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Master's or Doctorate?
Information Provided by Kaplan Test Prep

The two most common graduate school degrees awarded are master's and doctorates.

The Master's

A master's program will usually award an M.A. or an M.S. degree. But there are a number of other variations on these letters, especially outside the arts and sciences. A doctoral program will typically award a Ph.D. - again with some variations, such as the D.Ed. in education.

Full-time master's programs are generally one or two years long. Students generally fall into two categories:

  • Those on an "academic track," where degree programs focus on classic research and scholarship.
  • Those on the "practical track," where the degree program is actually professional training that qualifies you to enter or advance in a field such as social work or education.
The ominous-sounding label "terminal" means that this degree is considered an end in itself. In some fields, a master's degree is considered the "terminal professional degree" - that is, it provides the knowledge and training you need to join a profession.

Terminal master's degree programs are usually a lot like undergraduate school. You are expected to maintain at least a "B" average. Academic programs focus on coursework, research, and papers. Before you graduate, expect to write a thesis (a 50- to 100-page paper) demonstrating your grasp of scholarship and research in your field.

Programs in social work and education also have a practical dimension, requiring candidates to work in classrooms, clinics, and other professional settings. These programs generally take longer to complete than other master's programs. Fieldwork or additional coursework will likely take the place of the thesis.

The Doctorate

Doctoral programs are one of the most - if not the most - rigorous professional training programs. They are designed to create scholars capable of independent research that will add new and significant knowledge in their fields. Expect a multi-year program typically taking anywhere from four to seven years to complete - and sometimes even longer.

From the outset, you will be regarded as a junior colleague in the field. Your first year or two in the program will be spent on coursework, followed by "field" or "qualifying" exams - either oral, written, or both. Once you've passed those exams, demonstrating that you possess the basic factual and theoretical knowledge of your field, you will then be permitted to move on to independent research in the form of your doctoral dissertation.

Your Advisor

The person responsible for overseeing your transformation from apprentice to professional is your advisor. The person responsible for finding the right advisor is you.

Your advisor will be your mentor - helping you shape your dissertation proposal, steering you through the writing and defense of your dissertation, and hopefully recommending you for jobs when you have your degree. He or she may even employ you as a research or teaching assistant.

To put it bluntly, your relationship with your advisor will directly determine the quality of your program.

Two Paths to a Ph.D.

There are two basic ways to enter into the doctorate system. One is to get a terminal master's degree and reapply to Ph.D. programs. The other is to go directly into a doctoral program.

Starting With A Terminal Master's Degree

The terminal master's gives you flexibility. If your interests change or you decide against the doctorate, you graduate, not quit.

The terminal master's can also be a way into doctoral programs that might not accept you on the basis of your undergraduate record. This works better in some fields and programs than others. Before you decide on this course, check with doctoral programs that interest you to ensure that master's grades are seriously considered in the admissions process.

On the other hand, continuing for the doctorate means reliving the application process, sometimes even retaking the GRE. And, if you decide on a different school, it could mean pulling up stakes both academically and personally.

Starting in a terminal master's program can cost more, since master's students generally receive less financial aid than doctoral students. Additionally, completing a master's degree followed by a separate doctoral program can take longer, depending on how your master's-level work is evaluated.

Going Right Into A Doctoral Program

In many Ph.D. programs, there is no terminal master's degree - the master's is simply the first stage of Ph.D. completion. A specified amount of coursework is followed by a thesis and qualifying examinations. The master's is awarded after "satisfactory completion" of these requirements.

Although many students who enter doctoral programs continue on to get their degrees, admission to this type of program is no guarantee that you will actually go on to earn the Ph.D. You can be asked to leave, or strongly discouraged from continuing in the program if faculty decide you cannot meet the requirements. The master's degree is then a sort of consolation prize.

Which Is Best For You?

Well, it all depends on your area of interest and your professional goals. If you want to join academia and teach or research at the university level, you'll likely need a doctorate, regardless of the field. It's also virtually impossible to work as a clinical or research psychologist without the doctorate.

If you're considering social work, health care, education, or engineering, a master's degree usually provides the professional qualifications you need to move past entry-level jobs or onto a higher-paying career track.

In industry, science Ph.D.s can command significantly higher salaries than those who hold master's degrees. In areas like history or English, on the other hand, a Ph.D. primarily qualifies you for college and university teaching. Unfortunately, these jobs are so scarce that many new Ph.D.'s don't land tenure-track jobs. The alternative is usually work in publishing or related fields, which are not always the most lucrative professions either.

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