Master’s vs. PhD: What’s the Difference?

A young woman with her palms turned up

When you are at a college or university, you are likely pursuing the same goal as most other undergraduate students: an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree. However, what happens if you want to continue your formal education? You generally have three options. You can pursue a Master’s, a PhD, or both! In today’s guide, we will discuss some of the most important differences between a Master’s and a PhD, as well as the paths required for each one.

Master’s vs. PhD: A Comprehensive Breakdown

What is a Master’s Degree?

In layman’s terms, a Master’s degree is the next step up from a Bachelor’s Degree. Once you enter a Master’s program, you are officially a “graduate” student (as opposed to an undergraduate). It can be helpful to think of a Master’s as a continuation of your undergraduate studies but with a greater focus on your field of interest. For example, you might get a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and then go on to get your Master’s in Early Childhood Psychology. Getting a Master’s essentially prepares you for a future career with more intensive coursework, greater emphasis on research, and the opportunity to do more fieldwork.

How Long Does a Master’s Take?

In the vast majority of cases, if you hold a Bachelor’s Degree and want to further your education, you can apply for a Master’s program. You can technically go directly from a Bachelor’s to a PhD, but this path is more complex and less common (more on that later!). If you are accepted into a Master’s program, you can expect to finish the program in roughly two years as a full-time student. There are certain Master’s programs that take less time to complete – for example, the J-Term from Columbia Business School which allows you to earn your MBA in 16 months.

Naturally, if you opt to take fewer classes per semester, it will take longer. For example, you may want to get a part-time job to help cover the costs of your Master’s, in which case it could take you anywhere between three and five years to finish your degree. Many universities offer part-time options specifically for students who plan to work while in school.

Master’s Degree Overview

  • Application Process: This varies from one program to another, but it is very similar to the application process for an undergraduate university program. You will need to choose your program, review the requirements, collect the necessary documents, and submit your application. Many schools will require a standardized test like the GRE or GMAT.
  • Length of Time: 1.5 to 2 years (full-time) or 3 to 5 years (part-time)
  • In-School Experience: If you majored in a certain subject in undergrad, you were likely required to take a number of courses on that specific topic. You can think of a Master’s degree somewhat similarly – where you’re spending a lot of time learning about going a field that you’re interested in. Master’s degree coursework generally entails a mix of different types of classes – lectures, research, and project-based courses. The workload is usually more intensive than undergraduate degrees and often requires a final project or thesis. But, remember, you’re likely getting a Master’s because you’re interested in the topic – so you should be interested in many of the classes you’re taking!
  • Career Prospects: As more people go to college, the requirements for jobs become more stringent. You can greatly expand your potential career opportunities and even improve salary negotiations by having a Master’s degree. However, whether or not you really need a Master’s depends on your field of study, as well as your educational and career aspirations.
  • Average Cost of a Master’s: $66,340 [1]
  • Average Annual Salary with a Master’s: $77,844 [2]

What is a PhD?

While PhD is short for “Doctor of Philosophy,” it does not mean that you have to get an advanced degree in philosophy. Essentially, a PhD is the highest educational achievement that encompasses nearly all fields of study. With a PhD, you are considered an expert in your field and capable of teaching others at the undergraduate or graduate level. The exact experience varies significantly based on your chosen field of study, but PhD programs are often far more intensive than Master’s programs, with much greater emphasis on research and a final doctoral dissertation.

How Long Does a PhD Take?

This is where things can get tricky. On its own, a PhD can take anywhere between four and six years to complete as a full-time student. However, this is just the PhD program. You can finish your undergraduate degree and apply directly for a PhD program, but you will need to have excellent qualifications to make it through the application process. Moreover, many PhD programs require you to have a Master’s in a relevant field to even apply. As a result, many people first get a Master’s degree (roughly 2 years) and then apply for a PhD program. Therefore, if you add on the length of time you will need to get your Master’s, it could take as long as 6 to 10 years to get your PhD.

PhD Overview

  • Application Process: The application process is often more competitive for PhD programs, as there are fewer slots and more stringent requirements. You will likely need to provide multiple letters of recommendation, personal statements, and examples of your past work.
  • Length of Time: 4 to 6 years (full-time) or 5 to 8 years (part-time)
  • Experience: A PhD is a very intensive and rigorous experience, and you can expect to put hundreds of hours into research and coursework. The majority of PhDs require a final dissertation – which is essentially original research and your contribution to your field of study. For example – someone getting their PhD in Chemistry might do research on molecular properties in certain environments (that’s a real PhD title!). Typically, completing your dissertation means you present it for review to a board of advisors at your university, and may submit it to be published in academic journals.
  • Career Prospects: Many people debate how much your career prospects improve with a PhD. Oftentimes, people pursue a PhD if they wish to work in academia – teaching or conducting long-term research in their field of study. That said, some people do move out of academia after finishing their PhD. It can be helpful to look at alumni from programs you’re applying to – where do they end up after school? Do most of them work in academia, or move into another industry? This also varies by your focus – you could imagine a construction company might be more interested in hiring a PhD in Civil Engineering than a PhD in Medieval Literature.
  • Average Total Cost of a PhD: Many PhD programs are fully funded, meaning the student does not have to pay tuition and is paid by the university. [3]
  • Average Annual Salary with a PhD: $97,916 [3] Note – research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics indicates that the average PhD makes 25% more than someone with a Master’s degree.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, there are a lot of factors to consider when deciding whether to pursue a Master’s, a PhD, or both. A Master’s takes less time, but it’s not comprehensive and may not yield as high a salary as a PhD. Alternatively, a PhD takes two to three times as long to complete, but it could help you advance your career even further, command a higher salary, and become a recognized expert in your field. So, while it’s a great idea to pursue higher education, just remember the pros and cons of Master’s vs. PhD programs when you are ready to apply – and ultimately make the decision that’s best for you, vs. what you feel is expected!


  • Matthew Jones

    Matthew Jones is a freelance writer with a B.A. in Film and Philosophy from the University of Georgia. It was during his time in school that he published his first written work. After serving as a casting director in the Atlanta film industry for two years, Matthew acquired TEFL certification and began teaching English abroad. In 2017, Matthew started writing for dozens of different brands across various industries. During this time, Matthew also built an online following through his film blog. If you’d like to learn more about Matthew, you can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his personal website!

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