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PhD vs Master’s: Which to Choose?

A graphic depicting various aspects of science education to highlight PhD vs Master's Degrees

Are you done with your Bachelor’s degree (congratulations!) and trying to decide what to do next? Are you unsure if you should go for a Master’s first or jump directly into a PhD? Are you wondering whether or not the time you’ll invest in either will be worth it? In this article, we weigh the pros and cons of choosing either or both. But before we delve into the details, you must ask yourself those most important of questions: What do you want to do? And why?

A Master’s might be a better option to start with to see if a subject area suits you; then if it does, you can think about a PhD. You might like the idea of doing a PhD just for the sake of doing it, or you might be set on a plan of getting into research and academia, in which case a PhD is a must. You need to figure out what you really want, whatever your reasons. A word of caution: PhDs are HARD. I have known a few PhD dropouts, and the process has been an emotional turmoil for them. But if you are determined to go for it, nothing should stop you.

PhD vs Master’s Programs: Key Differences

In order to make a suitable choice between a Master’s and a PhD you need to know what to expect from both programs.

A Master’s degree is the first step in your graduate study and comes after a Bachelor’s degree (after graduation) and before a PhD. A Master’s program helps you ‘master’ your career/specialize on a particular subject/aspect of a field. Typically, Master’s programs last for two years, but some universities may offer a one-year program. A two-year program is still usually a better choice since it is more likely to be accepted in most countries (if you are planning to go for a PhD or even for a job). Master’s programs typically involve a lot of theoretical studying of the subject along with some practical (laboratory) training. You can also expect to deliver seminars and prepare a dissertation as a part of a Master’s program.

A PhD, on the other hand, involves independent research supervised by a research guide. Taking 4-6 years to complete a PhD in not uncommon. PhD programs may require taking classes and written exams in a number of subjects, but that often depends on different university requirements. Since the primary purpose of a PhD is to contribute new knowledge for the advancement of the field, you are also expected to write and publish research papers in reputed, peer-reviewed journals as a part of the program. Again, the number of publications required varies with the universities.Going straight to a PhD often requires high grades, and it might benefit you if you have a research publication. A Master’s may be a way to bump up your grades and improve your research profile, and may thus help you gain admittance to a PhD program.

Several universities offer combined Master’s-PhD programs with 1-2 years of Master’s training that leads straight to a PhD. The benefit of going for this type of integrated program is that it saves you time, as you only have to prepare and appear for the entrance exam once; if you go for a Master’s first, you’ll have to spend time preparing for entrance exams and interviews twice. I like to look at this as a way of staying focused towards getting a PhD, since you commit to it right from the beginning of the Master’s program.

Let us take a look at the prime factors that you need to consider while choosing between a Master’s and a PhD.

1. Time vs Money

While choosing between a Master’s and a PhD you will certainly find yourself wondering about your current and future finances. Although PhD research takes around 4+ years to complete, it often comes with a stipend. Master’s programs are shorter (1-2 years), but you’ll have to manage your own expenses and may have to pay academic fees. Some institutions may offer a nominal stipend for a Master’s course, although it won’t be as generous as those given to PhDs. A PhD also opens the doors for you to apply for various funds for international travel for conferences, which may not be an option during a Master’s program.

2. Prestige

Who doesn’t have a little desire for prestige and fame? Imagine having the title ‘Dr’ on your IDs and bank cards. You also get to use it in your emails. Isn’t it cool? The way people look at you definitely changes when you introduce yourself as Dr X instead of just X. A PhD will also make you stand out of the crowd since only 1.1% of the world population has a doctorate. [1] And during your PhD, apart from publishing research papers, your supervisor will likely offer co-authorship in book chapters (you both get your name in the book, but you will probably be the one who writes the chapter). This will increase your online visibility and you’ll be just a Google search away.

3. Future Career

If you are planning a career in academics and research, a PhD is a must in most cases. Some editorial positions require one as well. However, having a PhD might not always be a positive thing. For instance, when applying for jobs in certain pharmaceutical or biotechnological industries, a PhD might make you look overqualified–especially when the employer can hire personnel with a Master’s degree who can do the job just fine and pay them less. So you may find yourself a few years behind in the same job if you get a PhD.

Conversely, even if a job may not require a PhD, there might be a large number of people applying who have one, making you a less competitive candidate. A few of my friends who have a PhD have faced such situations and they claim that having a PhD does make you stand out of the crowd. It also gives you an upper hand at work and might make promotion easier. Another thing to consider is money–you may be able to negotiate a slightly higher wage than someone with a Master’s only. But often you’ll get the same or similar pay (since job experience matters more).

4. Taught vs Research Master’s

Choosing a taught vs a research Master’s program will make a significant difference to your skills. Although you might have a dissertation for your Master’s, it will be short-term and won’t contribute to your research skills as much as a PhD would. Your research skills would definitely help you to be a preferred candidate when it comes to various job opportunities.

Is it really necessary to go for a PhD to develop research skills? The answer is NO. You can simply opt for a Research Master’s degree (MRe) that will let you have the independence of focusing on your own (supervised) research work [2]. But if you do opt for a PhD it can open multiple doors for you—you’ll have opportunities to make new contacts, collaborate internationally, apply for funds from multiple sources, and start your own research group in the future.

5. Do You Need Either?

Say you wish to have your own start-up in the future. Does being a businessperson require academic degrees? We all know the answer to that. Running a successful business requires lots of practical experience, which you might not get with a Master’s or even a PhD. In such a case, merely starting with internships/apprenticeships and learning in close association with successful businesspeople would be key to launching you in the right direction. To sum up: whether or not you need a Master’s or a PhD for a successful career depends greatly on what you want your career to be.

We hope this helps you in making a proper choice between a Master’s and a PhD. We have also discussed other factors that’ll help you decide if it is worth doing a PhD after a masters. Do give it a read and let us know your thoughts in the comments.

References

  1. A.C. Coldron. How Rare (or Common) is it to have a PhD? (accessed August 25, 2020).
  2. FindAMasters/FindAUniversity Ltd. Taught vs Research Masters – Which is Right for Me? (accessed August 28, 2020).
A graphic depicting various aspects of science education to highlight PhD vs Master's Degrees
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