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Master's Degree Vs Doctorate: Which Is Your Best Option?

When it comes to terminal degrees, deciding between a master's and a doctorate isn't always easy. Read on to find out what the difference is between master's degrees and doctoral degrees, how long each takes to earn, what they are used for, and more.

Comparing Master's Degrees and Doctoral Degrees

The decision to continue your education and earn a graduate degree can be an important step to developing your career, so it's important to know where you want your career to go when deciding. Both types of graduate degrees will require you to earn a bachelor's first, and competition for admission to graduate programs can be quite difficult, regardless of level. The master's degree is the next level beyond a bachelor's and tends to be a more career-focused degree, designed to provide the skills and in-depth knowledge needed to succeed at the higher levels of an industry or field.

Doctoral degrees are a level beyond that; however, this does not mean that a doctorate is always superior. Doctorates tend to be more academically oriented, intending to prepare students for a life of scientific or critical research. There are some exceptions in the form of professional doctorates, such as the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Juris Doctor (J.D.), which often lead to very specific careers that require extensive education and training.

Master's Degree Doctoral Degree
Duration of Study 1-3 years beyond bachelor's 4-5 years beyond bachelor's
Educational Prerequisites Bachelor's degree Bachelor's, sometimes master's
Common Career Types Management, research, specialized roles Academic and research careers
Median Salary* (by typical entry-level education, 2018) $73,580 $105,700

Source: *US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Overview of Master's Degrees

Careers that typically require master's degrees as the entry-level education tend to be quite lucrative compared to those that have no degree requirements at all. The median salary for master's degree careers was $73,580 as of May 2018.

Admission: Applicants for master's degree programs will need to hold a bachelor's degree, often in a relevant field, although some, such as the Master of Business Administration (MBA), are compatible with a wide number of undergraduate fields of study. Admission to a master's program will also commonly require scoring well on an admissions test, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and may also involve letters of recommendation and good performance in undergraduate studies. Some master's degree programs may even require students to have obtained real world work experience in the industry before applying.

Program Duration: The length of study in a master's degree program can vary significantly, depending on their formats. In accelerated and executive programs, it may be possible to earn certain master's degrees in roughly a year, while many full-time programs typically take between two and three years to complete. Master's degrees are sometimes offered online, although the availability will differ according to the field of study.

Degree Requirements: Students in master's degree programs take advanced courses, aiming to develop a specialization within broader fields and study more complex topics that may have been glossed over in bachelor's level courses. Many master's degree programs, but not all, include a lengthy thesis paper or capstone project at the end, relating to an in-depth study of a particular topic. Master's programs may also touch on relevant skills that are outside the normal field of study, such as writing grant proposals or ethics, to ensure that students have a thorough understanding of all aspects of a career in the field.

Overview of Doctoral Degrees

The BLS reported a median salary of $105,700 for careers typically requiring a doctoral degree for entry as of May 2018, significantly higher than the median salary reported for master's degrees.

Ph.D. Program Admission: The most common type of doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D. Relatively few careers require a Ph.D., but these careers tend to pay quite well. While a bachelor's degree can be enough to gain admission to some Ph.D. programs, others may require that students have already earned a master's in that field. Doctorates of all types are highly specialized degrees and require dedicating a substantial amount of time to learning the field of study. Students applying for Ph.D. programs often need excellent grades and performance in prior postsecondary studies, recommendations from professors, passage of admissions exams such as the GRE, and even interviews with alumni or faculty.

Ph.D. Program Duration: The first two to three years of a Ph.D. program will mostly consist of classroom studies, while the latter years will see a change in focus towards the development of a thesis, which must then be tested by original research, with the findings then written about at length. Completion of the thesis can take anywhere from one year to as many as four, depending on the nature of the research, and the thesis and research must then be defended before a panel of experts, including professors. Ph.D. programs typically do have a maximum completion time, however, and students who are unable to complete their research in time will not receive their degree.

Professional Doctorate Requirements: Aside from the Ph.D., there are also professional doctorates that develop the skills and knowledge to work in a specific career. The M.D. is the most well-known of the professional doctorates and acts as an essential part of the licensing process for medical professionals. The J.D. is similar in that it is the degree required to practice law. It is possible to obtain Ph.D.s in these disciplines as well, although Ph.D.s will be more research-oriented and will not meet the requirements to practice professionally. Other professional doctorates include Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Doctor of Education (EdD), each leading to a particular career path. Additional learning may take place after graduation as well, such as with medical residencies. Many of these programs have specialized admissions tests, such as the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and admissions can be extremely competitive.