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A Common Dilemma: Master’s Degree vs. PhD

Updated: Aug 8, 2023


Table of Contents:


Master's Degree vs. PhD - a Comparison Table

Choosing Your Path

1. Career goals

2. How strong is your research passion?

3. Financial situation

4. Emotions are important




Finally you have obtained your bachelor’s degree, and studying for it has made you fall in love with a particular subject or professional field. It seems all very clear, you want to go to graduate school to continue pursuing your passion. However, after this first thought, some doubts may emerge. In a previous article, we have discussed the pros and cons of attending your graduate program online or on-campus. Today, another common dilemma will be discussed, giving you some help to decide whether you want to start a master’s degree or a phd.

More specifically, you will first find some of the main characteristics of each of the two options. Lastly, this will be followed by a section that can help you think about these different paths in relation to your strengths and personal situation. These premises being made, read this article carefully and get ready to discover your own future as a graduate student!

Master’s Degree vs. PhD - a Comparison Table

Master's Program Highlights:

​PhD Program Highlights:

1. Duration and intensity:

A master's program can last from one to two years, making it a less time consuming option than a phd. Also, these degrees tend to focus intensely on specific subjects, allowing you to achieve expertise in a certain professional field and to gain specialized knowledge.

​1. In-depth research:

A PhD can take from three to seven years worldwide (in the US most students complete their journey in five years). This option is usually research-intense, meaning that rather than learning already discovered theories, students are encouraged to question themselves and find their own answers.

​2. Course-based programme:

Master's programs are often quite structured. Indeed, students are encouraged to follow a coursework plan to gradually become experts in their desired field. Parallel to lectures, there are other job oriented experiences that are usually available, for example group projects and internships.

​2. Autonomy first:

Every PhD candidate is expected to develop autonomy over the course of their program. For example, in the US students dedicate the first part of their degree to attend lectures, and then they gradually acquire autonomy by starting their own research activities.

​3. Professional advancement:

Master's degrees are recommended for those learners who want to really boost career prospects in a specific area of interest.

Also, they are a popular choice for those already experienced professionals who want to learn a new skill or shift their career to a related field.

3. Not only academia:

While considering a phd, keep in mind that this option is traditionally associated with working in academia. Indeed, some students decide to continue contributing to knowledge development by becoming professors. However, this is not all of it. Due to their vast and specialized knowledge, many graduates are finding employment in other sectors, from private industries to international organizations.

4. Cost and Funding:

The cost of a Master's program can be quite high. Having said this, do not forget that many universities offer scholarships and assistantships to support their students. In addition, you can also look for other grants from external institutions. Usually it is not guaranteed that you will get financial support, but you should definitely give a chance to the very many options available.

​4. Funding Support:

Most phd programs offer funding packages. This means that every admitted student can receive help, for example thorough stipends, tuition waivers, and research grants. Specifically referring to the US, many schools guarantee this aid to all their incoming phd students.

Choosing Your Path

Yay! You have gone through the fist step, which is understanding the main highlights of master's and phd programs. Now the only thing left is to reflect on yourself and decide which path is right for you. Don’t worry if you don’t know where to begin, here you can find some considerations that may help:

1. Career goals

As we have seen in the table, master’s degrees and phd can lead you to different career positions. If you are looking for a direct and possibly quick access to a certain specialized position, you may want to choose a master. On the other hand, if your aspirations are to keep researching in a certain field, a phd may be right for you. Also remember that with a phd you can always apply your expertise outside academia.

2. How strong is your research passion?

PhD programs are designed for genuinely passionate people, who have a strong desire to research and contribute to their field's knowledge. With this in mind, question yourself whether there is a problem, theory or subject that you feel is becoming a part of your life. If this is you, a PhD might be the perfect option you may want to pursue.

3. Financial situation

Every student needs to assess their financial situation before applying for a certain program. Talking about this matter, it really depends on the faculty you are applying for and on the external grants you are able to find. Ideally, if you are not able to support your education with your own finances, look for scholarships and assistantships to support your master's degree or choose a phd program with a guaranteed stipend and coverage of tuition fees.

4. Emotions are important

Studying at grad school can be emotionally demanding for many people. Having anxiety, being tired or feeling like giving up are normal phases in the life of grad students. However, it is worth saying that because of its structure and reduced time commitment, a master's programme can be a relatively lighter option than a phd.


In this article, we have analyzed the main features of a master vs a phd. Then, I gave you some hints you can reflect upon to make your choice. As a final remark, I know that the social pressure around you may be pushing you in one or the other direction. However, try to think of this decision as something that you really have to believe in and that you will be satisfied to have done looking back at it. I really hope you will be able to understand what you want and, as always, I wish good luck with your grad school journey!

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