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Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.
Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Masters versus PhD

Which should you apply for?

Those who are considering going to graduate school often ask if they should apply to Masters degree or PhD programs. This is an important issue that deserves some attention. Why? When your career goals, experience, and skills match up with the type of degree you are pursuing, you will likely (1) get more out of grad school, (2) more readily see the benefits of specific hurdles you will have to pass to complete your degree, (3) have a more meaningful graduate school experience, and (4) spend the appropriate amount of time in grad school. A match between your goals, experience, skills and the type of degree programs you are applying to will also help you GET IN!

Before we discuss the factors that you should (and should not) consider when making the decision between pursuing a Masters versus a PhD, let's talk about some background inside information. Masters degree and PhD students have very different functions within a University. It will be helpful in your decision making process to understand these functions:

What is the purpose of Masters degree students for Universities? Universities admit Masters degree students to fulfill two important goals. First, it helps the University to graduate classes of prepared, professional individuals who will make good impressions in their fields. When a University produces Masters degree students who appear bright, well-educated, and valuable in the workplace, the University benefits. Employers might be more likely to hire more future graduates of that University. They may even consider partnerships with Universities that consistently turn out students who become excellent employees. Second, Universities recruit Masters degree students to make money. It may seem cynical, but Masters degree students are a big money maker for educational institutions. Universities can charge students a lot, and often pay part-time instructors (with lots of real-world experience) to teach these students little.

What is the purpose of PhD students for Universities? Universities have a different set of goals in mind with respect to PhD students. Universities acquire PhD students to serve three purposes: (1) teach undergraduates students cheaply, (2) do a lot of research and (3) make faculty members happy. Research faculty members generally love having bright, hard-working, energetic PhD students because, with their help, they can collect a lot more data and write a lot more research articles. Universities also hope PhD students will reflect a positive image of the University post-graduation, but, in my opinion, they are more focused on what PhD students can do for them while they are students than after graduation.

Now that you understand more about where a University is coming from when it accepts graduate student for both Masters and PhD programs, let's discuss the factors that you should and should not think about when deciding if you will apply to become a Masters degree or PhD student.

Factors that you SHOULD consider:

Your career goals
The most important factor in deciding if you will apply to PhD or Masters degree programs should be your career goals. There are many different types of higher degrees in psychology (read about them in two of my previous posts -- here and here) and graduate school is a major commitment so be sure to put in the time to thoroughly research which degree is best suited to your career goals. Although implied, it is worth mentioning that this also means you should have a clear idea of what your career goals are before applying to graduate school. Graduate school is an investment in time and money. Would you spend a good deal of time and money on something that you didn't know what you were going to do with? Probably not. Going to graduate school without a clear career goal is similarly inefficient.

Masters degrees and PhD are both expensive, but in different ways. Masters degrees usually involve paying a large sum for tuition. In contrast, for the majority of PhD students, tuition is waived. Earning a PhD is still expensive because it often involves being a full-time student for up to 8 years. During these years, you could be earning a full salary, rather than a meager graduate assistant's stipend (see my previous post about this issue here.) Thus, when you are deciding whether to apply for a Masters degree or a PhD, you should take time to think about your finances. While both a Masters and a PhD mean making a financial sacrifice, does one make more dollars and sense for you?

Time commitment
Another important factor to consider is that it generally takes 2 years to complete a Masters, but 4 to 8 years to complete a PhD. Think about how old you will be when you complete graduate school and reflect on this period of time in a holistic way. How does it relate with other aspects of your life and your other non-educational goals? Consider not only if you have the wherewithal to be a student for the next 2-8 years, but also how would other facets of your life (e.g., location, family, relationships) be affected by you being a student for that length of time.

Factors that you should AVOID considering:

Avoid applying for a PhD instead of a Masters because you are drawn to the status you believe it will bring you. First, keep in mind that PhDs in Psychology earn relatively small salaries in comparison to lawyers, executives, and even PhD in other fields. If a 6-figure salary is your goal, a PhD in psychology will not lead you directly to it. Second, it might seem cool to think of yourself as a "comma Ph.D." or a "Dr. So and So." Trust me, once you have your PhD, the only people who call you "Dr." are (a few of) your students and your parents.

Concerns about being not smart enough or being too smart
This may seem counterintuitive, but your level of intelligence should not be a major consideration in the decision to apply for a PhD versus a Masters degree. PhDs aren't necessarily for geniuses. Masters degrees aren't necessarily for those who are somewhat less intelligent. If you're a brilliant student, for example, but you love counseling (and not research), don't feel pressured to get a PhD. A Masters degree is likely more suited to your career goals. Similarly, if you are not a stellar student, but you love research and have a lot of experience in it, go for the PhD. Don't be intimidated because you expect to be the only average person surrounded by geniuses in grad school.

External Pressure
Finally, avoid being influenced by external sources of pressure as much as possible. For example, maybe your parents both have PhDs in Clinical Psychology and have expressed to you that they would be particularly pleased if you follow in their footsteps. Maybe you have been volunteering in a Cognitive Psychology laboratory for the past 2 years and the head faculty member and her graduate students have all strongly encouraged you to apply for a PhD in Cognitive Psychology. In both of these cases and many others, it will benefit you to separate what you want and what others want for you. After all, if you are not intrinsically motivated in graduate school, it will be long, hard and you won't get much out of it despite the time, money, and work you invest in it.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit to learn more about working with Laura to improve your application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.

About the Author
Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.