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Master's or Doctoral Degree | Which One is Right for You?

A graduation ceremony.

If you’re anything like me, you’re lucky enough to work with inspiring senior colleagues who have both master’s and doctoral degrees. Those letters after your name (MA, MS, DrPH, PhD, etc.) are a universal signal of professional accolade. The draw toward advanced education is a natural one, especially for those who covet learning and growth opportunities. But which type of program in your field – master’s or doctoral – is the right one for you?

Here are three questions to stimulate internal clarity on the type of program that may be best for your career.

What is the return on investment (ROI)?

It’s useful to think about an ROI on your education as the dollars you spend on your education, your earning potential while in school, and the opportunity cost you’re absorbing based on potential future earnings post-degree. An advanced degree is absolutely an investment in yourself and your professional worth that can affect your whole life. Yet it’s also a dollars-and-cents investment worthy of careful financial scrutiny. In today’s world of education, you have to think like an economist.

Think about the costs associated with the program you’re considering (which goes way beyond tuition and fees)! Remember to ask yourself about the costs involved in these additional expenses:

  • What is the cost of living in the surrounding area compared to where you live now?
  • What, if any, relocation costs will you incur?
  • Is there an expectation of self-funding for internships or practicum requirements?

To ballpark how much you may be able to earn while you complete your degree, investigate funding opportunities for students. What are employment options for graduate student instructing, tutoring, or research assistantships? Most PhD programs have funding opportunities in the form of fellowships or grants, while many Master’s programs offer assistantships for stipend-level pay. 

No one rakes in the dough as a graduate student. But the clincher for estimating ROI is future earning potential. In my case, I consulted in New York City after getting my Master’s in Public Health and earned roughly $70,000 a year, comparable to my MPH colleagues at that time. Now, after four years of doctoral work and completing my DrPH degree, my worth as a public health research and evaluation specialist is close to $100,000. I kept that future earning potential top of mind when I earned just above $40,000 for four years as a graduate student in one of the most expensive spots in the country.

What level of change do you want to affect?

Social change agents come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of education. For your passions and professional goals- what level do you believe suits you best? Master’s programs typically offer deep content expertise and some direct field experience. Professionals at the master’s level often work in advocacy, community organizing, policy, or program support roles, planning and executing critical initiatives at nearly all levels. The range of professional opportunities is broad for master’s trained individuals in nearly all fields.

Doctoral programs typically offer more extensive fieldwork, and the opportunity to be a methods or skills expert in approaching specific societal problems. At the PhD-level, you find doctors engaged in roles that rely on extensive field experience and honed skills in research or specialized training like policy advancement, law, or medicine.

What do the next 10 years hold for you?

It’s an interview question you prep for: Where do you want to be in ten years? (Don’t worry, this isn’t an interview). But your educational plans should be a central part of what your next mid- to long-range outlook. 

A key difference between master’s work and doctoral work is time commitment: most master’s programs are two to three years, while doctoral work is four or more years. The time commitment for doctoral work can be tricky: for PhD students, your degree conferment is based on your ability to complete a largely self-driven research project. In contrast, most master’s students receive their degrees upon completion of their required coursework and a capstone paper or project. Master’s capstone projects are on par with three to five course units’ worth of time and effort. PhD-level dissertations are sometimes dependent on the lifespan of the research project or lab, funding, availability of human subjects, or other factors not in your immediate control. Master’s programs are more condensed experiences that build expertise and deep knowledge relatively quickly, and doctoral programs require more investments in time and skills-building to conduct original research.

Some programs roll master’s training into their PhD program, where you enroll after completing your bachelor’s, and 7-8 years later, have your PhD without doing a separate master’s. Yet some doctoral level programs do not admit students without some years of work experiences – and a master’s – in that field. Applied research degrees, where the focus is often research to improve advocacy or policy advancement work around human health or social problems, usually value on-the-ground work experience in those populations, while many STEM science programs track students through with comparable combined training. All of this affects your overall time commitment.

These decisions can be very personal, and should be treated as big life decisions, not just educational ones. I packed up and moved to California to embark on my doctoral work at age 31, with some serious drive to finish in four years. I figured the nice round age of 35, with my terminal degree behind me, would be as good a time as any to start a family. Maybe you’re considering going back to school early or later than I did, with your own shiny, awesome goals already in place. How do your educational goals fit in with the rest of your life?

These questions make great jumping off points for conversations with individuals in your field who have completed master’s or doctoral degrees (or both). The best way to tune into your desires and priorities for educational advancement may be to talk to others and find common experiences. How did people you admire in your field make this decision? Activate your network, and get the scoop so you can move closer to your next level. Good luck!


About the Author: Summer Starling, DrPH MPH is a public health researcher and consultant whose work focuses on innovative methods for solving health and social problems. Check out some of her current projects at

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