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 by Chantelle Francis
, posted on 31 May '17

Masters or PhD: Which is the Best Option for You?

For many students, postgraduate study is considered the next vital step in an academic or professional career after an undergraduate course. Other students also assume that a Masters is an essential step towards a PhD. However, neither of these may necessarily be the case.

Sometimes, jumping straight in to a PhD might be a better – and more efficient – means of reaching your specific career goal.

Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone.

This blog explores some of the key differences between Masters and PhD study, and which postgraduate option is right for you.

Masters versus PhD: the key differences

Whether you’re a first-timer on our blog today, or a long-time regular, it’s likely you’ll already have a good idea of what postgraduate study involves.

Either way, it’s helpful to (re)familiarise yourself with some of the key differences between a Masters and a PhD:

The Masters

Masters courses typically come in the form of an MA (Master of Arts), MSc (Master of Science) and MRes (Masters by Research).

In some respects, Masters degrees are quite similar to undergraduate degrees:

  • they are often taught courses (even a research Masters will involve taught units)
  • they typically involve lectures, seminars and lab sessions
  • they tend to involve several smaller pieces of work (i.e. essays) before culminating in a final thesis

Of course, a Masters is more advanced than an undergraduate course.

Though you will follow taught units, a Masters focuses on the transition from purely learning about a subject to becoming an independent scholar and ‘Master’ of your field.

You will develop this Mastery within a relatively short period of time – usually 1-2 years. These academic years also typically run from September to September, rather than September to June. So, you’ll undertake rigorous training in a shorter time frame over a ‘longer’ academic year.

The main purpose of a Masters, then, is to advance your subject knowledge within a specific area of your field.

The PhD

In some ways, it’s useful to think of a PhD as being like a very long dissertation project.

While Masters courses involve lots of taught modules, PhDs are almost totally independent. You’ll benefit from expert supervision and may complete some training through taught sessions. But, really, the focus is on your independent research.

PhD programmes typically last 3 or 4 years, but can be longer. So, they involve lots of dedication and hard work over a much longer period than a Masters. As with Masters study, PhD research is undertaken year-round.

And, while Masters courses advance your subject knowledge, the purpose of a PhD is for you to contribute entirely new knowledge to your field.

No pressure, then!

Reasons for studying a Masters degree

You’ve learnt a little bit about what Masters study involves. So, is a Masters degree the next step for you?

Below we’ve considered some of the reasons why a Masters degree could be your ideal option:

You don’t want to do a PhD…

If you know you don’t want to do a PhD, but are still interested in postgraduate study, then a Masters is a happy medium.

You can undertake some taught modules like your undergrad, but still have the chance to take your subject further – and do some independent research!

Plus, achieving a degree in just one year is a good way to gain experience in a new field if you want to switch up your career choices.

. . .You’re not sure if you want to do a PhD

If a PhD feels like too much of a commitment for you right now, a Masters is a good way of finding out whether you could handle a longer postgraduate degree.It provides a means for you to explore a subject of interest to you, without being completely flung into the deep end.

What’s more, undertaking a research-focussed Masters (such as an MRes) can give you a pretty good idea of what a PhD would be like.

You definitely want to do a PhD

For some subjects, particularly the Arts and Humanities, a Masters is often a required step before undertaking your PhD.

In other cases, having a Masters degree under your belt can make your application for a PhD (or for PhD funding) much stronger. This is because you’ll have gained experience of independent research, and shown a commitment to your field.

It could be easier to fund

It is often the case that applying for a PhD is far more competitive than applying for a Masters – particularly if there’s funding at stake.

Of course, with the introduction of the UK Masters loans and PhD loans, both levels of postgraduate study are a lot more accessible.

You don’t want to end up over-qualified

As noted earlier, it isn’t necessary to gain a doctorate for every possible career out there.

If you are passionate about your subject, that’s great! But don’t feel that a PhD is a necessary part of your professional development. Instead, consider a Masters in relation your personal and professional goals.

If it feels like the natural next step to take, it most likely is!

Reasons for undertaking a PhD

A PhD is a big commitment. But it’s also a very exciting challenge! Might you be able to skip the Masters and delve straight into doctoral research?

We’ve considered some circumstances below.

You might not have to do a Masters degree first

For STEM subjects, it is quite common to head straight into a PhD after your undergraduate degree.

This is because modes of enquiry for these subjects differ to those of, say, the Arts and Humanities. You’ve already learnt the techniques for producing theories and conducting experiments, so an extra year of study may not be essential.

You can’t find a Masters in the specialism you want to pursue

If you’re interested in a particularly niche subject area, it may be the case that a suitable Masters degree simply isn’t offered yet.

A PhD, on the other hand, is all about contributing new knowledge to your field. So, why not go out and make that happen? If you have a solid and unique proposal to offer, any university would be lucky to have you!

You’d prefer a pre-structured option, but want the higher qualification

Being entirely original and independent isn’t always easy.

Masters are ideal in this scenario, as they are predominantly taught. But, what if you just want a slightly more structured, independent research project?

If you have a passion for your field, but aren’t sure about the area you’d like to contribute to, a pre-structure PhD project could be an excellent option. These projects are a great means for you to contribute your individual skills into a wider research goal, sometimes as part of a team.

So, you’ll be undertaking your own independent research, but may also have the option to collaborate on other projects too.

You need a PhD for your future career

In order to become a specialist in certain fields, or pursue an academic career, a PhD is essential. If this is the case, all that’s left to do is to decide whether that career is definitely what you want to aim for.

We’ve compiled lots of guides on our website and information on our blog to help you achieve this.

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