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Should You Get a Master's or PhD? Start With These 3 Questions


Whether you've been out of school for three months or three years, you may still be asking yourself the same questions: should I go back to school for a graduate degree? And what kind of degree do I want or need to succeed in the fields I'm interested in?

Depending on your discipline, you may be wondering if a PhD is worth it or whether a master's degree is a better choice. To make the right choice, you'll need to do a little introspection to determine what matters most to you, and what you hope to achieve. 

These three questions are a good place to start:

What to learn more about the admissions process at SMU? Check out our Guide to  Graduate Admissions!

1. What is my ultimate goal for pursuing a graduate degree?

The best place to start is the end — think about your ultimate ideal job and determine what steps you need to take to get to that point.

A good exercise is to research the types of companies or institutions that do the work you want to do and look at available positions. Job descriptions will give you an idea of the qualifications these employers expect their prospective employees to have.

By identifying your career goals and understanding what is required of the positions or roles you want, you can begin to lay the foundation for an educational plan that helps you obtain your dream job.

What are my timeline and funding needs?

How much time can you commit to another degree? On the surface, a master’s program may appear more economical. Master’s programs require fewer credits and less time than a Ph.D. program. Many master’s programs can be completed in two years (often with part-time options), while Ph.D. programs can take approximately 5 to 6 years to finish as a full-time student.

Many students find that a master’s will help them advance to a higher pay scale in their current job. If this is their primary motivation for seeking a graduate degree, then the master's degree is enough to get them to their desired income level. 

Although they take longer, many Ph.D. programs provide funding to allow students the financial freedom to focus on their studies and research. Students also benefit from working closely with an accomplished faculty member who can provide a more thorough and well-connected introduction to the industry. Also, students can build up their professional network and work portfolio by attending and presenting at conferences, writing and publishing articles, or working as course instructors while finishing their degree.

While they may require more time investment, the experiences earned while getting a doctorate are valuable and help build a substantial and impressive résumé.

Pro-tip: Learn more about the typical timeline for earning your Ph.D. to help you decide if it is right for you! 

Where am I in my career?

Understanding the basic admission requirements for your program of interest is important. Some programs allow you to apply to a doctoral program and earn a master’s along the way. Other Ph.D. programs require a master’s before applying, while a third program may want a master’s and some work experience first.

If you are in the earlier stages of your career, you may need more preparation before applying for a Ph.D. These degree programs tend to be more heavily research-based and require participants to possess a strong academic skill set they may have developed through their master’s or personal work experience.

The more information you can collect, the more comfortable you’ll be with your decision. Plan a visit to campus, ask questions at local networking events, and learn more about what your programs of interest can offer you and what will best fit your career goals.

Now, You Can Move Forward with Purpose

Whether you're leaning toward a master's degree or a Ph.D., thinking about getting your graduate degree allows you to step back and ask yourself important questions about your career aspirations and intellectual interests. Your answers to these questions will provide the basis for your clarity and sense of purpose if you do decide to apply for and enroll in a graduate program.

You may still have unanswered questions about going to graduate school and about what getting a Ph.D. actually looks like. SMU's Office of Graduate Studies is here to help!

Check out this comprehensive resource that we created to help you visualize your journey to a Ph.D., from application to dissertation: 

A Guide to Choosing, Applying for, and Thriving in a Ph.D. Program.

Explore the Resource

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