Master's vs. Doctorate Degree

Choosing a Graduate School Degree

YinYang/Vetta/ Getty

When it comes to graduate school options, there are many options for students to consider which can leave many students uncertain of what to do next. There are several types of degrees you can earn in graduate school, of which the most common is the master's degree (MA or MS), but there are also doctorate programs (Ph.D., Ed.D., and others) and certificate programs to consider, as well as the option to pursue multiple master's degrees. These degree and certificate programs all vary in level, time to complete, and more.

Master's Degrees

As you may know, master's degree generally takes two, sometimes three, years to complete (after earning a bachelor's degree), though some accelerated master's programs can earn you a degree in less than a year, just be prepared for a lot of hard work. All master's programs entail coursework and exams, and, depending on the field, possibly an internship or other applied experience (for example, in some fields of psychology). Whether a thesis is required to obtain the master's degree depends on the program. Some programs require a written thesis; others offer an option between a thesis and a comprehensive exam. And, some programs provide capstone courses, which are usually semester-long courses that provide a comprehensive overview of everything learned within the program and ask students to complete several small thesis statements to demonstrate mastery.

A meaningful way in which master's programs differ from many, but not all, doctoral programs is in the level of financial aid available to students. Most programs do not offer as much assistance to master's students as they do for doctoral students, and so students often pay most if not all of their tuition. Many top institutions even offer full scholarships for doctoral students, however, a doctoral program is usually a much more comprehensive and time-consuming educational program, requiring a full-time commitment, versus the ability to work your full-time job while going for a master's degree.

If you have already earned a master's degree and wish to continue your studies, you may be assessing your next move. For some students, earning a second master's degree is the solution. Since master's degrees tend to be specialized degrees, as you grow within your career you may find that a new specialty is required or that two specialties will make you an even more desirable candidate when job hunting. In education, for example, many teachers earn a master's of teaching degree but may return to the classroom to study for a degree in the field in which they are teaching, such as English or mathematics. They may also wish to pursue a degree in organizational leadership, especially if they are looking to grow into an administrative role in the school.

The value of the master's degree varies by field. In some areas such as business, a master's is the unstated norm and necessary for advancement. Other fields do not require advanced degrees for career advancement. In some cases, a master's degree may hold advantages over a doctoral degree. For example, a master's degree in social work (MSW) may be more cost-effective than a doctoral degree given the time and funds required to earn the degree and the pay differential. The admission office at the schools you're applying to can often help you determine which program is best for you.

Ph.D./Doctoral Degrees

A doctoral degree is a more advanced degree, but it takes more time (often a great deal more time). Depending on the program, a Ph.D. could take four to eight years to complete. Typically, a Ph.D. in North American programs entails two to three years of coursework and a dissertation, an independent research project designed to uncover new knowledge in your field which must be of publishable quality. A dissertation can take a year or more to complete, with most averaging about 18 months. Some fields, like applied psychology, may also require an internship of one year or more.

Most doctorate programs offer various forms of financial aid, from assistantships to scholarships to loans. The availability and types of support vary by discipline (e.g., those in which faculty conduct research sponsored by large grants are more likely to hire students in exchange for tuition) and by an institution. Students in some doctoral programs also earn master's degrees along the way.

Certificate Programs

Students who have completed a master's degree and still wish to continue their studies may consider certificate programs rather than doctoral programs. Certificates can usually be earned in less than a year and are often significantly less expensive than going after additional degrees. If you're wondering what should come after your master's degree and you're not sure if a doctoral program is right for you, this could be the way to go. Certificates range in scope greatly and can allow you to hyperfocus on the areas in which you wish to excel. Some schools even offer certificate programs that are of a master's degree caliber, so you can walk away better prepared for your career and without breaking the bank. Employers who offer tuition assistance may look favorably on a less expensive certificate program, as well.

Which Is Better?

There is no easy answer. It depends on your interests, field, motivation, and career goals. Read more about your field and consult faculty advisors to learn more about which option will fit your career goals. Some final considerations:

  • What types of jobs do a master's degree, doctoral degree, and certificate holders have? Do they differ? How?
  • How much will each degree cost? How much will you earn after obtaining each degree? Is the outcome worth the cost? What can you afford?
  • How much time do you have to invest in additional schooling?
  • Are you interested enough to pursue many years of schooling?
  • Will earning a doctoral degree offer a substantial benefit in your employment and advancement opportunities?

Certificates, master's degrees and Ph.D. degrees indeed differ, with advantages and disadvantages to each. Only you know which is the right degree for you. Take your time and ask questions, then carefully weigh what you learn about each, its opportunities, as well as your own needs, interests, and competencies. What comes after a master's degree is up to you.