Difference between a Master’s and a PhD

Updated on May 31, 2017

A master’s degree and a PhD are academic programs undertaken by individuals who have finished their undergraduate degree. These post-graduate programs take lots of time and money – all the more reason to sit down and analyze the difference between the two before deciding which path to take. This article explains the major differences between getting a masters degree and a PhD.


A master’s degree graduate wearing a traditional gown and cap

A master’s degree is an academic degree awarded by colleges or universities to persons who have completed a course of study and have shown mastery of a particular field of study or professional practice. Taking a master’s degree often requires an undergraduate degree, which can either be a component of an integrated course or a separate degree altogether.

A master’s degree graduate is expected to have acquired advanced knowledge of a specific area of expertise, including all theoretical and practical practices. Someone who has a master’s degree should possess superior analytical skills, critical observation, and the ability to resolve complex problems. A master’s degree holder must be able to think quickly and independently.

Titles used in master’s degrees uses the form “Master of…” where a field (e.g. Physics, Engineering, Business Administration, etc.) or a faculty (typically Arts or Science) is specified. The most common titles are Master of Science (M.S./MSc/S.M.) and Master of Arts (M.A./MA/A.M.). These master’s degrees are often a combination of research and taught material.

A PhD graduation cap and gown (regalia)

A PhD, or a Doctor of Philosophy (i.e. Ph.D. or DPhil) is a doctoral degree awarded by universities. It is given for a broad range of academic programs in the sciences (chemistry, mathematics, biology, physics), humanities (geography, history, literature, etc.) and engineering, to highlight a few. A PhD is also referred to as a terminal degree, which is either the highest university degree on the academic track, or the highest on the professional track in a particular field of study. Most universities require their professors, scientists, or researchers to have completed a PhD. People who have earned a doctorate degree can affix the title of “Doctor” to their name and use the “PhD,” “Ph.D.,” or “D.Phil” (i.e. post-nominal letters) after their name.

In the US, admission to a PhD program varies widely. Universities usually require an undergraduate degree in a related field, reasonably good grades, related academic coursework, letters of recommendation, and a good performance on a graduate exam specified by the university. Depending on the chosen field of study, a PhD program typically takes four to eight years of study.

Master’s vs PhD

So what’s the difference between a master’s and a PhD? A master’s degree is graduate study that usually takes two to three years of coursework and exams to complete. On the other hand, a PhD is a more advanced degree that could take four to eight years to finish. A doctoral degree is far more expensive than a master’s degree, and as such, more financial aid is usually in the offering compared to a master’s degree. A student is required to have finished an undergraduate course before admission to a master’s degree course. While most PhD programs require a master’s degree, some universities allow their doctoral student to earn a master’s degree at the same time.

Comparison Chart

Takes two to three years of coursework and examsTakes four to eight years of coursework and dissertation
Holders of this degree cannot teach in a universityIs required to be become a university professor
Less costly; usually no financial help is extendedVery expensive; financial aid can be granted by the university


Here’s an assistant professor in math talking about the difference between a master’s degree and a PhD.