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Master’s Degree vs PhD: Which Is Right for You

Master’s Degree vs PhD: Which Is Right for You
Rebecca Safier
Rebecca SafierUpdated June 9, 2023
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Both a Master’s and a PhD are advanced degrees that can help you progress in your career. A Master’s degree is the first level of graduate school, while a PhD is generally the most advanced degree you can obtain. If you’re debating between pursuing your Master’s and your PhD, read on for a comparison of these two degrees. 

What Are the Main Differences Between PhD and Master’s?

There are several differences between a PhD and a Master’s that are worth considering when you’re deciding if you should go to grad school. Here are some of the main ones: 
  • Level of study. A Master’s degree is the first level of graduate study, while a PhD is a terminal degree, or the highest degree you can earn. 
  • Length of program. Master’s programs typically span one or two years, while PhD study may take three to seven years. 
  • Cost. Since a PhD program is significantly longer than a Master’s, it may have a higher cost. However, some PhD programs come with stipends, fellowships, or teaching assistant jobs for qualifying students, which can help defray costs. Costs will also vary by school and location. 
  • Research component. PhD programs are often research-heavy and may require you to complete and defend a dissertation to earn your degree. A Master’s program may involve a capstone course or thesis, but it won’t be as in-depth as a doctoral dissertation. 

How Do Career Prospects Differ? 

Master’s degree programs often prepare you for a specific career, such as a career in education, engineering, or business administration. They can also help you get a position in a managerial or leadership position. PhD programs, on the other hand, often prepare you for a position as a researcher or professor. They often lead to positions in academia and qualify you to publish research papers and other works. 

Differences in Length Between PhD Vs Master’s

A Master’s program often spans one or two years.  During this time, you’ll take courses and may complete a capstone project or thesis. A PhD, on the other hand, could take anywhere from three to seven years. You might take coursework for a few years and spend the remaining time engaged in research and putting together your dissertation. 

Average Costs for Both Advanced Degrees

Costs will vary widely depending on the program and school you attend. However, the average cost for a Master’s degree, according to the Education Data Initiative, is $62,650 in 2023. That cost can range anywhere from $30,000 to $120,000 or more. On the other hand, the cost of a PhD program averages $103,700. To give a few examples, the average cost of a Doctorate of Education is $98,900, while the average cost of a Doctorate of Psychology is $115,500.When comparing costs, it’s also worth considering potential lost earnings during the time you’re in school. When you pursue a Master’s, you’ll graduate and re-enter the workforce sooner. If you’re going after your PhD, you may not earn a full-time income for three to seven years. 

Benefits of Each Program

There are benefits to both types of degree programs. Some benefits of a Master’s program are that it takes less time than a PhD, allowing you to enter the workforce and start earning an income sooner. It may help you advance in your career and earn a higher salary than you could with only a Bachelor’s degree. Plus, it may open the door to managerial and leadership positions. A PhD, on the other hand, may be more beneficial if you want to become a thought leader. You’ll gain expertise, develop your analytical and critical reasoning skills, and contribute research to your field. Having a PhD may also qualify you for certain research and academic positions, as well as make it easier to publish research papers and other works. 

Which Is Right for You?

Deciding whether to pursue your Master’s vs. PhD all comes down to your personal and professional goals. A PhD may be a good fit if you have a passion for your field and want to commit several years to study and research. A Master’s, on the other hand, is better if you want a more structured program that will help you advance in your career, whether by moving into a new position or gaining a promotion. Consider your long-term professional goals when determining which program type is right for you. Some schools offer joint Master’s-PhD programs that allow you to earn both degrees at the same time. If you decide to stop after earning your Master’s, you’ll still have an advanced degree without having to spend several additional years pursuing your doctorate. 

 How to Cover the Costs of Both Advanced Degrees

There are a variety of ways to cover the costs of further education. Here are the main ones:
  • Scholarships and grants. You can find scholarships and grants from the Office of Federal Student Aid, universities, and private organizations. Some companies also offer tuition assistance to their employees. 
  • Personal savings. If you have money saved up, you could use it toward your degree program. 
  • Income from a part-time job. Working on- or off-campus could also help you earn money that you can put toward living expenses and supplies. 
  • Federal student loans. Borrowing money from the government is also an option. You could take out Direct unsubsidized loans and/or grad PLUS loans, both of which come with fixed interest rates. 
  • Private student loans. If you still have a gap in funding, consider borrowing from a private lender, such as a bank, credit union, or online loan company. Borrowers with strong credit may qualify for a competitive interest rate. 

The Takeaway

Both a Master’s degree and a PhD can open the door to career advancement and a higher salary, but the programs have some key differences. Consider your career goals, as well as how much time you want to spend as a student, to determine which degree type is right for you. If you borrow student loans to pay for higher education, you may eventually explore how student loan refinancing works to see if you can get better rates. Refinancing can save you money on your loans while adjusting your repayment terms to fit your budget. Be aware that you will not be eligible for federal loan forgiveness programs for the amount that you refinance. Learn more about how Lantern can help you refinance student loans.

Frequently Asked Questions

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About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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