from an accredited University.
  2. Credits: anywhere between 58 and 120 credit hours.
  3. Program Culmination: answering a Comprehensive Exam and completing a Dissertation.
  4. Duration: anywhere from 3 to 8 years to complete.

Masters vs Ph.D. – Difference in Programs

While a Master’s program is intended to broaden and improve professional knowledge and abilities, a Ph.D. is a research-intensive program that aims to fill knowledge gaps in the industry by developing critical research, analytical, and writing abilities. To achieve this, both use distinct approaches to coursework and study. Here are the typical Masters vs. Ph.D. program differences:

A Master’s program is typically made up ofA Ph.D. program is typically made up of
  1. Core Courses: provide fundamental and essential knowledge to understand the field of study better.
  2. Electives: are selected courses and provide concentrated and advanced knowledge in specific areas within the field of study.
  3. Capstone or thesis is the culmination of a Master’s program, which involves conducting research, compiling data and information, and presenting results and findings.
  1. Coursework: comprises advanced courses in the field of study that prepare students for a comprehensive exam.
  2. Research Core: imparts the knowledge and analytic and writing skills required to research in the field of study and prepares students to complete their dissertation.
  3. Comprehensive Exam: tests the knowledge gained from coursework and the awareness of key concepts of the subject.
  4. Dissertation: Identify a research topic, conduct in-depth research and analysis on that topic, and write about and defend the research and findings.

Masters vs Ph.D. – Difference in Cost of the Programs

The cost of a Master’s program or a Ph.D. can range from as low as $5,000 to as high as $2,00,000. But the exact cost of programs heavily depends on several factors, such as:

  1. The Type and Reputation of the College – Public, private for-profit, or private for nonprofit institutions; in-state or out-of-state tuition; and the reputation and popularity of the college are some determining factors that drive cost.
  2. Structure, Duration, and Time to Graduation – The enrollment status of full-time or part-time, the number and type of courses one opts for, and the total number of credit hours (consequently) required by the program can adversely impact the cost.
  3. Transfer Credits – Credits can have a bearing on cost; for those who have accrued credits during a graduate program or professional certification, transferring such credits can help defray the cost to quite some extent.
  4. Return on Investment – Although this is not categorically a ‘cost’, the potential of repaying student loans or recovering money from an investment in education can mitigate the burden on an individual’s finances and drive them to make informed decisions while choosing the right program. For example, since a Ph.D. typically yields higher salaries, the program’s cost can arguably end up “costing less”, or at least convey that notion. It is also noteworthy that to get to this stage of higher yield, students would have had to pay for their Master’s and Ph.D. programs, which can make this hypothesis highly arbitrary.
  5. Funding Options and Availability – Although both programs can be funded through external sources, the number of funding options, the quantum of money available for award, and easy access and availability of funds can adversely affect cost. Although Scholarships and Grants are common mechanisms of funding, Ph.D. students can sometimes have the advantage of teaching for an academic stipend and pursuing their studies simultaneously. Some organizations also fund Ph.D. students for their research.

In the end, the cost of a Master’s vs. Ph.D. is highly subjective to one’s personal and professional objectives.

Masters vs Ph.D. – Difference in Careers and Employment

Masters vs. Ph.D. – what are the career choices? In general, Master’s graduates can expect professional careers in a wide spectrum of work settings across industries and sectors based on their specialization and type of degree. Those with Ph.D. degrees find careers in top-level management or top research and scientific posts and universities as senior faculty members.

The rather common question is – Ph.D. vs. Master’s salary – which one is higher? A study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce finds (on page 3) that “there is strong evidence that advanced education levels continue to be associated with higher salaries”. But one should note that salaries ultimately depend on a person’s qualifications, skills, certifications, licensure, experience, exposure, expertise, sector, location, and more. According to ‘Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers’, which offers a comprehensive overview of the trends, challenges, and vulnerabilities existing in the current US graduate education system, the expected lifetime earnings of individuals at different educational levels are:

  • Without a Highschool Diploma: $973,000
  • With a Highschool Diploma: $1.3 million
  • With a Bachelor’s Degree: $2.3 million
  • With a Master’s Degree: $2.7 million
  • With a Doctoral Degree: $3.3 million (excludes professional degrees)


Therefore, students should consider what they want to pursue as a career, find out the requirements for it, and then make an informed decision of a Master’s or Ph.D., based on a thorough understanding of the two.

FAQs about Masters vs Ph.D.

Q: Should I get a Masters or Ph.D.?
A: The answer to this question depends on one’s personal and professional goals – what knowledge and skills one want to acquire, what career path and job one wants to pursue, and the time, dedication, and commitment one can put into their studies and/or research. A Master’s Degree can lead to rewarding careers in senior management and leadership positions. In contrast, a Ph.D. can lead to lucrative jobs in top executive positions in industry or senior faculty positions at universities.
Q: Is Masters higher than Ph.D.?
A: No. A Master’s Degree is a step above an undergraduate Bachelor’s Degree, and a Ph.D. is a step above a graduate Master’s Degree.
Q: Do you need a Master’s to get a Ph.D.?
A: The standard practice for getting a Ph.D. is to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree, followed by a Master’s Degree, and then a Ph.D. degree. A Master’s degree is usually one of the main admission requirements for a Ph.D. program, with some exceptions.
Q: Can you get a Ph.D. without a Master’s?
A: Yes, it is possible to get a Ph.D. without a Master’s, but under certain conditions. For example, some Universities will require students to enroll in an MPhil program and then prepare and submit a thesis within a year. If this thesis is accepted, the student will be upgraded from an MPhil to a Ph.D. program. Another option is to pursue an ‘Integrated Ph.D.’, consisting of a 1-year Master’s Degree and immediately followed by a 3-year Ph.D. degree.
Q: What is the difference between Masters and MPhil?
A: A Master’s is the title of any graduate-level degree, such as an MA, MS, or MBA. The MPhil, which is an abbreviation for Master of Philosophy, is one such graduate-level degree. This program is popular with students who are certain to move on to a Ph.D. program immediately after their Master’s program. The MPhil arguably provides one of the best foundations for Ph.D. studies.

Masters vs Ph.D. – Additional Resources

For viewpoints, discussions, and data on Master’s vs. Ph.D., aspirants of both programs should look for online references and communities that can help them understand the pros and cons of each degree and help them make an informed decision. Here are a couple of resources to get started:

  1. Academic Positions
    ‘Academic Positions’ helps individuals search for jobs from the world’s top universities and research institutions. This site is a great way to explore how a Master’s or Ph.D. can impact career prospects and which industries and jobs prefer what degree. The career advice section offers excellent insights as well.
  2. National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS)
    The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS) connects graduate and professional students across the United States to facilitate sharing information, resources, and best practices. Master’s and Ph.D. students can tap into several resources such as insights on Grad School Life, Financial Information, Jobs, Thesis/Dissertation Assistance, and more.

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