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Demystifying Graduate Degrees: Comparing Master’s vs. Doctorate

You want a graduate degree — to continue exploring your passions, make discoveries or advance your career — but how do you turn that decision into a plan?

It starts with understanding the difference between a master’s and a PhD in your field. They differ in length, intensity, curriculum and career paths, so you’ll also need a clear idea of why you want to pursue a graduate degree to determine which one you should get.

What Is a Master’s Degree?

If you’ve completed your undergraduate degree, it might be time to ask, “What’s next?”

That’s where Master’s degrees can come in.

Whether you want to specialize in a particular area or get advanced skills in your profession, a master’s degree can help you get there in 1-2 years.

The most common types of master's degrees include:

  • Master of Arts (MA),
  • Master of Science (MS),
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA),
  • Master of Education (MEd),
  • and Master of Fine Arts (MFA). 

What do you learn in a master’s program?

The short answer? A lot.

Master’s degree programs are designed to build on the foundational knowledge gained during your undergraduate studies, and the curriculum focuses on advanced knowledge and skills in a particular field.

Here’s what you can expect to encounter in a master’s program:

Advanced coursework: 
Master's programs provide advanced courses that build upon the foundational knowledge gained during your undergraduate studies. These courses delve deeper into specific topics within your field and often explore the latest research and developments. 

One of the primary goals of a master's program is to allow you to specialize in a particular area. Whether pursuing a Master of Arts, Master of Science, or a professional degree like an MBA, you can focus your studies on a specific subfield or concentration within your discipline. 

Research and analysis: 
Many master's programs require you to engage in research projects and analytical work. This could involve conducting independent research under the guidance of a faculty advisor or participating in group research projects with fellow students. Through these research experiences, you’ll develop critical thinking and analytical skills, learn how to gather and evaluate relevant data and draw meaningful conclusions.

Practical applications and internships: 
Some master's programs incorporate practical training opportunities like internships, practicums, or field experiences; hands-on experiences allow you to apply the knowledge and skills gained in the classroom to real-world settings.

Collaboration and networking: 
A Master's program is a rich collaboration and networking environment. Collaborative projects, group discussions, and professional events allow you to exchange ideas and build connections within your field, often leading to long-lasting professional relationships and potential career opportunities.

Thesis project: 
Outside of building skills like project management, problem-solving, project management, and effective communication, thesis projects in master's degree programs serve as a cornerstone for building advanced skills, expanding professional networks, and contributing to the body of knowledge in your respective field. 

Why get a master’s degree?

Career advancement:
One primary advantage of getting a master’s degree is an edge in the job market. Employers value the specialized knowledge and advanced skills that come with a master’s degree, opening up new and exciting career opportunities. 

The cherry on top? Individuals with a master’s degree often earn more than those without an advanced degree — you can take that to the bank, especially if you set yourself up for financial success during your studies.

Another aspect to consider is the flexibility that a master’s degree offers. Many programs offer part-time or online options, allowing you to balance your studies with work or other commitments. 

This flexibility can be particularly helpful if you’re already established in your career but want to gain additional qualifications. 

Growth opportunities:
Depending on your field, a master’s degree can be a stepping stone toward a PhD or other doctoral programs. It gives you a solid foundation in research methods and academic rigor — a boon if you want to pursue a career in academia or conduct advanced research.

What is a Doctoral Degree or PhD?

A doctoral degree is a terminal degree — it represents the pinnacle of academic achievement and is the most advanced degree you can attain. Doctoral students want to become authorities in their chosen fields and develop the skills to conduct independent and original research. 

Doctoral programs usually span 3-6 years of full-time study, during which students complete advanced coursework, pass comprehensive examinations, engage in extensive research and ultimately produce a dissertation that contributes new knowledge to the field. 

There are several types of doctoral degrees based on different academic and professional aspirations, including:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD),
  • Doctor of Education (EdD),
  • And Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), among others. 

What do you learn in a doctoral program?

When you successfully defend your dissertation and complete your degree, you also become an expert in your field — but it doesn’t happen overnight. Here's what you can expect to encounter in a doctoral program:

Advanced research:
If you’re looking for a hard emphasis on research, a doctoral program is the place to be. Over several years, PhD students engage in extensive research activities — including conducting independent research, producing scholarly publications, and contributing to the knowledge base of their field through original research contributions.

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks: 
PhDs are an incredible opportunity to deepen your understanding of theoretical and conceptual frameworks in your field of study. You'll critically analyze existing theories, evaluate their applicability, and develop your theoretical frameworks to advance knowledge and understanding in your chosen area of research.

Advanced methodological training: 
Because a dissertation is an original research project, you’ll gain advanced training in research methodologies and data analysis techniques, like designing robust research studies, collecting and analyzing data, and drawing valid and reliable conclusions from your research findings.

Critical thinking and intellectual independence: Both academia and industry employers highly value independent thinkers and workers. Doctoral programs foster critical thinking and intellectual independence by challenging you to evaluate existing research, identify gaps in knowledge, and propose innovative research ideas.
Teaching and Mentoring Experience: Being a teacher or mentor is a great opportunity to share your hard-earned knowledge, and universities agree. Doctoral programs often provide opportunities to teach and mentor undergraduate students, develop effective pedagogical skills, and contribute to the academic community.

Dissertation project: 
Your dissertation is the culmination of years of hard work within your field. By enrolling in a doctoral program, you’re also given the chance to participate in a significant and original research endeavor that demonstrates the expertise you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

Why Get a Doctorate?

Having a doctorate doesn’t just open doors; it can kick them down. A doctorate might be right for you if you’re looking for a door to these things:

Expertise and specialization: 
Doctoral degrees can be a labor of love. They help you delve deeper into a specific subject area, gaining expertise and specialization.

Research opportunities: 
Extensive research training, opportunities for conducting original research, and contributing new knowledge to the academic community — these three things make a doctorate coveted by students, universities, and employers.

Salary potential and career advancement:
In some fields, having a doctorate can lead to higher earning potential and increased salary opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, doctoral degree holders made an average of $1,885 per week in 2020, while master’s degree holders made an average of $1,545 per week.

Contribution to society: 
Doctoral research often addresses pressing societal issues, contributing to advancements in technology, healthcare, education, and other areas for the benefit of society — for many students, contributing to the greater good is just as rewarding as career advancement or personal development.

What’s the difference between a dissertation and a thesis?

You might have heard “thesis” and “dissertation” used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same. Here are the general distinctions to consider:


  • A thesis is usually associated with a master's degree program. Students undertake a research project in the final stage of their degree.
  • It typically involves conducting original research or analyzing existing research to answer a specific research question.
  • The length of a thesis varies based on the field and program requirements, but it’s usually shorter than a dissertation.


  • A dissertation is typically associated with a doctoral degree program. It is an extensive, in-depth research project that marks the culmination of a doctoral program.
  • A dissertation involves original research that contributes new knowledge in the chosen field. Students follow a rigorous research journey, including:
    • in-depth exploration of a research topic
    • comprehensive literature review
    • methodology section
    • data collection and analysis
    • substantive discussion of findings and conclusions.
  • Dissertations are usually longer than theses and may take several years to complete.
  • Once you’ve completed your dissertation, you participate in a formal defense of the research, where you’ll present your findings to a committee of experts in the field.

Key Differences: Master's vs. PhD


Master's Degree:

Doctoral Degree:

Time Commitment

1-2 years

4-6+ years


More focused on providing an advanced understanding of established knowledge within a field

Emphasis on creating new knowledge through original research




Admission Requirements

Less stringent

May require additional materials like recommendation letters, writing samples, and examples of previous research

Career Advancement

Often more geared toward professional practice in various industries

Designed to prepare students for careers in academic research

Deciding Between Master's vs. PhD Programs

“Should I get a master’s degree or a PhD?”

Answering that question can be exciting — and a bit intimidating. You must consider long-term career objectives, personal interests, and the time you can commit. Plus, the level of specialization you wish to achieve based on your career path is also a factor. Typically, a PhD is a prerequisite for those aspiring to research careers in academia, while professional roles in various industries may require only a master's degree. 

It’s still worth noting that students have the option of completing a master's degree first and then, based on their experiences and career aspirations, deciding whether to pursue a PhD.

Find the right graduate degree at SMU 

A graduate degree is a big investment, so investing in the right program is important.

SMU offers a diverse array of master's and PhD programs tailored to align with your unique interests and career goals, and personalized support, from the applicant to the graduate, is always available. 

Whether you're interested in pursuing a PhD in Chemistry or are almost finished with your MBA, we can help you find the right advanced degree.

This could just be the beginning of your journey. Get a closer look at applying to graduate programs of your choice with our guide, How to Get a PhD: A Guide to Choosing and Applying to PhD Programs.


Learn More About

Doctoral degrees at SMU, and how you can choose the right program and thrive in it, in our Guide to Getting a PhD.


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