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Master's or Ph.D.: Graduate Degree Options

By Peterson's Staff updated on Friday, December 06, 2013

The two main types of graduate degrees offered are the master's degree and the doctoral degree. In most fields, the doctoral degree is known as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). In some specialized fields, the doctoral degree goes by another name such as a juris doctor (J.D.) degree in the field of law, or names such as Doctor of Physical Therapy or Doctor of Pharmacy.

Graduate Degree Timeline: Master's or Ph.D. first?

Often students pursuing doctoral degrees complete their master's degrees first and then move on to their doctoral level work. Did you know that it's possible to go straight for your Ph.D. without getting your master's first? Many students don't, but depending on your field, it could be a viable option that saves you time, money, or both. Things to consider:

  • Doctoral candidates often get more funding.
  • Pursuing each graduate degree separately can take longer.
  • You only have to go through the application process once!

Will the direct-to-doc option work for you? That depends. The best decision, master's or PhD, is the one that aligns with your personal, academic, and career goals (Learn more on how to choose the right graduate degree program.).

Requirements Depend on Master's or Ph.D. Graduate Degree Program

All graduate degree programs are different. Some schools require all students to begin as master's candidates. Other schools will offer master's status to some entering students, but Ph.D. status to others. When you attend a combined degree program, you complete master's-level work as part of your doctoral requirements.

When to Go Directly to a Doctorate

Going directly for a doctoral graduate degree program is a good choice when:

  • You're completely dedicated to your area of study.
  • You want to work in a highly competitive field and need top credentials.
  • You plan to teach or research at the university level or study in a research-intensive field. While a Ph.D. is certainly no guarantee, it will get you that much closer to your goal.

When to Get a Master's Degree

Getting a master's first might be better if:

  • Your college grades aren't strong enough to get you into a Ph.D. program.
  • A master's is the only graduate school degree you need to qualify for the job you want. This is often the case in secondary education, engineering, and nursing.
  • You're continuing your education as a means of changing careers.

Ph.D. or Master's: Choice of Graduate Degrees is Up to You

Regardless of which path — Ph.D. or master's — you choose, it's essential to research your options carefully. Grad school is an exciting step, but it's a commitment. Before you decide, find out more information on graduate degrees throughout our site.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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