College Series Part 3: Master’s vs Doctorate Degree

In my last year of working toward my undergraduate degree, I distinctly remember talking to my parents in the car at night when they came to visit me while I was living in the dorms. I remember telling them that I would not do any more school after I got my Bachelor’s.

I graduated with my bachelor’s degree not knowing what I wanted to do and I graduated without having a job lined up. I pretty much just graduated. To earn money, I decided to interview for some jobs, and one of them was a retail job. Just to fill up my time and my bank account. During the group interview, I realized how much these other girls seemed to love retail and sales and I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. In my head I was thinking “I’m not meant to be here.”

Obviously, I would not make a good fortune teller. It was about 7 months after telling my parents that I wouldn’t continue my education that I decided that I would apply to the master’s program that I’m currently in (and almost finished with!!). Thanks to that interview.

One of the major things to think about when continuing your education after your undergraduate degree (in the United States) is whether or not to go for a master’s or a doctorate program. I personally decided to pursue a master’s degree for multiple reasons: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to dedicate 5 to 6 years of my life to academia, and I felt like I hadn’t learned enough about linguistics to apply to a PhD program. However, there are many other things to take into consideration, whether you’re looking a master’s versus a PhD or looking into different programs.

Time & Schooling

One of the major differences between an MA and a PhD is the length of time. MAs usually take about 2 years to complete (sometimes 3 or more depending on how much you’re working, how many classes you take, etc.), while PhDs take 5 to 6 years. PhDs are a huge commitment of time, but that’s because usually doctorate programs in the United States are like Master’s + Research = PhD. The first two years of a PhD are usually coursework, like a master’s, and the years after that are spent doing research.

That being said, I know that people have done a terminal master’s degree first and then gone on to do their PhDs. Some schools will allow you some credit for your coursework done in your master’s, but other schools might want you to complete their coursework. So if someone does a terminal master’s degree AND a PhD, that would be around 8ish years of your life, while going straight into a PhD would cut that down by 2 or 3 years.Time Flies


Money is also a huge deal when thinking about pursuing education, especially if you’re already in debt a couple thousand dollars from your undergraduate education. Most master’s programs that I know of will not fund you, but it is possible to get Federal financial aid (FAFSA) which might cover most of your coursework for the two years.

For PhDs, my professor told me that most reputable programs will fund their PhD students, as this is seen as an investment on the university’s part and to academia. I’m not sure about other master’s programs, but most (if not all) PhD programs will have opportunities for their PhD students to be a teacher’s assistants, research assistants, and/or allow them to teach courses during the summer, which helps them earn money towards their education as well.

Career Possibilities

What do you think you want to do in the future? What do you want to do in the future? These are things that are difficult to foresee, but things that you might consider if you’re juggling thoughts between an MA and a PhD. Most PhD students want to be or become professors and or researchers (or researching professors/professoring researchers). Some PhD students go on to become industry researchers. In my opinion, I feel like PhDs (depending on what your subject and specialty is) usually pigeonhole someone to academia and the academic realm because if you go outside of your area and try to change your career, some people might see you as overqualified (maybe?). If you like teaching or researching, this might be the route for you. You’ll pretty much be an expert in your subject. A professional expert.

For an MA, I think it allows you a little more flexibility and people won’t see you as overqualified for certain jobs. I think going for an MA, you can speak more about the skills you gained because you won’t be deemed an expert. Of course, this all depends on what you’re studying and what kind of jobs you’re looking at, but, for example, being an MA student in the social sciences teaches you how to research, gives you reading skills, critical thinking skills, and writing skills. These jobs could apply to different things like working in social media, research, writing, editing, etc.Lecture Lecture

Knowledge about the Subject

How much do you know about the subject you want to study? If you’re dead set on studying sociology and you live, breathe, eat, and did your undergrad in sociology, you might feel more confident applying to PhD programs than someone who studied art history. Look at your background (previous experiences, majors, minors, interests) and see how or if any of these things can apply to why you want to study X in the first place.

For me, even though I studied linguistics as an undergrad, I felt like I didn’t know enough about it/I didn’t take enough classes since I really only took linguistics classes for 1 year. I didn’t feel confident in my ability as a researcher and as a linguist to apply to PhD programs (not to mention perhaps a lack of what I thought would be good-quality writing samples). I did a master’s to learn more about linguistics and to see if I wanted to pursue a PhD afterwards.

One of my colleagues studied film in undergrad, but has always been fascinated by languages. He applied and was accepted into the same program that I’m in, and is planning on pursuing a PhD in the future. Had he applied to a PhD program straight after studying film, it might have been more difficult for him to get accepted.Study, study, study

Other Reasons…

There’s a couple other reasons why I decided to go for a master’s. When I was doing my bachelor’s, I didn’t really ever have a real paying job. I wrote and edited for a travel blog (mainly as an intern-type position) and then I worked my butt off to graduate within one year of transferring. I felt like working should have been an experience that I had in college. Essentially, in deciding to do my MA, I also looked for some jobs on campus that could relate to what I wanted to do; and that’s exactly what I did. Now, I think my resume looks a little bit better than it did when I first entered graduate school. Not only did I gain more academic experience, but I gained more experience working.

If you’re still conflicted,

after reading these things to consider, I highly suggest talking to someone you trust who is familiar with your academic work–maybe a professor or a TA, or maybe a friend that you know who has gone through a master’s or a PhD. You could pick their brains and ask why they chose an MA over a PhD or vice versa; the answers are different for everyone, but ultimately you will be the one making the decision. I’m going to be cliche and say follow your heart, because if your heart is not in it, it’ll be more difficult to get through the program.

*Obviously I chose to go the MA route. Not all programs are the same and I’m just talking about my experience and things that I know and have heard about PhDs, so make sure to do research on the specific programs that you are interested in. If any information about PhDs is incorrect, please feel free to correct me. 

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