Guide to Postgraduate Applications • Postgraduate

Master’s vs PhD: Everything You Need to Know

POSTED ON 05/03/2024 BY The Red Pen

Explore the benefits, types of master's degrees, and crucial factors to consider before choosing your path.

Based on data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is evident education significantly impacts one’s earnings. On average, bachelor’s degree holders earn $1432 a week, whereas those with master’s degrees earn nearly $1661. The financial rewards for individuals who have earned doctoral degrees are even more substantial, with a weekly average of $2,083. This trend is particularly pronounced in fields such as medicine, law, and engineering, where advanced degrees frequently serve as prerequisites for obtaining professional licenses and pursuing specialised careers. 

In its projections for 2019–2029, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies 36 occupations that typically require a master’s degree and an additional 63 occupations requiring a doctoral or professional degree. This underscores the increasing demand for advanced education within the workforce.

However, when confronted with deciding to further one’s education, selecting between a master’s degree and a PhD can be genuinely daunting. Each pathway offers distinct advantages and considerations, underscoring the crucial need for a well-informed decision.

What is a master’s degree?

A master’s degree is an advanced postgraduate qualification that signifies expertise in a specific field or profession, achieved through in-depth study. The duration of a master’s programme can vary depending on the subject and the country in which you study, typically spanning one to three years, whether undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis.

The credit requirements for pursuing a master’s degree also vary by location. The European system mandates 90-120 ECTS credits, the UK requires 180 credits, and the US average master’s programme requires 32- 36 credit hours, translating to eight to 10 courses. But some master’s programmes, such as the Master of Biostatistics programme at the Harvard School of Public Health, require as many as 60 credits

What are the types of master’s degrees?

The types of master’s degrees can vary between institutions. There is no standardised system; distinctions are often based on the course names commonly used in university listings. However, master’s degrees fall under these broad categories:

  • Taught or course-based master’s degrees: Course-based master’s degrees involve lectures, seminars, and practical training. For example, a Master of Arts (MA) typically covers subjects like communications, languages, literature, geography, history, and music, which are part of the arts and social sciences. At the same time, a Master of Education (MEd) provides advanced training in teaching methods, educational leadership, and curriculum development. Both involve coursework and practical experience in educational settings.
  • Professional master’s degrees: This master’s degree is a good choice if you want to develop a particular skill set to practice a specialised profession. This type of degree provides coursework focused on learning and practising skills. Examples include Master of Library Science (MLS), Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Law (LLM), Master of Public Administration (MPA), and Master of Education(MEd).
  • Research-based master’s degrees: A research master’s, such as the MSc and MPhil, is tailored for individuals seeking to attain in-depth subject expertise. These programmes encompass a combination of research projects, examinations, and coursework. A research-based master’s degree may take longer to finish than course-based or professional master’s degrees, with the duration varying by country and institution. For instance, the MSt (Master of Studies) programme at Cambridge is a part-time master’s degree tailored for individuals who typically balance full-time work and study commitments. MSt programmes are known for their academic rigour and consist of substantial coursework, research projects, and associated dissertations, typically spanning two years.
  • Integrated master’s degree: Integrated master’s degrees build upon undergraduate programmes, primarily in science and technology. They usually take an extra year beyond the undergraduate degree. For example, the MSci at the University of Manchester is a four-year programme directly after secondary education. In the US, you can pursue a master’s degree alongside your undergraduate studies, known as the ‘en route’ option. This degree is awarded once you successfully finish designated coursework and exams. For example, Brown University offers an en-route master’s programme in applied mathematics, and Columbia University offers an en-route programme in computer science.

Benefits of a Master’s Degree

  • Career advancement: Statistics show that a master’s qualification increases earning potential. According to the data published by graduate labour market statistics in 2023, the median salary for postgraduates in the UK is £38,500, which is £11,500 more than non-graduates (£27,000).
  • Enhancing knowledge and expertise: A master’s degree furnishes a profound understanding of a specific subject, enabling you to apply this expertise in your chosen career.
  • Networking opportunities: Upon admission to a graduate degree, universities offer immediate networking opportunities with global peers and alumni, benefiting future career prospects. For instance, Northeastern University in the US has the Lifelong Learning Network, where connections with peers, faculty, alumni, and industry professionals lead to global career advancement and personal growth for graduates.

Factors to consider before pursuing a master’s degree

Determining if a master’s degree is right for you involves self-reflection, research, and careful assessment. Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Impact on your career and future: Acquiring in-depth knowledge can open doors to improved job prospects and promotions. For instance, enrolling in a master’s programme in medicine or pursuing a master’s in computer science can significantly enhance your career opportunities. Additionally, postgraduate studies can serve as a gateway to a new career. You can explore conversion courses and pursue a master’s degree in a different field. For example, the University of Glasgow offers a 30-month MSc in Psychology designed to help individuals transition into a new career in psychology, regardless of their prior experience in the field. Before choosing a master’s degree, clearly define your career objectives and how a master’s degree aligns with them. Consider your willingness for long-term academic commitment.
  • Cost and financial aid: Evaluate programme affordability by considering tuition fees, living expenses, and the opportunities for financial aid or scholarships. You can use an ROI calculator to assess your education’s potential return on investment. Read our blog on how to fund your master’s education. 

What Is a PhD?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the highest academic degree awarded by universities and higher education institutions to students who have submitted a thesis or dissertation based on extensive and original research in their chosen field. Pursuing a PhD can help you considerably distinguish yourself. The United States Census Bureau reported that 21 million individuals hold master’s or professional degrees, whereas only 4.5 million have earned PhDs or doctorates.

A PhD is a research-intensive programme that usually spans three to seven years. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, in the US, the median time taken by doctorate recipients to complete their programme was six years. Earning a doctorate in non-Science and Engineering (S&E) fields, such as education, business, humanities, and arts, typically requires more time than completing a PhD in S&E fields like life sciences, mathematics, social sciences, and computer sciences.

Usually, pursuing a PhD follows the completion of a master’s degree. However, some universities permit direct entry from a bachelor’s degree subject to meeting certain criteria. The University of Illinois offers Accelerated PhD for students entering with a Bachelor’s Degree. 

The essence of a PhD programme lies in conducting original research that culminates in a dissertation. This substantial project showcases your capacity to generate new knowledge within your field. A PhD dissertation is a pivotal component of the doctoral journey, encompassing research, theory, experimentation, and more.

Over the last few years, applied PhDs that inherently have a more practical application approach have gained popularity as well. These applied PhD programmes focus on applying research to find solutions to practical problems. The most popular applied PhDs are offered in psychology and are referred to as PsyD or Doctor of Psychology degrees. 

Benefits of pursuing a PhD

A PhD offers numerous advantages that extend beyond academic pursuits. In this section, we’ll explore compelling reasons why you should consider pursuing this degree: 

  • Research opportunities and intellectual growth: PhD candidates conduct cutting-edge research, often leading to groundbreaking discoveries. This advanced degree is crucial for adding to your knowledge and becoming an expert in a specific field. According to Professor Paul KH Tam, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice President (Research), University of Hong Kong. “A PhD is about pursuing knowledge for the passion of acquiring knowledge. If one is fortunate, one’s discovery/invention may even change society.” Remarkably, the PhD dissertations of historical figures like Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Claude Shannon, and Ivan Sutherland laid the foundation for many groundbreaking innovations.
  • Diverse academic and career opportunities: A PhD is crucial for aspiring professors or researchers. It is particularly sought in fields like biotechnology, information systems, and medical and environmental engineering, requiring highly specialised and advanced research skills. However, a PhD in liberal arts can also open doors to various career opportunities, including media, political advising, and independent research work, according to Dr. Emmaline Bexley from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
  • Prestige and recognition: A PhD degree carries prestige and respect due to its difficulty. It enhances your social standing and holds significance in various fields. “In society, a PhD in any field still stands for something,” remarks Professor Thomas Vogel, Pro-Rector for Doctoral Studies, ETH Zurich. 
  • Professional networks: Pursuing a PhD leads to an extensive professional network. Collaborating with experts and attending conferences helps establish valuable career connections and references.

Factors to consider before choosing a PhD

Pursuing a PhD is a significant commitment. Before you decide to pursue this degree, here are a few things to remember: 

  • Commitment of time: PhD programmes are lengthy, requiring several years of dedication. Gerard Dericks, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, says, “Getting a PhD is a very stressful and long process. You’ll have setbacks. You’ll get discouraged. You’ll have doubts about yourself—about your research ideas, about many things.” Ensure you are prepared for the long haul.
  • Cost: Consider finances for your PhD, as costs vary by country, university, and programme. For example, Princeton University’s (US) PhD tuition is around $60,410 annually, while the University of Edinburgh(UK) charges £21,000 annually. Explore funding options to make an informed choice. Most PhD degrees in the US have a stipend attached to them. But this is not the case outside of the US. 
  • Research passion: Maintaining motivation during a PhD programme is greatly fueled by your passion for your chosen research topic. According to Professor Richard Anthony Strugnell, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Graduate Research) at The University of Melbourne, a successful PhD journey emphasises quality and preparation more than patience and persistence.
  • Work-life balance: Personal commitments like work and family can influence your study time. You might need to balance these alongside your PhD studies, potentially extending the duration of your programme.
RequirementsBachelor’s degreeMaster’s Degree (UK, Canada, Europe, Australia)
Duration1-2 years3-7 or more depending on the country and subject
FocusPrimarily coursework, often with a final capstone project.Extensive and original research and dissertation
ExpenseMaster’s degree costs vary by country, university, and programme. In the US, the average cost of pursuing a master’s degree ranges from $54,000– $73,000.PhD costs vary widely, often higher in the US than the UK, and can include funding and waived tuition for research or teaching roles. The average PhD cost in the US is $106,860.
Employment opportunitiesMaster’s degrees primarily emphasise industry-specific skills relevant to non-academic careers.A PhD, earned through research contributing new knowledge to a specific field, prepares individuals for research careers within or beyond academic institutions.
Expected salaryThe U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an approximate 16% increase in earnings from a bachelor’s to a master’s degree.The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an approximate 45% increase in earnings from bachelor’s to PhD.

Pursuing higher education, whether through a master’s or a PhD, can significantly impact your career. It’s essential to weigh the pros and cons carefully, align your educational choices with your goals, and ensure you make an informed decision that suits your aspirations and circumstances. You may read our blogs on secrets to acing admissions to top graduate schools and mistakes to avoid in your postgraduate application. For further guidance, please get in touch. Our postgraduate team looks forward to assisting you.