Masters vs. PhD: Graduate Degree Options

Masters vs PhD | Admissionado

Following the completion of your bachelor’s degree, you may be considering further education in your field to pursue your academic passions.

Or, perhaps you are at professional crossroads, and feel that pursuing a graduate degree may enable your pivot into a new industry, or enhance your career prospects in your current field.

With the exciting decision to study at the graduate level come infinite routes to achieving this goal. The beauty of a graduate program is that there is no “right” time, age or reason to go – graduate program classes are comprised of people with widely different academic and professional backgrounds, which further enhances a graduate education’s value to you. However, graduate school also comes with significant financial and time investment, so it is crucial to weigh your options carefully. Many graduate programs are competitive, and therefore you must honestly assess the strength of your profile and qualifications before deciding on which programs to apply.  

There is a fair amount of information to process in graduate school admissions, and often, the nuances and differences between different graduate degree options can feel confusing and difficult to navigate. In this article, we will demystify the basic differences between a master’s and a PhD degree, cover the pros and cons of each, and help move you closer to determining which is the best fit for your goals.

What is the difference between a master’s degree and a PhD?

The next step in one’s educational journey following a bachelor’s degree is most commonly a master’s degree. There are more master’s degree programs than we can explore in this article, but below is a sample of the different range of degrees available:

Master’s Degree – A master’s degree is an advanced degree awarded following a bachelor’s degree. Much like a bachelor’s degree, the type of degree is determined by the subject matter, and can include:

  • Master of Arts (MA) – e.g. English, History, Sociology, 
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA) – e.g. Fiction, Drama, Music, Visual Arts
  • Master of Science (MS) – e.g. Math, Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology
  • Master of Education (MEd) – Teaching degree for elementary through secondary education
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA) – Colloquially known as “business school,” (which we know a thing or two about)

We would be remiss to have an entire discussion about the different options for graduate degrees without discussing the two most commonly known (and commonly pursued) graduate degrees:

  • Juris Doctor (JD) – A law degree, which is required to practice law in any U.S. state.
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD) – A medical degree, which is required to practice medicine.

These degrees set themselves apart from the “master’s vs. PhD” discussion, as they are requisite degrees for very specific career tracks. Or, to put it another way, if you already know you want to be a medical doctor or a lawyer, you probably don’t need the info in this article.

A master’s degree can be a terminal degree, which is the furthest level of academic mastery that can be achieved for that subject. Some master’s degrees will prepare you to continue your studies and achieve your doctorate, otherwise known as a PhD program. At Admissionado, we want you to feel safe to ask the basic questions, so let’s start with the one everyone is often afraid to ask: What does PhD mean?

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) – The highest level of mastery achieved in most fields. (At least in the U.S. – in some countries, there are degrees known as Higher Doctorates, but a PhD is widely accepted as the ultimate terminal degree). 

There are several factors that distinguish a PhD from a master’s degree:

  • Original research – Compared to a master’s degree,  in a PhD program you will make a unique contribution to your field of study on a particular topic that you propose to study when you apply to your program. 
  • Dissertation defense – This “unique contribution” is encapsulated with a dissertation that presents your thesis and findings. You must defend your thesis to a panel of professors in the field. Successfully defending your dissertation’s thesis is required to earn your PhD. 
  • Peer review – You have perhaps heard the phrase “publish or perish,” and this is in reference to the requirement to submit original academic articles to vigorous scrutiny in a peer-reviewed journal in order to substantiate your work throughout your doctoral program, and indeed, for the rest of your career if you remain in academia. 

Why pursue a graduate degree?

Qualify for a particular career.

Many careers require you to complete graduate work to even be considered for the job. Jobs such as social work, post-secondary education, and scientific research will at minimum require a master’s degree.  

Enhance your professional toolkit.

However, many master’s degrees, while not required to be considered for a position, will be considered an attractive enhancement to your profile and may help you distinguish yourself in a competitive pool of applicants. During a master’s program, you can gain sophisticated teaching and research experience, which are highly transferable job skills, as well as expose yourself to cutting-edge techniques and thought leadership in your field.

Networking opportunities.

Another benefit of pursuing a graduate degree are the networking opportunities it presents. Many graduate degree holders have said their master’s programs felt “like a three-year-long networking session.” This is a beneficial leg-up to creating industry connections for when you embark on your post-graduation job search.

How long does it take to get a graduate degree?

The short answer is: It depends.

A full-time master’s degree typically takes one to three years. However, it is important to consider if you will pursue your degree full-time or part-time. It will take longer to complete part-time, but you will be able to continue working full-time and retain income from full-time employment during the process of pursuing your master’s degree. 

The length of a PhD program is a moving target that depends on the type of doctoral research you perform, as well as many other factors, such as the nature of your research (some fieldwork can take up to five years to complete). A safe range to give for completing a PhD program is four to nine years. 

How expensive is each degree?

A master’s degree is a considerable financial investment, especially once you consider expenses for the cost of living if you are pursuing a degree full-time, which will be affected by the city in which you pursue your degree.

Cost of a master’s degree.

Let’s look at the annual tuition of three master’s degree programs, which will each result in vastly different career prospects:

  • MBA from Harvard: Tuition – $72,000/year. Average starting salary of a Harvard MBA – $175,000
  • MS in Computer Science from MIT: Tuition – $53,000/year. Average starting salary of an MIT-trained computer scientist – $85,000 
  • MFA, Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa: Tuition – $60,000/year. Average starting salary of MFA – $50,000

From a numbers perspective, an MS is certainly a good value for tuition compared to starting salaries. However, you must also factor in the cost of living – the median cost of living in Cambridge, MA is $3,000+/month, versus the median cost of living of $1,000/month in Iowa City. 

Cost of a PhD program.

Compared to a master’s degree, most PhD degree programs are free(ish). Doctoral candidates will generally have their expenses paid through one (or a combination of) three ways:

  • Fellowship – PhD research funded through a fellowship, government program or other entity, fellowships are highly sought after, as they will offer a PhD candidate the highest stipend to cover tuition and living expenses at no cost to the university’s department. Securing a fellowship is also a good boost to one’s CV. 
  • Research assistant stipend – As a research assistant, your income is based on conducting research for a university professor. These stipend-based funding mechanisms are most commonly found in STEM-based programs.
  • Teaching assistant stipend – As a teaching assistant, your research will be funded according to the number of courses you teach at your university. While this is commonly the lowest-paying stipend, it does provide essential professional experience for PhD candidates who ultimately want to teach at the collegiate level. 

When weighing your options between the cost of a master’s and a PhD, the main factors to consider are:

  • Humanities vs. STEM – It’s an unfortunate reality, but Humanities departments are largely less well-funded than STEM departments at major universities, due to fewer commercial opportunities for Humanities research. Therefore, should you pursue a PhD in the humanities, it is most likely you will receive a teaching assistant stipend, which will mean less money for living expenses over the course of your program.
  • Higher barrier to entry to obtain a PhD – Master’s degrees are strenuous, but a PhD is even more difficult, and you must overcome more obstacles, such as a qualifying exam after your first few years of the program, to continue. This means you must be committed to a high level of academic rigor and hard work for up to nine years before being able to call yourself “Doctor.” However, most programs will confer a master’s degree upon completion/passing of a qualifying exam, so if you do not complete your PhD program for whatever reason, you will still have obtained a degree from your hard work.
  • Time – Pursuing a graduate degree full-time for one to three years, with the promise of a higher salary on the other side, is a far more accelerated timeline than four to nine years of graduate work (though expenses are generally paid for these programs). 

To Sum Up

Do your research. We hope that upon reading the many different considerations, you can appreciate more than ever that the answer to the “master’s vs. PhD” question will differ for each individual. There are an infinite variety of ways to pursue a graduate degree and to leverage it effectively for your career.

  • Research different programs – Familiarize yourself with the programs at different schools, and the research interests of those programs’ professors.
  • Set a budget – Ensure you can cover the cost of tuition AND living expenses while forgoing full-time employment.
  • Network with as many people as possibleTalk to current students, alumni, professors and anyone who has direct experience in the graduate education world.

And then, finally… Apply!

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