Should You Earn a Master's Degree Before Your PhD?

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As a potential applicant to graduate school you have a great many decisions to make. The initial decisions, such as what field to study, may come easily. However, many applicants struggle with choosing what degree to pursue, whether a master’s degree or PhD is right for them. Others know what degree they want. Those who choose a doctoral degree sometimes wonder if they should first complete a master’s degree.

Do you need a master’s degree to apply to a doctoral program?

Is a master’s degree an essential prerequisite for gaining admission to a doctoral program? Usually not. Does a master’s degree improve your odds of admission? Sometimes. Is it in your best interest to earn master’s before applying to PhD programs? It depends. There are both advantages and disadvantages to earning a master’s before applying to PhD programs. Below are some of the pros and cons:

Pro:  A master’s degree will introduce you to the process of graduate study.

Without a doubt, graduate school is different from college. This is especially true at the doctoral level. A master’s program can introduce to you the process of graduate study and help you understand how it is different from undergraduate study.  A master’s program can help you make the transition to graduate school and prepare you for making the transition from college student to graduate scholar.


Pro:  A master’s program can help you see if you are ready doctoral study.

Are you ready for graduate school? Do you have the right study habits? Are you motivated? Can you manage your time? Enrolling in a master’s program can help you see if you have what it takes for success as a graduate student – and especially as a doctoral student.

Pro: A master’s program can help you see if you are interested enough to undertake a Ph.D.

The typical college survey courses present a broad view of a discipline, with little depth. Small college seminars present a topic in more depth but it will not come close to what you will learn in graduate school. It is not until students are immersed in a field that they truly come to know the depth of their interest. Sometimes new grad students realize that the field is not for them. Others complete the master’s degree but realize that they have no interest in pursuing a doctorate.

Con:  A master’s degree is time-consuming.

Typically a full-time master’s program will require 2 years of study.  Many new doctoral students find that their master’s coursework doesn’t transfer. If you enroll in a master’s program recognize that it will likely not make a dent in your required doctoral coursework. Your Ph.D. will likely take an additional 4 to 6 years after earning your master’s degree.

Pro: A masters may help you get into a doctoral program.

If your undergraduate transcript leaves much to be desired, a master’s program may help you improve your academic record and show that you have the stuff that competent graduate students are made of.

Earning a master’s degree shows that you are committed and interested in your field of study.  Returning students may seek a master’s degree to obtain contacts and recommendations from faculty.

Pro: A master’s degree can help you change fields.

Are you planning on studying a different field than your college major? It can be hard to convince a graduate admissions committee that you are interested and committed to a field in which that you have little formal experience. A master’s degree can not only introduce you to the field but can show the admissions committee that you interested, committed, and competent in your chosen field. 

Con:  A master’s degree is usually unfunded.

Many students find this a big con: Master’s students usually do not receive much funding. Most master’s programs are paid for out-of-pocket.

Are you prepared to potentially have tens of thousands of dollars of debt before you begin your Ph.D.?  If you choose not to seek a doctoral degree, what employment options accompany your master’s degree? While I’d argue that a master’s degree is always of value for your intellectual and personal growth, if the salary-return of your degree is important to you, do your homework and think carefully before enrolling in a master’s program prior to seeking your Ph.D.

Pro: A master’s degree can offer a foot in the door to a particular graduate program.

Suppose you hope to attend a specific graduate program. Taking a few graduate courses, nonmatriculated (or nondegree-seeking) can help you learn about the program and can help faculty learn about you. This is even more true for master’s students. In many graduate programs, master’s and doctoral students take some of the same classes. As a master’s student, you’ll have contact with graduate faculty – often those who teach in the doctoral program. Completing a thesis and volunteering to work on faculty research can help faculty get to know you as a competent and promising researcher. A master’s degree might offer you a foot in the door and a better chance of gaining admission to the department’s doctoral program. However, admission is not guaranteed. Before you choose this option, be sure that you can live with yourself if you don’t gain admission. Will you be happy with a terminal master?

Whether you seek a master’s degree before applying to doctoral programs is a personal decision. Also recognize that many PhD programs award master’s degrees along the way, typically after the first year and completing exams and/or a thesis.