Difference between a Master’s and a PhD

By: | Updated: Dec-6, 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.

Summary Table

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


master's degree graduate
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.

PhD graduation cap and gown
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.


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

Did this article help you?
Thank you!
Thank you!
What was wrong?