Although master’s and doctoral degree programs are often grouped together in the category of “graduate education,” the two programs represent different educational experiences and often lead to different career paths. Anyone considering graduate school should give careful consideration as to which program is the better option for them.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Which degree do you need to achieve your career goals? Some fields require a Ph.D.; others do not. On the other hand, in some fields, holding a doctorate may actually make you look over-qualified for many positions. Research the qualifications and standards of the field you want to work in to make sure your educational goals are appropriate.
  • Is the master’s program you’re considering terminal or non-terminal? Some master’s degrees are terminal, meaning there is no higher degree awarded in that subject. For example, a master of fine arts (MFA) degree is terminal. You could go on to pursue a doctorate in theater or literature, but those degrees draw on a different body of knowledge and develop a different set of skills than an MFA program does. Other master’s programs provide a logical stepping stone to a more advanced degree. If you know you eventually want to get a Ph.D., or think you might, choose a master’s program that will help you move toward that goal – or simply apply directly to appropriate doctoral programs.
  • How much time are you willing to commit to a program? Most master’s programs can be completed in two years. Doctoral programs take much longer. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in most fields, the average doctoral candidate requires at least seven years beyond college to complete their Ph.D. requirements. And that’s seven or more years of full-time study. Many schools discourage doctoral students from taking outside employment during their program. Although many schools will provide stipends or paid graduate or research assistantships to doctoral students, a Ph.D. program nonetheless means committing to several years of hard work and limited income.
  • Are you ready to pursue an independent research project? Doctoral programs are less structured than master’s programs are. They also expect students to produce a significant piece of original research. If you still want to explore your career options, or are uncertain as to which field or questions you want to study, you may be better off entering a non-terminal master’s program that would leave you with the option of pursuing a more advanced degree later on.

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