Master’s vs. Ph.D.: Differences Explained

Master’s vs. Ph.D.: Differences Explained
September 18, 2023 5 min read Liaison

Here, we talk about the differences between master's and doctoral programs in cost, program structure, and career path.

Key Takeaways

Master's degree programs usually last 1-2 years, while Ph.D. programs often last 3-7 years.

Master's programs focus on specialized skills and knowledge, while doctoral programs are research-based and require analytical, critical thinking, and writing skills.

Master's programs usually end with a thesis or capstone project, while Ph.D. programs end with a dissertation that demonstrates your critical thinking and writing skills and often provides a novel contribution to the field.

With a master's degree, you can work in various managerial or executive positions; with a Ph.D., you can have an academic or research-focused career.


What level of academic studies is right for you? Do you need a master's degree or a Ph.D. for your dream job? If you're considering earning a graduate degree and have a master's vs. Ph.D. dilemma, this article is for you.

There were 866,900 master's degrees and 194,100 doctoral degrees conferred in 2020/2021. It may be enough for you to earn a master's degree. However, for some jobs, you'll have to earn a Ph.D.

In this article, we discuss differences between doctoral and master's programs, such as the cost, program, and career opportunities.

Ph.D. vs. Master’s: Overview

Requirements Master’s Program Doctoral Program
Academic degree required Bachelor's (undergraduate) degree Master’s degree
Credit Hours 36-54 58-120
Time Needed for Completion 1-3 years 3-7 years
Thesis/Project/Dissertation Thesis or Capstone project Dissertation
Career Prospect Executive Positions Professors/Researchers

Master’s vs. Ph.D.: Main Differences

The following sections highlight differences in costs, curriculum, and career prospects between doctoral and master’s degree programs.


One big difference between a master's and a Ph.D. is the program’s duration.

A master's degree is a “non-terminal” degree that provides students with skills and knowledge in a chosen area. It can usually be earned in one to two years. However, a master’s degree can also be “terminal,” meaning that it is the highest level of educational achievement required to enter a professional field.

Master’s programs consist of core courses that are required as well as electives, which are courses to help you further specialize in a chosen field. You can also take subjects in related areas.

To complete the program, students in master's programs usually need to write a thesis.

A doctoral (Ph.D.) degree is a terminal degree that focuses on research and can be earned in three to seven years (time for earning a master's degree included). Students in these programs gain critical thinking, analytical, and writing skills, which they demonstrate in their dissertations. Dissertation writing is a long process and requires extensive research on a chosen topic.

A doctoral degree program consists of required courses and electives. In order to complete a Ph.D. program, you need to write a dissertation that should expand the knowledge of those working in the field. Upon submitting the dissertation, you'll need to defend it in front of a committee.



Master’s vs. Doctorate Programs: Costs

Another difference is related to tuition costs. Considering that it takes longer to earn a Ph.D., the overall cost is higher than for master's degree programs.

The median cost of earning a master's degree in 2023 was $25,560 annually or $51,130 in total. On the other hand, according to, the average cost of earning a doctoral degree is $150,835.

The amount of tuition you pay depends on which type of school you choose — private for-profit, private non-profit, or public. Public schools tend to be cheaper. In many cases, tuition rates may depend on whether you're an in-state or out-of-state student.

Note that most Ph.D. students receive a stipend from fellowship grants and don't pay tuition in full. In general, Ph.D. students get more financial aid than students in master's programs.

Ph.D. vs. Master’s Degree: Career Goals

Are you considering whether a master's degree or Ph.D. will be better for your career? Even though both master's and Ph.D. programs can help you advance in your career, there are some differences in what you'll do after earning a degree.

Individuals wishing to land managerial or executive positions usually complete master's programs. On the other hand, doctoral programs are generally for individuals who wish to focus on research and teaching.

  • Counselor
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Education administrator
  • Social worker
  • Mathematician
  • Postsecondary teacher
  • Economist
  • Speech-language pathologist

Primarily, doctoral students work at the university as teachers and research assistants, which defrays the cost of their education. However, they can work as researchers in various companies and fields upon earning a degree.

Masters vs. Ph.D. — Conclusion

Pursuing a master's or a Ph.D. is a big decision that depends on many factors, including your academic and career goals, financial situation, and the level of commitment you're willing to invest in your education.

Master's programs are shorter, generally lasting from one to two years. They focus on specialized skills and knowledge within a chosen field and often require the submission of a thesis. This degree is ideal for individuals seeking to advance in their careers, particularly in managerial or executive positions.

On the other hand, a Ph.D. is a terminal degree that requires a bigger commitment, typically three to seven years, which includes the time needed for a master's degree. Ph.D. programs focus on original research, critical thinking, analytical, and writing skills. Earning a Ph.D. requires writing a dissertation contributing to the field's knowledge. Graduates of Ph.D. programs often pursue careers in teaching and research.

Tuition depends on the type of institution and your residency status. The cost of doctorate vs. a master’s programs varies — Ph.D. programs tend to be more costly due to their longer duration, but this can be highly dependent on the area of study chosen. However, many Ph.D. students receive stipends or financial aid, which can lower the overall costs.

Consider programs, costs, and what you want to do in 10 years. Both degrees offer avenues for personal and professional growth.


If you're looking for a job as a manager or executive, a master's degree is usually sufficient as it offers individuals the necessary skills and knowledge in a chosen field. Depending on the field chosen, a Ph.D. program can support the development of skills that enable success, higher income, and greater responsibility in a variety of professions.

You may need four to five years to complete the coursework for your doctoral program and your dissertation.

A Ph.D. is the highest level of academic studies. A master's degree is a pathway to a doctoral degree.

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