Pros and Cons of Earning a Master's Degree Before a PhD

A student’s decision to pursue higher education depends on factors, and there isn’t always a clear answer. Students should consider their personal interests and what a program can provide for their life. Here are some of the pros and cons and understanding of masters and Ph.D.

Updated by Zubin Thomas on 15th April 2020

Many applicants struggle to choose what degree to pursue, whether a master’s degree or Ph.D. will be right for them. Some know which degree they want. People who wish to pursue a doctorate degree wonder if they require completing a master’s degree.

Is it really required to have a master’s degree to have a doctoral program? In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of earning a master’s degree before a PhD. 

But, before that let us understand what is a Master’s degree and what exactly is a PhD.

What is a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is the initial level of graduate study and usually it takes one to three years for completion. Master’s degrees are also considered more flexible than doctorates as they are more career-oriented. Graduates are expected to have advanced knowledge within their specialized field post completion of the program.

There are primarily three types of master’s programs:

  • Research Master’s

  • Professional Master’s

  • Terminal Master’s

What is a Doctoral degree?

A doctorate is the highest academic degree that can be awarded. Having a doctoral degree means having a specialty in your field. Ph.D. programs tend to be smaller than master’s programs, but the amount of completion time differs from four to eight years, as it depends on the subject of study, the field of choice and the student’s research topic. Doctorate programs prepare students to start off new projects and new ideas are discussed that add to the collective knowledge of that particular field. Doctoral candidates usually seek a career path as professors and researchers.

Types of doctoral programs:

  • Doctoral Programs in Health Professions

  • Doctoral Programs in Legal Professions

  • Doctoral Programs in Biological and Biomedical Sciences

  • Honorary Doctorates 

Pros And Cons Of A Master's Degree

Pros

A Master’s Degree will introduce the Process of Graduate Study

Graduate work is different from the work you did as an undergraduate. Students coming from an undergraduate program may not understand the theory material of a doctoral program . Students with a master’s degree will have already learned some, and are less surprised at the contents of the doctoral courses. Graduate schools are very competitive and grad students usually have a hectic schedule. Many students who flowed through undergraduation are surprised to see that graduate programs require greater commitment. A Master’s degree will give the opportunity where students will conduct independent research in order to develop their thoughts and ideas. For students with passionate academic interests, a master's degree is highly recommended as they can understand  the value of a Master’s degree. The experience provides satisfaction by attending extracurricular activities and meetings, hearing from guest speakers and lecturers, and one-on-one supervision.

A Masters May Help in Admission into A Doctoral Program

Be an expert in your area of interest. If you’re planning on contributing to the world, both professionally or academically, you should know your field inside and out-starting with a master’s degree. A master’s program can improve your academic record and show that how committed, interested, and qualified you are in your field.  As a master’s student, you have to contact faculty members who teach in the doctoral programs as well as doctoral students, which can give insights on what life is like in a doctoral program.

Cons

A Master’s is Time Consuming

 A doctoral degree can take five or more years to complete. By that time, many graduates with bachelor’s degrees will be in their professional careers. Getting a master’s on top of that adds 1 to 3 more years to your time in a graduate program. Do you really want this? A full-time master’s program will require at least two years; however, even though many doctoral and master’s students are in the same classes, many new doctoral students find that their master’s coursework doesn’t add up into their doctoral program. So, if you want to pursue a master’s degree before applying to the doctorate programs, it will likely not make a gap in your required doctoral coursework. Your doctoral degree will take an additional 4 to 6 years.

 A Master’s is Usually Unfunded

Many students find master’s students have to pay for their program out-of-pocket, as they usually do not get funding for school, which is a huge con. Moreover, if you choose not to seek a doctoral degree, do your homework and think carefully before enrolling in a master’s program prior to seeking a doctorate. However, it's easier to get more financial aid for a doctorate, since pursuing doctorates take longer to earn, schools recognize they need more financial assistance. Before choosing what graduate degree to pursue, think about what you want to do after graduation. A master’s prepares students for careers. Therefore, if you want to get into any field of research, you should get a doctorate.

How Do You Decide Which Degree Is Right For You?

You should be able to choose between a master’s and a doctoral program depending on your educational and professional goals. Take time to determine what are your career goals and which degree would be the most helpful for your success. If you are just looking for ways to improve your career, obtaining a master’s degree may be worth financially, as master’s holders receive similar earnings as postdocs. Consider pursuing a doctoral degree if you enjoy research and want to advance the knowledge of the field. If you are looking for a change in field, industry, or a promotion, then getting a master’s is most likely enough.

In conclusion, knowing your professional goals will help guide your choices for graduate study. Research your field of interest and have a strong understanding of the skills and knowledge will help inform you which degree option makes the most sense for your goals. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you should obtain a master’s degree before applying to doctoral programs.