Master’s vs. Ph.D. – What’s the Difference?
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
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.
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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 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:
- 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:
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:
- International Business
- Healthcare Management
- Human Resources
- Nonprofit Management
- Project Management
- Supply Chain Management
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 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 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)
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.
Differences in Admission Process
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.
When it comes to admission, a Ph.D. will typically 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).
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 take the exams again if they are enrolling 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 these challenging degrees and complete them by understanding their many requirements. Here are the typical masters vs. Ph.D. degree requirements:
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:
Differences in Costs
According to Education Data Initiative, the average cost of a master’s degree is $66,340, while a doctorate is $114,300. 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. 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. But the exact cost of programs heavily depends on several factors, such as:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 wide 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”. 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, 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 and Ph.D. Programs
|Q: Should I get a master’s or a Ph.D.?|
|A: 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.|
|Q: Is a master’s degree higher than a 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 degree?|
|A: Yes, it is possible to get a Ph.D. without a master’s degree, 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, immediately followed by a 3-year Ph.D. degree.|
|Q: What is the difference between a master’s 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. The MPhil often provides one of the best foundations for Ph.D. studies.|
|Q. Can you do your Ph.D. and master’s online?|
|A. Yes. Depending on the field of study, many universities offer entire online or hybrid (comprising online and in-person classes) master’s and Ph.D. programs. Online programs are best suited for working professionals who do not want to give up their jobs to attend college and those who may have family or other commitments.|
|Q. How do employers see an online Ph.D. or master’s?|
|A. Employers do not distinguish between online and traditional in-person degrees so long as the online degree was earned from an accredited university. Degree certificates typically do not mention whether the program was pursued online or not. Employers are more interested in the individual’s academic performance, skillset, certifications, and other strengths.|
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:
- 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.
- 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.
 Education Data Initiative – Average Cost of a Master’s Degree
 Education Data Initiative – Average Cost of a Doctorate Degree
 Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce
 The College Payoff – Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings