Deciding Between a Master's and a Ph.D. Program

Many people start master’s degree programs for the same reason they do Ph.D.s – they don’t know what else to do and have blind faith that a degree will advance their career. Because master’s degrees take relatively little time compared with the Ph.D., the time lost may seem insignificant, but two or three years is still a long period. A two-year master’s at a private university can cost you as much as $25,000, not counting living expenses, and, given that university funding of master’s students is very low, you will be paying for most of this yourself, either directly or through loans. Moreover, during this time you will miss out on career experience.

Unfortunately, there is little systematized data to help master’s students find out how they will fare in the job market. But you can do the necessary research yourself by interviewing people who hold jobs in the field in which you are interested. There is no substitute for talking with the people who will ultimately be hiring you or admitting you to a Ph.D. program. Call departments you are interested in and ask them for the names of recent graduates who can tell you about their experiences getting jobs. Call firms you are interested in working for and ask to speak with people in appropriate positions. Ask your friends and co-workers for contacts. Ask these people: What degrees do you hold? When your company is hiring, are master’s rated more highly than bachelor’s degrees? What are the salary differentials? What are the financial or status rewards of master’s degrees versus doctorates? Are people rewarded for graduating from more prestigious programs? Are there particular programs that are particularly well regarded?

As you research your field, make sure that you do not rely just on official information from the schools themselves, since they will have a vested interest in appearing indispensable. Also, recognize that the ability of a program to advance your career may be dependent upon your background. You get the real ‘value added’ if you come in with a marketable skill and then refine it.

If you’re not certain whether you like research enough to struggle through the Ph.D., a master’s program may be a good way to test your commitment. If you chose a rigorous master’s program with a thesis, you will get preliminary training in research as well as further grounding in the basics of your field. 

If your credentials aren’t good enough to get into a competitive Ph.D. program, you can try using a master’s program as a springboard. Since master’s programs typically have lower entrance requirements, your chances for acceptance are better. However, many Ph.D. admissions committees do not count master’s grades as heavily as undergraduate grades, and in some fields a master’s degree may be of little help in gaining entrance to a Ph.D. program.

One good bet for getting into a Ph.D. program may be to ingratiate your way into the same department where you get your master’s. If you can get involved in the research and otherwise impress a professor, he may be able to squeeze you in.

Master’s students typically receive less attention from professors. Professors have a limited amount of time to provide students with individual attention, and that time is mostly spent with the Ph.D.s who would co-author papers with them.

Doctoral students also get the vast majority of financial aid, so it may end up costing you more to get a master’s than a Ph.D. The low level of funding for master’s students means that most turn to the federal loan programs.

In deciding between a master’s and a Ph.D., ask the following questions:
1) What are the transfer policies of Ph.D. programs in which you are interested?
2) Within a single department, are master’s students able to apply to the Ph.D. program?
3) Is it easier to get into a Ph.D. program if you are already a master’s student in the program than it is if you are applying from the outside? 4) How does financial aid compare between the two degrees?

Source: Getting What You Came For, Robert L. Peters, Ph.D., Noonday Press, 1997.