Do You Need a Master’s to Get a PhD?

August 14, 2023

do you need a masters to get a phd

Once you’ve decided that you want the glories that graduate school has to offer, the next question is: Master’s vs. PhD. And if you want a PhD, does that mean you need a Master’s first? Getting a PhD is the highest level of education possible. Once you finish, you get to be addressed as Dr. on your mail, you can ascend to the highest positions in your field, and you get to be a know-it-all at family dinners. Fittingly, applying to PhD. programs is intimidating, and you’ll want to prepare as much as you can before. So do you need a Master’s to get a PhD?

If you’re reading this in the United States, then the short answer is no, you don’t need a Master’s degree to apply for a PhD.

If you’re reading this pretty much anywhere else in the world, the short answer is: it’s complicated.

Most PhD programs outside the US require a Master’s degree to apply. This is because programs outside the US take 3-4 years to complete, while in the United States, a PhD program can take 6-8 years. Or, in some cases, up to 53 years.

First, we’ll help solve the puzzle of Master’s vs. Ph.D. Then, we’ll talk about the pros of getting a master’s first, or a PhD. on its own.

Master’s Degree Programs

What is a master’s degree? In brief, this is a graduate-level degree where students pursue specialization within a specific topic. These courses tend to be 1-2 years, and are not terminal degrees (with some exceptions). This means that it is not the highest course of study, and therefore not necessarily qualifying to find a job in the field. (Although it often helps with job prospects, and increases salary offers.)

For example, there are a wide range of great Master’s programs in Psychology, but you can’t become a certified Clinical Psychologist with a Master’s because it’s not a terminal degree. You’ll need a Ph.D. for that.

In other words, a Master’s is a high-level course of study that can enhance job prospects and deepen your knowledge at an expert level.

PhD Programs

No matter where they take place, PhD. programs are the highest-intensity training programs to become experts in a course of study. To understand the point of a PhD, it’s helpful to think of the following hierarchy of knowledge: reading a Wikipedia article, taking a course (or reading several books), majoring as an undergraduate (multiple courses), working in the field, getting a Master’s (2 years of specialized courses). And then there’s the Boss level: learning how to do cutting-edge research, change the field itself, and write the books and Wikipedia articles you once read.

In practice, that means that PhD programs involve independent research, eye-bulging amounts of reading or coursework, and a thesis or dissertation. They are often extremely competitive in the application process and in the experience alike. For this reason (and the, ahem, sizeable length of time), it’s best to start thinking about PhDs early. As early as high school, you can prepare for a PhD by attending a top feeder school.

As a kind of gift for all that intensity, a Master’s degree is often built into a US PhD program. Basically, if you complete the first two years of a PhD, you earn a Master’s degree for free. Literally: since most PhD.s are fully-funded, that means the Master’s costs you zero dollars. Remember this point for later!

Pros of Getting a Master’s Before A PhD

1) Specialization

A Master’s degree is a great way to begin specializing in your field. If you still need time to explore, a master’s will be helpful to formulate your proposed PhD research interest. The time spent in a Master’s program can also help build knowledge of other programs in your field, so you can choose the best PhD. program for you. (There’s nothing worse than discovering during Year 3 that you actually would have done way better at a completely different school.)

2) Lower Time Commitment

There is a big, big difference between 1-2 years and 6-8 years. At its maximum, a PhD is double the length of college. A Master’s can be completed in the lifespan of a hamster, and a PhD in the lifespan of an opossum. Whether you’re an indecisive Gemini sign or a prudent Virgo, it may be worth doing a “trial run” of graduate study. That way, if you decide that you don’t like the academic life after all, you still have an advanced degree. (In other words: higher salary and street cred, but no mail that says Dr.)

Do You Need a Master’s to Get a PhD? (Continued)

3) A PhD Application Booster

As any writer of a graduate school Statement of Purpose can tell you, major achievements go a long way. And what’s more impressive than showing up as a master of the topic at hand? Research labs might want you on their team, professors may be impressed by your skills. A Master’s is not a silver bullet for PhD entrance, but it’s definitely helpful.

4) General Academic Preparation: PhD level work is intimidating. It’s extra intimidating if you didn’t major in your proposed course of study, or if you’re undergoing a career change. A Master’s can be a great way to cut your teeth on grad-level coursework: from writing papers to advanced research.

Pro of Getting a PhD Without A Master’s

1) Lower Overall Time Commitment

A Master’s is indeed a lower time commitment, but adding those 1-2 years to your 6-8 can keep you in school until you’re suffering from sciatica. If you want to enter the academic job market more quickly, it may behoove you (more on GRE vocab here) you to start the PhD immediately.

2) Commitment to Your Passion

Starting a PhD directly means you immediately get to study the topic that you’re most excited about. Instead of wasting time in surveys, some programs offer guidance so you can start working towards your dissertation even from year one!

Do You Need a Master’s to Get a PhD? (Continued)

3) Cost Effective

Master’s degrees on their own often cost thousands of dollars per year. If you get a PhD without a Master’s, they’ll pay you a stipend, instead of you paying them. Pretty nice.

4) You Get A Free Master’s Degree

Who doesn’t love a little side perk? While it’s not a good idea to apply to PhD programs with the express purpose of leaving after you get the free Master’s degree (and the sweet, sweet health insurance)…it’s certainly not shameful to leave a PhD program early as a master’s.

Do You Need a Master’s to Get a PhD? — Conclusion

Whether a Master’s degree would be suitable for your career trajectory is a personal question. Applying to graduate school is a great time to check in about your values, and how you want to spend the next chapter of your life. To help choose between a PhD and a Master’s, it may be helpful to consider your long-term career goals, your professional and academic past, and your current desires. Are you absolutely committed to working in the university, or being the top expert in your field? Or do you simply want to have a stable job in a field you love? These and other questions will lead you toward the solution.

Lastly, if you’re still undecided, you can always leave it up to fate: apply to both Master’s and PhD programs in a single application season. That way, hopefully by spring you’ll have the decision made for you. (Or if you’re lucky, even more indecision.)