MS vs PhDMar 07, 2022
If you're going to commit years of your life to getting a piece of paper, wouldn't you want to make sure it's the right piece of paper?
I’m often asked “Should I do a Master’s or a PhD?”.
Like a good good scientist, or perhaps your department manager, the answer is “it depends”.
This is a tricky equation to balance. You're trying to balance your goals against your personality, time commitment, financials, and propensity for pain.
I said pain here, and really I loved grad school and would never ever take back my time there. But, there are painful moments throughout the process and sometimes the pain is a papercut, and other times more like appendicitis. So, let's do our best to make sure we commit to the right thing, before we waste too much of our precious time.
Let’s dive into the five biggest differentiators between a Master’s. and Ph.D.
1. Career Goals
Most people want to get their PhD because they have the goal to become a professor or researcher. I know I did! If this is your career goal, you must get your PhD. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about this. Done deal.
If on the other hand, you’re looking for your next promotion, a PhD isn’t usually necessary. This of course depends on your position, but you’ll know this simply by looking around your team and counting the graduate degrees. More M.S. than PhD? Boss gives no credence to a PhD? OK, M.S. is the way to go.
Your career goals might be linked to your earning potential. On average, PhDs earn 25% more than M.S professionals, and 50% more than those with a B.S. . These are median rates, and many professionals out earn their PhD counterparts. If money is your main motivator, I know there are easier ways to increase your salary than 4-6 years toiling away in the grad school dungeons. Yes, many labs/offices are in basements and it feels like a dungeon.
Weekly median salary by education attainment for 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A PhD is significantly longer than a M.S. On average, a PhD will take around 6 years [x], while Master’s degrees are roughly 2 years. Imagine where you want to be in 2-5 years. While many young professionals may be considering life changes (marriage, children, etc.) it can be daunting to map out the next few years. But, take a moment and understand your time commitment before jumping into either program.
A PhD is all about creating. Did you know a PhD is a “doctor of Philosophy”? Philosophy!! I know. I never once had a philosophy class during my engineering PhD. Although, there was the wine tasting class I never got around to taking. So maybe we would have covered it there?
Truthfully, the best explanation is that a PhD trains you to think. And it does. Because you spend a lot of time banging your head against a wall trying to figure out a nearly impossible task. At the end of your PhD you will have created something that never existed. Something new. Something that advances our understanding of the world one atom closer to truth. If you want to see this summarized with cheeky drawings, check out this great piece by Dr. Matt Might.
Alas, this process is not for the faint of heart. It requires you to independently structure and execute your projects. To fail again and again, and keep going.
A Master’s is often shorter, and thus unable to allow the rolling around in the mud and wheel spinning that is the first year of a PhD. Projects are more directed and finite. You are contributing to your field, but largely through the projects substantiated by professors. Having a roadmap and clear directions for what to do and when, is a huge benefit.
Both M.S. and PhDs require coursework, but because a M.S. is so much shorter, it may feel like the coursework is heavier. Indeed many professional M.S. degrees rely solely on coursework and don’t have a project or research component at all. This often allows professionals to work while completing their Master’s. Of course, this could leave you feeling stretched pretty thin between work and grad school. But, if you really enjoy your work or want to grow with that company, it makes sense to keep working while completing your degree.
PhDs are almost always fully funded with tuition and stipend. However, to obtain this funding one must usually commit to school full-time, and roughly 70% of PhDs are full time . Conversely, M.S. students may or may not receive funding, and many often juggle work and school. Only 40% of M.S. students are full-time .
It’s worth doing the ROI calculation to see if funding is really necessary, or simply a nice to have. You basically have 2 options: (1) go to grad school part-time while you work or (2) go to grad school full time and leave your day job. A quick example outlines the math for Options 1 and 2 in the scenario where I make $80k/year:
Option 1: If you’re making $80,000/yr and grad school is $40,000/yr this means you’re only actually making $40,000/yr after paying for tuition. (80k income - 40k tuition = 40k)
Option 2: If you had full funding your stipend would likely be around $30,000/yr. Your new “salary” is your $30k stipend, but now you have no work income, and no tuition bill, so you net 30k. (30k income - 0 tuition = 30k) Since tuition is fully covered, you’re really only losing $10,000/yr compared to working full time and taking classes. Frankly, it’s kind of nice to focus on one thing. I know this simple math doesn’t cover all the intricacies of life, but it’s worth taking the time to crunch your numbers.
Of course, there are the intangibles. A PhD does carry more prestige than your typical M.S. degree (unless per se it’s from HKS or Stanford, then by all means chin up). According to the Council of Graduates, only 23% of the 670,000 PhD applicants were accepted, while 52% of the 1.4 million M.S. candidates were accepted in 2019. Clearly there’s competition from both degrees, but the PhD is more prudent with their offers.
It can be motivating to pursue a PhD, but it doesn't guarantee you higher career placement outside of academia. A Masters is often required for upper level management roles, and this alone carries the necessary prestige.
Hopefully, these 5 main differentiators between a M.S. and PhD help you narrow down your decision. At the end of the day, it’s ultimately how you use the degree that matters. But you knew that. If you’ve made it to the end of this article, you probably have some itch you’re looking to scratch in your career. Perhaps now you have more clarity -- or more questions!
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