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What Is the Difference Between a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D.?

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Abound: Grad School »

In the United States, 13.1% of people have a master’s, doctorate, or other advanced degree. Along with the wealth of knowledge and skills you can get from an advanced education, becoming a graduate student is a great way to stand above the remaining 86.9% of Americans as you work toward your career goals.

The most common types of advanced degrees are the master’s degree and the Ph.D. Both are great options for continuing education but still have many differences. 

Do you want to learn more about each of these advanced degrees? Keep reading this article for everything you need to know about the difference between a master’s degree and a Ph.D.

Course Structure

When you are getting an advanced degree, it is important to consider the course structure of each program you are interested in. This way, you can find one that helps you learn in the way that makes the most sense to you. 

With a master’s degree, you can expect primarily to do coursework throughout the first three semesters. The remaining requirements are composed of a capstone project or thesis that culminates everything you will have learned during your program. 

With a Ph.D., you will typically do two years of coursework. After you have completed this work, you will take the remaining years to prepare your dissertation. This requires a lot of research and writing and will allow you to contribute new research to current industry knowledge. 

Degree Length

Another significant difference between a master’s degree and a Ph.D. program is the length of time they take to complete. Master’s programs are much shorter and will typically take two years to complete. Some universities even offer accelerated programs that allow you to complete your master’s degree within a single year. 

Ph.D.s take much longer to complete—anywhere from 5-6 years! There are a lot of things to cover in any field as you pursue a doctorate. What’s more, the research and writing process of a dissertation can be quite time consuming.

The doctorate degree in the United States is typically inclusive of the curriculum you would receive for a master’s in the same field, with more in-depth study beyond that. Outside of the United States, you will likely have to get a separate master’s degree before you start your Ph.D.

Culmination of Degree

As was mentioned before, the culmination of both master’s degrees and doctorate degrees differ. There are a few main differences between a dissertation and a thesis

For a master’s degree, you are expected to complete a capstone course or a thesis. This is a paper that is limited to about 40,000 words. The point of a thesis is to allow graduate students to present their research findings and show their aptitude in their field.

The master’s thesis allows you to demonstrate your knowledge about the research area and prove that you can contribute to scholarly work. Once you have completed your thesis, you will go through an extensive editing process before it can be published. 

A doctorate degree requires the completion of a dissertation. A dissertation is much longer than a master’s thesis and can be anywhere between 100 to 300 pages long. 

Dissertations also typically require an oral defense. You will present your work to a committee and will answer questions about the methodology and interpretation of your dissertation. 


To choose the best type of advanced degree for your circumstances, it is also important that you consider the cost of both master’s degrees as well as Ph.D. programs. Comparing degree costs will help you find a degree that you can afford.

Because a Ph.D. takes much longer to complete than a master’s degree, you can expect it to cost a lot more too! That said, many Ph.D. programs provide funding to students. While this funding or stipend is not much, it will often cover the cost of tuition and living expenses. 

On the other hand, you are completely responsible for your livelihood while pursuing a master’s degree. That means you’ll have to work hard outside of school, reminding yourself that your future career prospects will likely help you make back what you’ve spent (and then some!).

With a Ph.D., you will take longer to graduate, but you will get a higher return on your investment with an even higher average salary than that of a master’s degree holder.

If you pursue an online graduate degree, you can find much more affordable options for both master’s degrees and doctorate degrees. These also make it much easier to study while you continue to work or pursue other endeavors. 

Future Potential 

Finally, you need to consider your future potential when it comes to both of these advanced degrees. While money isn’t the only thing that you should consider, you need to know that you will be able to get a reliable job once you graduate with your degree. 

With a master’s degree, you will open the door for more job opportunities but not necessarily different career prospects. On the other hand, those with a Ph.D. typically do research for their job, often at a university. This allows you to contribute new data to your field and as well as to become an expert in your industry. 

You should also consider your potential salaries with both graduate degrees. Both degrees will advance your career and increase your money-making potential. However, you will almost always be able to make more money when you have a Ph.D. 

Becoming a Graduate Student? Learn More About a Master’s Degree and Ph.D.

When you are considering continuing education, there are many different types of degrees to choose from. Both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. are great options to achieve your education and career goals. By learning more about these differences between graduate degrees, you can find the option that works best for your needs. 

Do you want help with the advanced degree application process? Abound Grad School can help! Check out our website today to learn more about your education options as a graduate student and to find the best graduate school for you.

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