So you know you want to do a PhD someday. Let’s assume you already have a Bachelor’s degree and that some of the PhD programs you are considering don’t require candidates to already have Master’s degree for admission. Do you do a Master’s first or apply straight to PhD programs? There are advantages (and disadvantages) to each option.
Master’s then PhD
This is the traditional route to earn a PhD and is still widely used in Europe.
- Time commitment-The initial time commitment for a Master’s degree (one to three years) is shorter than the PhD (three to seven years).
- Not as competitive-In general, admission for Master’s programs isn’t as competitive as for PhDs. This can benefit students whose undergraduate performance wasn’t strong enough to be admitted into PhD programs right away. By doing a Master’s degree they can get more research experience, add to their CVs, and build relationships with professors who can write better letters of recommendation. An outstanding Master’s record might even allow the student to apply to more selective PhD programs than they could straight out of undergrad.
- Explore your interests-For students that don’t have a clear idea of what they want to study at the PhD level, a Master’s is a great way to explore their options and figure out where their research interests lie. Doing a Master’s degree can also help someone who wants to change fields for their doctorate. By gaining research experience in their new field they will be a more competitive candidate for PhD programs.
- Might be required for PhD admission-In some fields such as public health and social work a Master’s degree is required or recommended for admission to a PhD program. Additionally, students intent on pursuing a PhD in Europe will need to to have a Master’s to meet the admissions requirements the majority of European PhD programs.
- Experience at multiple universities-Each university has a different academic environment and its own approach to research. An advantage of doing a Master’s and then a PhD is the exposure to academic life at an additional university.
- Get rid of doubts- If a student has any hesitations about pursuing a doctorate, a Master’s degree is a way to test the waters before committing to a PhD.
- Funding-Depending on the field of study, funding for a terminal Master’s degree can be more difficult to come by. Sometimes there are grants, scholarships, or teaching positions available to these students to partially cover the cost, but not to the same extent as for PhD students.
Straight to PhD
In the United States, a Master’s degree is not required for admission to most PhD programs. It is possible and not unusual to be admitted to a PhD program straight out of undergrad. The number of direct entry PhD programs has started to rise in Canada as well, though earning a Master’s and then PhD is still more common. In Canada, it is also possible for academically promising students to begin a Master’s degree and then “fast track” or transfer to the PhD program without completing the requirements of the Master’s degree.
- Time commitment-Many American PhD programs do not offer significant coursework reduction for students who already have Master’s degrees. This means that they will have to do a five to seven year PhD on top of their one to three year Master’s. If this is the case, then starting a PhD directly out of undergrad is the faster choice.
- Funding-Funding is one of the top advantages of a direct entry PhD program. Most PhD programs offer students partial or full funding for their studies and many even pay them a stipend on top of a tuition waiver. There are also a greater number of external funding opportunities available to PhD students such as national grants and major fellowships which favour PhD work over Master’s studies.
- Long-Term Projects-The shorter time constraints of a Master’s degree make it difficult for students to set up and run the kind of long-term projects which might be necessary to properly address their research questions. It is more common for PhD students to go more in-depth and do multi-year experiments, lengthy studies, or a year of fieldwork as part of their degree.
- Start working right away-Students who have a clear understanding of their research interests and have already identified potential supervisors might prefer not to delay their PhD work by obtaining a Master’s first.
- Moving only once-While doing a Master’s first exposes a student to academic life at multiple universities, the flip side is that it requires moving twice: one for the Master’s and once for the PhD. Moving can be time consuming and expensive—especially if one or both degrees are done abroad.
- Will still earn a Master’s-Students in direct entry PhD programs will usually be awarded a Master’s degree along the way for course work completed during their doctorate.
- Withdrawing from the program-If the student decides to permanently withdraw from a direct entry or fast track PhD program they may be leaving without any degree. Depending on when in the program they withdraw it may be possible to be awarded a Master’s for coursework already completed, but this is dependant on the policies of the program.
Ultimately the decision about whether to do a Master’s first or apply directly for a PhD is a personal one that you have to make on your own. Take some time to think about these pros and cons as well as your own goals and priorities. Good luck with your applications!