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Second Master’s or PhD? – A Comparison

Summary

A second Master’s degree is best suited for those who want to work in industry, but first either want to acquire additional knowledge in their current field or move to a new one. A PhD is best suited to those who want to gain advanced research skills and expertise in their current field and pursue a career in research or academia.

Introduction

It’s common for Master’s students to be plagued by the thought of what they will do next as they near the end of their current degree. Whether it’s taking a gap year, starting their career or continuing education, one thing is clear: there are many possibilities.

If you decide to stay in education, you’ll likely at some point consider whether it’s better to do a second Master’s or a PhD. You’d be right to give this serious thought, as the two degrees have significant differences, from their costs and durations, to the career paths they offer.

This page explains the differences between a second Master’s and a PhD, the pros and cons of each, and will help you to decide which of the two degrees is best for you.

Second Master’s vs PhD

Level of Specialisation

Master’s

A Master’s degree, regardless of whether it’s an MSc, MRes or MPhil, aims to provide you with targeted knowledge that builds on what you would have learnt from your undergraduate degree. Although each type of Master’s degree has its own focus, such as an MSc on practical knowledge and an MPhil on research skills, the specialisation they offer isn’t as in-depth as that offered by a PhD. This is because they have a wider curriculum and usually utilise several teaching methods, including lectures and tutorials, which provide a range of knowledge around several closely related subjects.

PhD

PhDs are the highest form of academic qualification you can obtain and offer more specialised knowledge than any Master’s degree. Unlike Master’s degrees, which are based on a mixture of teaching methods and curriculum, PhDs are purely research degrees and focus on a specific research question.

Summary

A second Master’s degree will provide you with specialist knowledge in various subjects in your field. A doctoral degree will provide you with research skills and expert knowledge in a single topic within your field.

Programme Duration

Master’s

Most Master’s courses take one year to complete, with an MPhil two years. However, the exact duration will depend on your specific course, type of Master’s and university.

PhD

A PhD lasts on average three to four years, with part-time studies lasting up to eight years.

Summary

Since a doctorate lasts several times longer than a Master’s, it requires a much greater commitment.

Programme Cost

Master’s

The cost of a second Master’s degree will vary depending on its type, subject and host universities. Based on an analysis by FindAMaster’s, which summarises tuition fees from the International and Postgraduate Fees Survey 2019, the average academic tuition fee per year for a Master’s degree in the UK is:

Learning MethodDegree TypeAverage Tuition Fee
Classroom / LaboratoryMaster’s of Science (MSc)£8,860 (Home/EU)
£17,493 (International)
ResearchMaster’s of Research (MRes)
Master’s of Philosophy (MPhil)
£4,000 (Home/EU)
£10,000 (International)

PhD

The average tuition fee per year for a PhD in the UK is £4,407 for home/EU students and £19,600 for international students.

There are other fees associated with doctoral research projects that aren’t present with Master’s studies. These include bench fees, travel costs for collaborations and conferences, and potential writing up fees for late thesis submissions.

Summary

Annually, a second Master’s degree is twice as expensive than a PhD for home/EU students, and slightly cheaper for international students. However, considering the typical duration of these programmes, a PhD becomes significantly more expensive; twice as expensive for home/EU students and four times as expensive for international students:

DurationSecond Master’sPhD
Annual£8,860 (Home/EU)
£17,493 (International)
£4,407 (Home/EU)
£19,600 (International)
Over Full Programme£8,860 (Home/EU)
£17,493 (International)
£17,628 (Home/EU)
£78,400 (International)

Notes: (1) The tuition fee values for the second Master’s is based on the average fees for an MSc. (2) The above table assumes a second Master’s duration of 1 year and a PhD duration of 4 years. (3) The fees and durations are indicative – the exact values vary depending on the course and university.

It’s also important to bear in mind that many PhD programmes come with funding which covers the cost of their fees. Many funding packages also include a living allowance (known as a stipend) which is comparable to a low salary. It is usually much more difficult to secure non-repayable funding for a Master’s programme unless it’s integrated with a PhD programme.

Employability

Master’s

The skills and knowledge gained through a Master’s degree are general enough to apply to other relevant disciplines. For example, a Master’s degree in statistics would enable you to work in finance, medical analysis, and specific engineering fields etc. Due to this, a second Master’s could help make you suitable for an even wider range of professional fields.

PhD

Because a PhD focuses on advanced research methods and a specific research question as opposed to the broad field, your career path is usually refined to the more advanced positions which require expert knowledge. This doesn’t mean that you cannot apply your skills elsewhere, but most PhD holders remain in their field after completing their studies.

It’s worth noting, however, that there is a growing trend for PhD holders to use the transferable skills they acquired during their degree to successfully reposition themselves in careers outside of academia. In fact, STEM PhD holders are particularly sought after in the financial sector because of their proven ability to perform complex tasks under strict deadlines.

Summary

Both a second Master’s and a PhD offer excellent employment opportunities. However, a second Master’s usually offers greater career flexibility across industries, especially at the beginning of a career. A doctorate opens up the more demanding positions within a field, but can sometimes make it more difficult to change industries.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Second Master’s

Advantages

Improving skills: A second Master’s can strengthen your skills within your current field. For example, suppose you have an MEng in Biomedical Engineering. Here, you know of the technical aspects and their application, but you do not necessarily know how to innovate and develop them further. You could fill this skills gap with an MRes or an MPhil that would provide you with complimentary research and investigatory skills. Improving your skills won’t only help you advance faster in your career faster but may also open up future roles that would not otherwise be available to you.

Career change: After completing your first Master’s degree, you may decide that the field is no longer suitable for you. In these scenarios, a second Master’s degree can facilitate career changes. This will have obvious limitations, for example, you shouldn’t expect to be able to do a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering with a Master’s in Classical Literature, however, if you already have a Master’s in another type of engineering, this transition would be possible.

Bridge between different Industries: In STEM subjects, there is extensive interaction between different industries. Although this interaction has always existed, it has grown steadily as more industries try to innovate and tackle more ambitious projects. There’s an obvious need for multidisciplinary roles, and a second Master’s degree in a relevant subject can make you desirable for this reason.

Disadvantages

Perception: If you carry out a second Master’s in a field unrelated to your first, even if to facilitate a career change, it can lead to potential employers perceiving you as unfocused. Although this shouldn’t be the case for large multidisciplinary organisations, it may deter the more specialised companies.

Salary: While a second relevant Master’s in the same subject field may increase your earning potential, a second unrelated Master’s is unlikely to. Although an unrelated second Master’s isn’t a disadvantage if being used to facilitate a career change, it will probably be an unnecessary use of time and money if you intend to stay within your current career path.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a PhD

Advantages

Establishing yourself as an Expert: Any individual who holds a doctorate is considered an expert in his or her field. Therefore, a PhD has not only a prestigious status but also opens up roles in advanced research and academia.

Commitment: A PhD shows your willingness, commitment and motivation to learn. This makes you highly desirable for employers, as a strong passion for continuous learning usually correlates with the potential to become industry leaders.

Disadvantages

Less freedom: Taking three to four years to complete, a PhD is a huge commitment. As a result, many feel pressured to stay in their field to ensure that their PhD was ‘worth’ it, even if they no longer feel that the field is the right one for them. Although it is still possible to change paths after your doctorate, and many do so successfully, many feel ‘locked’ into their path after they finish their studies.

Over-qualified: You may find it difficult to find a job outside of research or academia, as employers may consider you over-qualified and therefore believe that you will quickly leap from the role to a more challenging one. They may also believe you lack practical work experience compared to your counterpart, who has a Master’s degree and has been working in the industry whilst you were working on your academic studies.

Cost: While PhD programmes can come with funding that helps to finance tuition fees and living costs, the funding usually covers only the first 3.5 years of full-time programmes and the first seven years of part-time programmes. You may be determined to complete your doctorate within this timeframe, but it is not uncommon for students to experience setbacks in their research that take them beyond the period for which they’re funded for. This means they have to pay the rest of the fee themselves, which can be a significant burden for some, especially if they lack the savings to do so.

Conclusion

Deciding between a second Master’s and a PhD may seem like a tough decision, but ultimately it depends on what your career goals are. Therefore, the first thing to do is to ensure you’ve thought about your future and have a good idea of where you want to go after your education.

A second Master’s is best suited to those who want to either gain more specialised knowledge in their current industry or make a job change by transitioning into a new industry. A PhD is best suited for those who want to gain advanced research skills and knowledge in their field and pursue a career in research or academia.

Either way, both options offer great opportunities and will open new doors for you. Which of the two degrees is better for you depends on which door you would like to open.

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