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The Difference Between a Masters and a Doctorate

There are a lot of degree types out there. Many fall into one of two camps: doctorates and master’s degrees. Both graduate degrees offer a narrower educational focus than the undergraduate experience. The higher the degree, the longer it takes to earn and the more specialized is its focus. We’re taking a closer look at the master’s and doctorate degrees to highlight differences and help you determine which might be most useful to you.


Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees are more versatile than doctoral degrees, and have a wide range of professional and academic applications. The most common master’s degrees are Master’s of Arts (M.A.) and Master’s of Science (M.S.) . Additionally, there are three types of master’s programs:

  • Research Master’s degrees are typically for academic and applied research disciplines. Examples include a Master’s of Arts in Comparative Literature, and Master’s of Science in Biology. In some fields, earning a research master’s degree without going on to earn a Ph.D. restricts your professional options. Figure out what's best for you and your career trajectory by talking with professors or professionals in your field.
  • Professional Master’s degrees prepare candidates for professional work by introducing practical skills and frameworks for understanding issues in their field. These degrees may also qualify a person to practice in their field. Examples include a Master’s of Social Work, Master’s of Architecture, or Master’s of Art in Teaching. Most of the degrees featured at Idealist Grad Fairs are professional master’s degrees supporting careers in the social good sector.
  • Terminal Master’s degrees are the highest academic degree in their field. While some master’s degrees may serve as the first step towards a doctorate, others—such as a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing or a Master’s in Library Science—are as high as you can go for academic accreditation in those fields of study.

Before pursuing a master’s degree, candidates must have already earned a bachelor's degree. Master’s programs take one to three years to complete and consist of advanced-level courses and seminars. In some programs, students go on to research, write, and defend a master’s thesis. In professional master’s programs, the thesis is often replaced by final projects and exams.


Doctoral Degrees

The most common doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy or PhD. These research doctorates prepare students to contribute to the collective knowledge base of the field and offers a unique opportunity for an individual to conduct intensive and prolonged research on a very particular topic, which often leads to publication. With a PhD, many seek careers as professors and researchers, but may also pursue roles in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors. Additionally, there are professional doctorates like the MD (Medical Doctor), and the JD (Juris Doctor). Before pursuing a doctorate, candidates must have already earned a bachelor's degree and in some cases a master’s depending on the program. Due to the nature of specialization, PhD programs tend to be smaller than master’s programs.

PhD candidates begin by taking courses and exams. They go on to take advanced seminars and complete their requirements by researching, writing, and defending a dissertation. A dissertation is one of the central components of earning the PhD and is a doctoral-level thesis about the candidate’s original research. A doctorate degree may take up to eight years to earn depending on the program, whether the candidate has already completed a master’s degree (or is coming straight from undergraduate), and the amount of time it takes to complete the dissertation.


Dual Degree Programs or Joint Master’s and PhD Programs

If you decide both degree programs sound right for you, there are some programs that offer the option to pursue both degrees at the same time. A dual degree program allows you to double count your earned credits towards the completion of both degrees. You can find more information here.


How to decide which degree is right for you?

Figuring out whether to pursue a master's or PhD will depend on your career field and educational goals. You can learn more about requirements in your field by doing some research or your own as well as networking with colleagues. Reaching out to a mentor in the field or alumni from your preferred program can also help you navigate graduate school decisions. Additionally, speaking with admissions staff at graduate schools can help provide insight into the kinds of graduate programming available. 

It can be tricky to offer general guidance on graduate programs since so much is dependent on the field of study. That said, we wanted to offer examples of how master’s and doctorate degrees can set you up for success. We've selected social work and business as fields to illustrate this:

Social Work

If you want to go to graduate school to study social work, you can study at the master’s level or the PhD level. To determine what is best for you, consider what role you’d like to play in the field of social work. If you’d like to be a social welfare direct service provider or government agency administrator, a master’s program may be most appropriate. If you’d like to become a faculty member at a post-secondary institution, a social welfare research scholar, or a social welfare policy analyst, a Ph.D. program will be a better fit. Outside of academic settings—where a doctorate is required for most faculty positions—a master’s combined with practical work experience may provide ample preparation for a career as a researcher, policy analyst, or mid-level manager.

Business

For business administration, you have the option of a Master’s of Business Administration (MBA), or a Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA). If your long term goal is to take on a leadership role in a nonprofit or business enterprise, the MBA (or nonprofit management degree) may be best. If instead, you’re interested in a career in academia teaching and researching on business practices, the DBA will be the better option.


Knowing your professional goals will help guide your choices for graduate study. Certain career paths, such as becoming a public defender or a medical doctor, are more clearly marked with the necessary steps, including the required educational level and graduate degree. Other career paths are less regimented and therefore require more investigation and consideration of what is right for you. Thoroughly researching your field of interest and having a strong understanding of the skills and knowledge you want and need from your graduate education will inform which degree options make the most sense for your goals.