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Master's Degree or PhD?

Master's Degree or PhD?

By Elisa Kronish

March 04, 2009

Graduate school requires a lot of hard work, a lot of time and a lot more money. So it’s important to consider these issues when deciding whether or not to pursue a graduate degree, and just what level of degree you want to attain.

General Definitions

A general master’s degree can either be a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS), depending on the area of study. There are also many field-specific master’s degrees, such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Engineering (M.Eng).

The PhD, which stands for Doctor of Philosophy, is a common doctorate earned in many of the arts, sciences and humanities. Field-specific doctorate degrees can be earned in fields like education, music and psychology.

Different Work Loads

The PhD is the highest degree you can earn, so it follows that it demands the most work. In most cases, you complete a master’s degree before going on to a PhD. Unlike a master’s degree, a PhD usually requires a series of comprehensive written or oral exams. “For a PhD, almost without exception, students must pass comprehensive exams to demonstrate their understanding of the coursework and to qualify to move forward,” says Jane Hamblin, JD, former director of program development at the Council on Graduate Schools. Almost all PhD programs also have an extensive independent research and writing requirement, called the dissertation. Some master’s degree programs require a thesis paper, but it’s less intensive than a dissertation.

Time and Money Matters

You can typically finish a master’s degree in one to three years, whereas a PhD takes four or more years.

But the master’s degree isn’t necessarily less expensive, even though it doesn’t take as long to complete. In fact, because of financial aid (or lack thereof), master’s programs can actually be comparable in cost to a PhD program.

“Most master’s programs don’t have financial support as much as PhD programs do,” explains David Santogrossi, PhD, associate dean of liberal arts at Purdue University. PhD students often receive grants, fellowships, scholarships and paid teaching positions that master’s degree students do not. So in the end, the amount of money spent getting a master’s degree may actually total more than the amount spent getting a doctorate.

Knowledge Benefits

With a master’s degree, you’ll study a specific field in broad terms. With a PhD, you delve much deeper into a certain component of that field. “People who really want to spend their lives studying a specific facet of something – want to get as much training as possible and find out as much as they can – go for a PhD,” Santogrossi says.

Career Benefits

While an advanced degree doesn’t guarantee career success, for many fields those letters after your name can take you to the next level. “The advanced degree provides greater income, greater mobility in work and more independence in the workplace,” Hamblin says. It can also introduce you to valuable professional contacts.

For many fields, such as psychology, social work and therapy, you’ll need a master’s degree for licensing. Earning a PhD can take you even further. “If you want to work with the greatest autonomy without having to answer to someone else, you get a PhD,” Santogrossi says. To hold certain positions, you’re required to have a PhD, such as a professor or researcher at a four-year college.

Help with Your Decision

To help make your decision, Santogrossi advises students to “take advantage of the zillions of resources already available to you.” This means talking to faculty members, recent grads and other professionals in your field of interest. Also, contact professional associations to find out what degrees you need to excel in your area of interest.

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