In the United States, most students seeking graduate degrees pursue a master's degree over a Ph.D. largely because of the flexibility of programs. Master's programs usually only require one to two years of coursework, and may or may not require final capstones such as oral boards, research projects, or a thesis.
Compared to the years that can be spent completing a Ph.D. and its accompanying guarantee of a thesis requirement, a master's degree is a logical choice for many students wishing to pursue higher education.
Master's program structure
There are many master's programs designed for part-time students, and the growth of distance education is continually expanding these possibilities. However, more selective programs, especially at research universities, are intended for full-time study. There are also some programs, particularly in business, that lead each year's class through a series of structured courses in unison.
The appeal of a master's degree
Most master's degrees are awarded in professional subjects and often carry the identity of their field, such as a Master of Education (M.Ed.) or Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) in their title. Many students have worked (or are still employed) in an occupation related to the degree they're pursuing, but master's degrees also open new career paths because of the wide range of education they offer — from general skills and knowledge to training focused on specific occupations.
Master's programs of all types
More "liberal" master's degrees in the arts and sciences fulfill a variety of goals, including just simply gaining deeper knowledge in a particular field. Some doctoral students pursue master's degrees to gain additional exposure to a field related to their doctoral pursuits, and some students pursue a master's degree to satisfy intellectual curiosity or for personal fulfillment.
To suit all types of students, some programs offer two master's degrees, one with an academic emphasis and one with a more practical focus. In the arts, for example, an M.A. is intended for those who study art, while the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) is a degree for performing artists.
Master's can lead to career advancement
Master's degrees are commonly viewed as building blocks for career advancement, whereas doctorates tend to be associated with more intellectual pursuits. In business and engineering, for example, the doctorate is chiefly for teaching or research, and the master's degree is for practitioners.
In engineering, the flexibility of a master's program has allowed many schools to create degrees for specific industries. This practice is also common for degrees in administration — not just the M.B.A., but also the degree in Master of Public Administration (M.P.A.) or Master of Health Administration (M.H.A.).
There are many career fields where you can advance professionally without a master's degree, but there are also many fields where a master's degree is expected, such as education. If you hope to pursue your doctoral degree, getting a master's first isn't usually necessary, but there are dual-track programs where you can pursue a master's degree and a doctorate at the same time.
If you're planning to pursue your education in the United States, but are limited by time and/or finances, a master's degree may be a great choice for you. There are certainly many programs to choose from and if you still want your Ph.D., explore dual track programs to see if you can cut some time and expenses in the long run.