What is the Difference Between a Masters Degree and a Doctoral Degree?

From Tara Kuther, Ph.D.,
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Although there are several types of degrees you can earn in graduate school, the main two types of degrees that students obtain are a Masters Degree (M.A., M.S.) or a Doctoral Degree (PhD). Both the Masters Degree and the Doctoral degree differ in terms of length and structure of program, financial aid options, and their value in the field. These differences can help you determine which program and degree is more beneficial for you.

What is the Difference between a Masters program and a PhD program?

Masters Program:
A Masters program usually takes 2-3 years to complete. The program entails coursework and exams. Although a thesis is not necessary to earn a Masters degree, many programs do offer the option to write a research paper. Additionally, some Masters programs require you to have several years of work experience before attending graduate school. A downfall of the Masters program is the amount of financial aid available to students. Students in Masters programs are required to find sources of aid on their own. Additionally, there are very few fellowships and scholarships available, which results in students paying for school through loans. Although most fields offer a Masters degree, some fields may not value it as much as a Doctorate degree. However, the value of a degree varies for each field.

PhD Program:
A PhD program results in a more advanced degree than the masters degree. However, based on the program, a PhD takes approximately 4-7 years to complete. A PhD program entails 2-3 years of coursework and a year to complete your thesis. You are required to complete an independent research and a dissertation with the help of an advisor, which usually is an on-going process. Additionally, based on the field, a year of internship or fieldwork may be required. Unlike Masters programs, PhD programs have numerous financial aid options. Doctorate students are usually provided with tuition waivers and many students have the option to earn income through a research or teaching assistantship. Additionally, some students are fortunate enough to receive a generous stipend either through the school, program, or from outside sources. Students in PhD programs also earn a masters degree as they complete a certain number of courses and pass relevant exams. The value of a PhD also varies based on the field.

Which type of degree should I seek?

The degree that is best suited for you should be determined by your interests, field of study, and goals. If your field of interest is highly competitive, then a PhD may be the better option. Additionally, if you are interested in a job in academia, research, or any form of specialization (Therapy, fieldwork, etc.), a PhD is necessary. If you are looking to obtain a higher paying job, a Masters Degree may be perfectly fine. However, for certain fields, a PhD may result in a higher-paying job.

To determine what degree is best for you, do some research on your field of interest. Find the answers to the following:

  • What types of jobs are earned by graduated students?
  • How much financial aid is provided?
  • Are there benefits to earning a PhD versus a Masters degree in that field?
  • Am I interested in research or becoming involved in academia?

These are just some of the questions to consider. Make your decision based on what you have planned for your future career and determine if a Masters degree or a PhD degree will help you achieve those goals.

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