graduate school, masters or phd

The world of graduate studies is one that greatly differs from what you experienced in your undergraduate years. It is a new world of exploration, enhanced critical thinking, understanding, collaboration with supervisors and mentors, and the opportunity to develop a new lens or perspective on various facets of life within and beyond academia.

To say what degree may be best for you is nearly an impossible task because what is “right” for you will vary depending on your individual goals, skills, and perseverance. With that said, this blog is not meant to persuade you one way or the other, it is meant to highlight what both degrees can offer you, and what is involved in earning that degree. In the end, you will need to reflect on your goals (personally and career wise) to better understand what is “right” for you. What you get out of your degree depends on your personal goals, activities, teaching engagements, research positions, internships, or other work experiences that you chose to engage in while going through your studies.

Overview of a Master Degree

Generally, a Masters degree requires you to complete course work and a written thesis. During the Masters degree, you will learn about conducting research studies by going through the steps of developing a research proposal, conducting the research, doing data analysis, and then developing the implications. The program is also an incredible time to reflect on career prospects, network in the circles that you believe you want to enter, and explore a specialized topic while gaining additional qualifications that will make you more competitive in the job market, or will be a stepping stone to entering a Ph.D. program. Typically speaking, if you enter a Masters degree thinking that you will not pursue a Ph.D., you want to focus on orienting yourself toward a specific career by learning specific skills and knowledge required in the field in order to be competitive in the job market. A tip of advise is to become familiar with the career you want to pursue by networking in the circles and shadowing so that you can learn about what skills and knowledge is desirable. Then, when you are in the Masters program, work toward gaining those skills and knowledge.

Overview of a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Degree

A Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy degree, or doctorate) is considered to be the highest degree one can earn, thus, it is more advanced. Completing a Ph.D. requires a student to pass through course work, comprehensive exams, and ultimately, produce original research. In comparison to a Masters degree, there is generally less “hand holding” throughout the completion of your degree. Your supervisor helps to guide you but you are generally in full control of your research study. You are responsible for identifying your research topic and why it will add to the research literature, you are in charge of developing the methodology based on your knowledge developed from your Masters, or course work, and you are responsible to organizing the data collection, conducting the analysis and developing the implications and conclusions. Typically, Ph.D.’s are said to be geared toward people who want to be a professor or a scientist. However, in world of ever-changing job requirements with higher standards, a Ph.D. will help place you in a competitive position beyond academia because of the highly specialized skills and knowledge that you master throughout the program.

How To Choose Between A Masters and a Ph.D. Degree

When you question whether to pursue a Masters or a Ph.D., or both, it is important to address the time commitment that each degree requires. A Masters program is less time consuming than a Ph.D. in the sense that a full-time student doing a research-based Masters program typically completes the program in 2-3 years. A Ph.D. typically requires at least 4-7 years, if not longer. Some students take up to 8 or 9 years to complete their program. Intertwined with the concept of time is money. When considering what program to pursue, it is realistic to consider the financial aspect. Completing a Ph.D. does require more money (e.g., tuition, auxiliary fees, books, travel costs for presentations, resources such as books and software), and more over, while completing the Ph.D., you may not be able to earn what you consider to be a full salary because you have to dedicate time to your studies, and in turn, take time away from other paid work commitments. On the other hand, it is very possible to hold a full-time job while completing the Ph.D. program, but it will likely take longer for you to finish the program, and thus, costing you more money in tuition and auxiliary fees, for example. Finding the balance between work and school life is crucial, yet challenging. This balance will vary from person to person, but needs to be greatly considered. 

Generally, to pursue a Ph.D., students hold a Masters degree. This is not always the case as some students will complete one year of the Masters program and then “roll” into the Ph.D. program directly, and sometimes, you can directly enter a Ph.D. program right out of undergrad. In this case, when finished the Ph.D. program, the student will not hold a Masters – only a Ph.D. For the most part, students hold a Masters degree prior to beginning a Ph.D., or are “all but done”. Below are a few advantages of holding a Masters before a Ph.D.

  • Your interests and choice to topic can greatly change as you are exposed to different methodologies and epistemological beliefs, as well as becoming familiar with the research literature. Thus, when entering a Ph.D. from a Masters, you have the ability to change or tweak your research to better align with your personal interests.
  • The relationship you have with your supervisor can make or break your graduate school experience. If you are not comfortable or happy with your relationship with your supervisor during your Masters, or your research topic has changed so much that it is beyond the scope of your Masters’ supervisory, when applying for the Ph.D. program, you have the ability to “interview” other potential supervisors to see how is the best fit for you in terms of your research interests, personality, and work routine.
  • Having completed a Masters, you have experience with writing a thesis. You understand the time commitment and the several rounds of revisions that it takes to write your thesis. The process of writing will not be foreign. Also, you have experienced going through the defense so you will be better prepared and at greater ease with the process.

Whether you are thinking of pursuing a Masters degree or a Ph.D., the aspect of continual education is vital, but a key aspect is what do you choose to do with your degree. If you want to pursue a career in academia, you need to focus on publishing as often as possible, earning grants (e.g., SSHRC, OGA, CHIR), teaching, and volunteering on committees. It may be that the skills you need are teaching and educating so that you can become a professor. In this case, you need to learn how to educate students on your specialized knowledge. So, you want to gain Teaching Assistant positions or develop and teach your own course. On the other hand, if you are planning on going beyond academia to the corporate world, you need to take different steps. If you want to be a data analyst, for example, you need to hone in on your methodology and ensure that you have the knowledge and skills to pursue a career using that knowledge base. You may want to work on research projects utilizing your analysis skills, or start an internship at a company as a market research analyst, for example. The reality is that in addition to earning a degree, it is to your great advantage to gain working experience in industry while completing the program. Taking a part-time job in industry can help make you a well-rounded candidate when applying for jobs outside of academia because you are proving your ability to relate theory to practice, or real-world situations. Essentially, you are choosing what you want to get out of your degree as the degree itself does put you in a competitive advantage in the job market, but it may not be enough. You need to be able to show what you have done beyond the degree itself.

The debate about what is better, a Masters or a Ph.D., is not going to end in the foreseeable future. However, regardless of what degree you choose to pursue, ensure that you select the program that serves your unique interests, career, and personal goals. Make sure that you love what you study, and that you can see the long-term benefits of your research. The aspect of loving your research will help you persevere through the program. Speaking with an academic counsellor and having a brainstorming session with a BeMo consultant can help clarity your path. 

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