The Difference Between a Master's and Ph.D. Degree

Should you go back to school after completing your bachelor's degree? As you start to plan your academic journey, you may be wondering about the difference between a master's and a Ph.D.. While both degrees are considered postgraduate work, they are very different from each other. Depending on the career path and academic workload you are interested in pursuing, you may find that one degree suits your goals better than the other. 

If you're interested in pursuing postgraduate education but still have questions about which route is right for you, we'll go over the basic differences between a master's and a Ph.D. degree. We will also cover the basics of each program, such as requirements, timeframe, and costs, so that you can make the most practical decision that's right for your situation. 

Master's Vs. Ph.D. Degree

A master's degree is often thought of as the middle degree between a bachelor's and a doctorate. It's a much shorter program, often taking only a year or two to complete. This short time frame makes it alluring to recent college graduates who are looking to get ahead in their careers. 

There are a few different kinds of master's degrees out there, including an MA and an MS degree. What is the difference between an MA and an MS degree? The difference between a Master of Arts (MA) and a Master of Science (MS) lies in their field of study. An MA is geared toward humanities subjects like literature, history, linguistics, communications, etc. An MS degree is focused on science and technical fields. By nature of the fields, the MA curriculum will be focused on theoretical learning, while the MS will focus on technical expertise. 

A Ph.D. degree is the highest degree a student can attain in their field of study. At the completion of this degree, graduates will be experts in their field and have finished an independent research thesis. Doctorate degrees are commonly a lead-up to a career in academia. However, senior roles in career fields, such as finance or business, might also benefit from a doctorate degree. If you're looking to become a director or leader in your industry, a Ph.D. can help you accomplish that goal.

Who Would Benefit from these Degrees?

Undergraduate students who are looking to gain an edge over the competition when applying for jobs may benefit from obtaining a master's degree. Especially in saturated industries, when breaking into a career can be difficult, having a master's degree is a quick way to gain experience and industry knowledge. Having an MA can also help young, or low-level professionals get a senior position. 

However, if you have lofty academic goals, like getting your research published or becoming a professor, then a Ph.D. is the best choice to accomplish that goal. Earning your doctorate might also be a way to earn leadership roles in your industry. Unlike the master's degree, though, a Ph.D. requires a high level of commitment. If you're unsure of your exact career path, it might be helpful to first obtain your master's degree before committing to a doctorate program. By completing your master's degree first, you may be able to better understand the career path you want to pursue.


The entrance requirements for a postgraduate degree program depend on the university and country. In the US, most master's and doctoral programs require roughly the same effort on applications. The application requirements usually include a bachelor's degree, academic references, essays, the GRE exam, and transcripts. 

Though already having a master's degree helps your chances of getting accepted into a Ph.D. program, it isn't always required. Some doctorate programs have master's degrees included in the program. A built-in master's program may be ideal for those who are confident in their career path and goals, as it can potentially help you save time and money. You'll also be well-connected in the department when you begin to start the research on your dissertation. 

In contrast, most U.K. universities require applicants to have a master's degree and be prepared to jump into their thesis research right away. So if you're interested in obtaining a degree overseas, you'll need to be aware of any additional requirements a university may have before you apply to a program. 


The coursework of the two programs is very different. The master's program is like an extended version of the bachelor's degree, where you gain more in-depth knowledge of your field and build skills to help you in your career. In comparison, the doctorate degree will equip you with the critical thinking, research, and analytical skills you need to add new knowledge and insight into your field. 

The content and coursework of the two degrees are distinct from each other. A master's degree is centered around lectures and classroom learning, with core courses required as well as some elective ones. Master's programs tend to be larger than Ph.D. programs due to the versatility of the degree. These classes prepare a student to advance in their career and gain more knowledge about the field. At the end of the program, students will undertake a capstone class, which focuses on a research-driven thesis. 

The Ph.D. program focuses heavily on independent research and preparation for a dissertation. Depending on the program, you may be required to take courses on research and writing skills, as well as coursework pertaining to your field of study. In addition to coursework, there are typically exams that are necessary to complete before you can move on to the dissertation part of your program. If you haven't completed your master's degree separately, then this first part of your doctorate program will be earning this degree. 

Once you've passed or earned your master's degree, you'll begin the research phase of your doctorate. During the dissertation process, you will work with professors to complete an independently researched and written thesis. In order to complete the program, you'll need to present and defend your thesis in front of a committee of professors.

Purpose and Outcome

The purpose and outcome of these two degrees both intend to help you further your knowledge and push you toward your career goals. However, the outcomes of these degrees are different from each other. 

The master's degree is designed to help you out in your career by equipping you with more industry knowledge than a bachelor's degree provides. So if you're a recent college graduate looking to gain an advantage over other job applicants, having a master's degree can help you land a higher-paying job quickly. 

The Ph.D. program is designed for serious candidates who either want to pursue a career in academia or want to pursue a senior role in an industry where extensive knowledge is beneficial or required. The doctorate degree typically takes three to seven years to complete, so having certainty about your exact career path is essential before you start the program. 

While the Ph.D. program is designed to equip you with the skills and knowledge to become a researcher in your chosen field, the master's program is structured around career information. So the end goals of each program are different from each other. Once you've completed your doctorate degree, you will be an expert in your field and provide original research to add to your industry. When you've completed your master's degree, you will be equipped with industry-specific knowledge to further your career.


Master's degree programs require fewer credit hours than doctorate programs. This is especially helpful for those already in the workforce who have full-time jobs but want to advance their careers. In comparison, Ph.D. programs are typically full-time endeavors in which the candidate's tuition, board, and stipend are waived. However, this comes with the expectation that they will be a graduate teaching assistant or a research assistant.

The overall timeframe for each program varies, but generally, master's degree programs will be completed sooner. Depending on if you are working a full-time job or have other responsibilities, master's degrees can be completed in as little as one year. However, taking two years to finish is common. 

A Ph.D. degree can take a significant amount of time for you to complete. Depending on the program, your abilities, and your schedule, the degree can potentially be completed in three to seven years. If you already have your master's degree, this can shorten the time frame. However, if you're jumping into a doctorate program straight from a bachelor's degree, then you'll have at least two years of coursework which is then followed by three to four years of research for your dissertation. 


The overall costs for both programs vary widely, though a rough estimate is around $30,000 to $130,000 for a master's degree. And a doctorate degree can cost anywhere from $130,000 to $260,000. Much of that cost depends on the school, program, scholarships, and grants. A lot of doctoral candidates receive some measure of tuition assistance or are fully funded. 

Master's degree programs are more likely to be paid out of pocket, as you are unlikely to find a program that is fully funded. However, it is a much shorter degree than a Ph.D., so you will be able to find a higher-paying job much sooner than those working on their doctorate. 

What are the financial prospects of each degree? Both degrees can help you advance your career. However, depending on your industry and career goals, a Ph.D. may help you to earn more over your lifetime. 

Which Degree Is Right for You?

Depending on the program and your area of study, you may be able to earn more money long-term with a doctorate degree. In addition, some Ph.D. programs are fully funded, so you'll have a low salary for close to three years. You might also be able to save money with a master's degree built into the program. 

However, thanks to the short timeframe of the master's degree program, you'll be entering the workforce a few years sooner than those trying to obtain a Ph.D.. Since you'll be able to apply to higher-paying jobs sooner, you'll see the return on your academic investment right away. In comparison, working full-time on a Ph.D. will require you to live frugally for at least three years longer than if you just obtained an MA. 

If you're trying to figure out which academic path is right for you, you should consider your career goals, industry, and field of study. If you have a clear career path in which you obtaining a doctorate degree will land you a higher salary or position, you should consider that route. However, if your career aspirations aren't as concrete, and you want to enter the workforce sooner, a master's degree might better align with your goals. 

Figuring out which academic degree to pursue can be challenging. It may be helpful to conduct informational interviews with alumni, professors, or mentors of the career field you are trying to enter. Researching and networking can have a positive impact on your decision concerning academic paths and can help you confidently make a decision. 

Overall, if you're thinking about advancing your career, sharpening your research and critical thinking skills, and gaining industry knowledge, a post-graduate program is a good idea. Acquiring either a Master's degree or a Ph.D. degree is likely to increase your earning potential over the course of your lifetime and help you land leadership positions. Depending on your career and academic goals, you may decide to stick with just a master's degree. Or, you may decide to pursue your doctorate degree. 

Whatever your decision, continuing your post-graduate education is an excellent way to further your career. Once you've earned your postgraduate degree, you'll want to show it off in your office or to potential employers. If it gets lost or damaged, and you need a replacement, Same Day Diplomas can provide you with replacement documents.

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