Derick de Souza
Written By - Derick de Souza

Check MarkEdited By Arlene Ward

Check MarkReview & Contribution By Dr. Carol Galanis

The master’s and Ph.D. are two different levels of education. Which is better suited for an individual largely depends on the person’s career aspirations and personal and professional development needs.  The differences are structural, programmatic, or conditional. And although there are similarities between the two,  they serve different purposes and cater to different needs.

The master’s and a Ph.D. vary in:

  • Admission Requirements
  • Program Requirements
  • Program Delivery & Duration
  • Cost

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. make an informed choice.

Masters vs Ph.D.

Table Of Contents

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PROGRAM: Online Masters Degrees

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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, an internship, and a thesis. Master’s degrees also offer concentrations and specializations across various topics, making it easier for students to prime themselves for unique jobs in various work settings. Depending on these critical 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:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Some 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:

degree by subject

Find Online Masters Degree by Subject

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, but are not limited to:

A master’s program is best suited if:

  • the student’s career is based on it and requires 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. or 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 usually required, although some programs accept bachelor’s degree holders. The program includes coursework, research courses, 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 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, which focuses on building specific career skills and teaches students how to apply research to practice within their field. This degree is better applied to sectors outside of education and is best suited for students interested in professional careers rather than academic ones. 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 depends on certain factors. A Ph.D. program is best suited if:

  • the student’s career is based on it and requires 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 businesses and nonprofits employ doctorates for top jobs and research with their organization.

Master’s vs. Ph.D.: Differences 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:

Admission CriteriaMaster’s DegreePh.D. Degree
Educational BackgroundBachelor’s degree or equivalent.Master’s degree or equivalent.
Application ProcessGraduate school application form, transcripts, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, and test scores (if required).Graduate school application form, transcripts, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, research proposal, test scores, and interview (in some cases).
Test Scores RequiredGRE, GMAT, or other standardized tests, such as LSAT or MCAT, depending on the program.GRE, GMAT, or other standardized tests, depending on the program.
Research ExperienceNot typically required for admission.Important for admission and may be evaluated through research papers or presentations.
Length of Program1-2 years, depending on the program.4-6 years, depending on the program.

When it comes to admission, a Ph.D. typically requires 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).

Additionally, the GMAT or GRE may be required for master’s and doctoral students, depending on the program, institution, and when they are applying. Because scores are valid for five years, students won’t necessarily need to retake the exams if they enroll in a Ph.D. program after a master’s. It is also noteworthy that while many universities waive GMAT and GRE requirements, doctoral programs also frequently waive score submissions for those who recently graduated with a master’s degree or have substantial work experience.

Differences in Degree Requirements

Both the master’s and Ph.D. programs can demand 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 and complete these challenging degrees by understanding their many requirements. Here are the typical masters vs. Ph.D. degree requirements:

CategoryMaster’s ProgramPh.D. Program
Credits Required30 to 6060 to 120

Master’s vs. Ph.D.: Differences in What Programs Entail

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:

CategoryMaster’s ProgramPh.D. Program
Focus of StudyCoursework and applied learning.Original research and dissertation.
Research RequirementUsually a capstone project or thesis, depending on the program.Original research project and dissertation.
Advisor / MentorshipOne or more faculty advisors for support.One primary faculty advisor.
Teaching OpportunitiesMay have teaching assistant opportunities.Teaching may be required to teach and/or assist in teaching courses.

Master’s vs. Ph.D.: Differences in Costs

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of a master’s degree is $66,340[1], while a doctorate is $114,300[2]. These being average costs, one must note that the range of a master’s degree could be from $26,230 a year for a program from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Policy to $112,760 for a 2-year full-time MBA degree from Harvard Business School[1]. Similarly, a Ph.D. could range from $47,500 for a 2-year full-time online doctoral degree in Education at Thomas University to $294,200 for a traditional 8-year Doctorate in Philosophy at New York University[2]. 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 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. Online courses typically cost less than their in-person counterparts. 
  3. Transfer Credits – Credits can have a bearing on cost; for those who have accrued credits during a graduate program or professional certification, transferring 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 funding mechanisms, Ph.D. students can sometimes have the advantage of teaching for an academic stipend and pursuing their studies simultaneously, having their programs fully funded by their universities, or having their employers reimburse tuition. Some organizations also fund Ph.D. students for their research.

Master’s vs. Ph.D.: Differences in Careers, Employment, and Salaries

Depending on the discipline and occupation, a master’s degree may suffice or require a doctoral degree. For example, professors, psychologists, physicists, and biologists are considered qualified when they have a Ph.D. In certain states, a Ph.D. is required to qualify for licensure. But for most professions, such as business administration, human resources, and engineering, a master’s degree is usually adequate.

In general, master’s graduates can expect professional careers in a broad spectrum of work settings across industries and sectors based on their specialization and type of degree. Those with Ph.D. degrees commonly find careers in top-level management or top research and scientific posts and universities as senior faculty members.

When one compares average salaries, 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[3]. 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 The College Payoff[4], which offers a comprehensive overview of the trends, challenges, and vulnerabilities existing in the current U.S. graduate education system, the expected median lifetime earnings of individuals at different educational levels are:

  • Without a High School Diploma: $973,000
  • With a High School Diploma: $1,304,000
  • With a Bachelor’s Degree: $2,268,000
  • With a Master’s Degree: $2,671,000
  • With a Doctoral Degree: $3,252,000

FAQs About Master’s vs. Ph.D.

Should I get a master’s or a Ph.D.?

The answer to this question depends on one’s personal and professional goals – what knowledge and skills one wants 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 senior management and leadership careers. In contrast, a Ph.D. can lead to lucrative jobs in top executive positions in various sectors or senior faculty positions at universities.

Is a master’s degree higher than a Ph.D.?

Do you need a master’s to get a Ph.D.?

Can you get a Ph.D. without a master’s degree?

What is the difference between a master’s and MPhil?

Can you do your Ph.D. and master’s online?

How do employers see an online Ph.D. or master’s?

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.