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What is the Difference Between a Master's Degree and a Doctoral Degree?

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Although there are several types of degrees you can earn in graduate school, the most common are the master's (MA, MS) and doctoral (PhD, EdD, and others) degree. So, what's the difference?

Master's Degree:
A master's degree generally takes 2, sometimes 3, years to complete. The program entails coursework and exams, and, depending on field, an internship or other applied experience (for example, in some fields of psychology). Whether a thesis is required to obtain the master's degree depends on the program. Some programs require a written thesis, others offer an option between a thesis and comprehensive exam.

An important way in which master's programs differ from many, but not all, doctoral programs is in the level of financial aid available to students. Most programs do not offer as much aid to master's students as doctoral students, and so students often pay most if not all of their tuition.

The value of the master's degree varies by field. In some fields, like business, a master's is the unstated norm and necessary for advancement. Other fields do not require advanced degrees for career advancement. In some cases, a master's degree may hold advantages over a doctoral degree. For example, a master's degree in social work (MSW) may be more cost effective than a doctoral degree given the time and funds required to earn the degree and the pay differential.

PhD Programs:
A doctoral degree is obviously a more advanced degree. However, it takes time. Depending on the program, a PhD could take 4-8 years to complete. Typically a PhD in North American programs entails 2-3 years of coursework and a dissertation, which is an independent research project designed to uncover new knowledge in your field and be of publishable quality. Some fields, like applied psychology, also require an internship of one year or more.

Most doctoral programs offer various forms of financial aid, from assistantantships to scholarships to loans. The availability and forms of aid vary by discipline (e.g., those in which faculty conduct research sponsored by large grants are more likely to hire students in exchange for tuition) and by institution. Students in some doctoral programs earn master's degrees "along the way."

Which degree is right for you?
I have no easy answer. It depends on your interests, field, motivation, and career goals. Read more about your field and consult faculty advisors to learn more about which option will fit your career goals. Some final considerations:

  • What types of jobs do master's and doctoral degree holders have? Do they differ? How?
  • How much will each degree cost? How much will you earn after obtaining each degree? Is the outcome worth the cost?
  • Are you interested enough to pursue many years of schooling?
  • Will earning a doctoral degree offer a substantial benefit in your employment and advancement opportunities?

Master's degrees and PhD degrees certainly differ, with advantages and disadvantages to each. Only you know which is the right degree for you. Take your time and ask questions, then carefully weigh what you learn about each degree, it's opportunities, as well as your own needs, interests, and competencies. Good luck!

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