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Master’s vs PhD – Differences Explained

The decision of whether or not to pursue a Master’s or PhD (or both) after you complete your undergraduate studies is not necessarily a straightforward one. Both are postgraduate degrees but are different in terms of the academic experience and the career paths taken afterwards.

In short, a Master’s degree involves a year of study, primarily through taught lectures and a final dissertation research project, whilst a PhD is a three-year commitment of independent research on a specific subject.

There’s more to it than that, however – read on for more information.

What Is a Master’s Degree?

A Master’s degree is the next level of study after the completion of an undergraduate degree, commonly known as a Bachelor’s.

These degree levels are often referred to in terms of cycles so that a Bachelor’s is a first-cycle degree, a Master’s is a second-cycle and finally, a PhD is the third-cycle of higher education (and the highest).

Master’s degrees demand an intense period of study, usually centred around a core series of lectures, coupled with coursework assignments and exams, followed by the completion of a contained research project usually taking students 3-4 months to complete.

These types of degrees are attractive to recent graduates who want to delve deeper into their specific field of study, gaining more specialised knowledge beyond what an undergraduate degree can offer.

Equally, some pursue a Master’s in a subject that is only tangentially related to their Bachelor’s degree, helping them gain a broader depth of knowledge.

These degrees also serve as a significant stepping stone for those already in employment who want to either progress their current career development or even change careers completely by learning new skills and knowledge.

What Is a PhD?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest academic degree that can be awarded and is the third and final cycle in the progression of higher education.

PhDs are earnt on the basis of producing a significant, independent and novel body of work (a Thesis) that contributes new knowledge to a particular subject area.

These are research degrees that are highly demanding of a candidate’s time, resources and energy and are all but a pre-requisite for anyone considering a career in academia, such as eventually becoming a professor.

There are some exceptions to this, such as those with a medical background who may earn an MD (Doctor of Medicine), which is the equivalent of a PhD.

Doctoral degrees can also have a significant positive impact on career development outside of academia, especially in fields such as engineering, business and finance that have a high demand for highly qualified and capable people.

What are the Benefits of a Master’s Degree?

There are several reasons one might consider doing a Master’s degree rather than a PhD. These include:

  • It takes approximately a third of the time of a PhD and costs less too.
  • It’s a good way to differentiate yourself from those that hold only an undergraduate degree without having to commit to a substantial research degree.
  • The end goal is more career-focused as opposed to research-focused. E.g. it is practically an ‘easier’ route to changing or progressing your career.

What are the Benefits of Doing a PhD?

You may continue on into a PhD after a Master’s or you may even dive straight in after completing your undergraduate studies. So, what are the advantages of completing this third-cycle?

  • You’ll have developed a wealth of transferable skills, such as effective communication of complex concepts, multi-tasking time-management and the ability to adapt to and solve unexpected problems.
  • A PhD helps to establish you as an expert within your chosen subject area; your work will hopefully have furthered the knowledge in this.
  • It will open up career paths within academia that may otherwise be very difficult to get a hold in (although these career paths will still be very competitive).
  • You can add the title ‘Dr’ in front of your name!

Which Degree Is More Impactful: A Masters or a PhD?

On paper, the answer should be clear: A PhD is the highest degree you can earn, so has more impact than a Master’s, which in turn has more impact than a Bachelor’s.

The reality is that the size of the impact (if any) really depends on the subject area and the career path you choose (if the measure of impact is how it positively improves your career prospects, that is).

For someone with aspirations of becoming a professor, a PhD will be of greater value than a Master’s alone.

Equally, it’s also possible that someone with a PhD entering a different field or one that doesn’t require a PhD may find that their degree has no bearing on their career or in some cases may even be seen as a ‘negative’ with a concern of the person being ‘over-qualified’ for a position.

Check out the links below to our interviews with Prof. Debby Cotton and Dr Nikolay Nikolov to read their experiences of when a PhD has had a clear benefit (Prof. Cotton) and when it hasn’t been helpful (Dr Nikolov).

Do You Need to Have a Master’s to do a PhD?

This really depends on the university, department and sometimes even the project and supervisor.

From a purely application process perspective, some institutions may formally require you to hold a Master’s degree relevant to the subject of the PhD project.

In another scenario, most universities are unlikely to accept candidates that were awarded below a 2:1 (in the UK) in their undergraduate degree but may consider someone who has ‘made up’ for this with a high-grade Master’s.

Lastly, some universities now offer PhD programmes that incorporate an additional year of study in which you would complete a Master’s degree before carrying directly on into a PhD project.

As you’d expect, even if a university doesn’t formally require you to hold one, a Master’s degree can help separate you from other applicants in being accepted on the project.

Why Do a Master’s before Your PhD?

Even if you don’t need to have one, it could still be beneficial to do a Master’s before you embark on your doctorate journey.

As mentioned previously it’ll help you stand out from applicants that don’t have one, but beyond that, it’ll give you a taster of what research life could be like, especially if you stay at the same university and department for your PhD.

The one-year commitment (in the UK at least) of carrying out a Master’s first, and in particular your research project, will help you better understand if this is truly something you want to commit the next three or more years to.

You’ll learn some of the skills of independent research, from performing detailed literature searches to more complex, analytical writing.

At the end of it, you should be in a stronger position to consider your options and decide about whether to continue into a PhD.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master’s Degree?

In the UK, a full-time Master’s degrees take students one calendar year to complete: The programme of study usually starts in September, the final research project the following April and final project viva around August. Part-time degrees are usually double the time.

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD?

In the UK, most PhD projects take 3-4 years to complete, as reflected by the majority of funded projects offering stipends to cover living expenses of about 3.5 years.

For many reasons, projects may end up taking longer to complete, however. This might be because of difficulties in collecting enough data, or if the project is being done part-time.

Which One is More Expensive to Do?

As you’d expect, as a PhD takes three times as long to complete as a Master’s degree, it will cost you more to do as far as university fees are concerned.

Another thing to consider is that many PhD projects come with some level of funding equivalent to a low salary, which may cover the cost of tuition fees and living expenses, whilst it is usually more difficult to obtain funding for Master’s study.

Conversely, a Master’s graduate may progress into a higher (versus PhD funding) salary sooner whilst a PhD student will endure three years of a comparatively low income.

A Master’s vs a PhD: Conclusion

If you’re considering continue further university study after your undergraduate degree, the question of doing a Master’s vs a PhD is likely to come up.

There are benefits to doing either of these degrees or even both of them; your decision here can be easier if you have an idea of the career you want to follow or if you know you have a love for research!

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