Master’s vs. Doctorate

On the higher education ladder, the next step up from a master’s degree is a doctorate. The main difference between a master’s and a doctorate is the shift in focus from studying to researching. With a doctorate, you are not only expected to expand upon your own expertise, but to also eventually contribute to the pool of knowledge in your field. 

There are several types of doctorate degrees and different countries have different categories of doctorates. In the United States, for example, it is possible to become a Doctor of Law, Doctor of Medicine, and Doctor of Pharmacy among others. However, the most popular and most recognizable doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

One major difference between masters and PhDs is the length. While master’s degrees tend to take 1-2 years to complete, PhDs normally take much longer. Laia Alegre Zurano is a current PhD student at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She says that PhDs can take up to five years to complete – but only in exceptional circumstances.

“PhDs are supposed to take between three and five years. Normally they are three years, but if you want to take a fourth year then you have to ask for it from the university, but they will give it to you for sure. If you want to take a fifth year then you have to demonstrate that something happened during these four years that meant you couldn’t finish your PhD.” (02:45)

Can you get a PhD without a master’s?

In some cases, it is possible to be accepted into a PhD without a master’s degree. Birmingham City University, for example, offers many PhD courses that do not require the applicant to have a master’s degree and will instead accept relevant work experience.

One obvious advantage of skipping a master’s and moving straight on to a PhD is the time and money you will save, given that master’s degrees can cost over €10,000 per year. However, pursuing this option carries several risks. PhDs are a very different experience from a master’s and you should be aware of the differences before committing to anything.

The differences between a master’s and a PhD

While undergraduate degrees generally have a lot of teaching hours on-campus, a PhD consists of much more independent study and research. A master’s degree can be the stepping stone between these two disciplines and prepare you for the PhD life. If you’re thinking of doing a PhD after your master’s, Laia believes you should already be thinking about how your master’s will prepare you for further study.

“If you want to focus on research afterward, you really need a master’s that is going to introduce you to that field,” she explains. “If you want to specialize in the research field you will probably need a master’s that introduces you to that kind of knowledge.” (03:18)

The shift to more independent studying is another key difference between a master’s and a PhD. 

“When you come here as a master’s student, normally you are always shadowing someone, you can’t be autonomous. When you start as a PhD student, you have your own line of research. [Together] with your PhD director, you are the ones that decide which way your research is going to go,” says Laia. (01:16)

So, while it is possible to get a PhD without a master’s, there are a lot of factors to take into account before deciding. Although it may be the cheaper option to jump straight to a PhD, a master’s degree prepares you for the more independent way of studying at the doctorate level. It could also provide you with the specialist knowledge you need, in areas such as research, to succeed as a PhD student.

Think hard and choose wisely!