Do I Need A Masters Before My PhD?

Jul 14, 2023
First, I’m going to answer this question through the lens of U.S. Universities, so if you’re applying in the EU or abroad the answer may differ.
The short answer is “No, you don’t need a masters to get into PhD programs”. But, that’s not the entire answer. While PhD programs don’t require a masters, it may make you more competitive – depending on what type of masters you get. Check out this video where I break it down, and read on.

The Arms Race In Education

More and more of the U.S. population is gaining higher education. Over the past 10 years, those with a bachelors degree have gone up XX%, and those with a graduate degree have gone up 27%, according to the US Census Bureau. This means more people have master’s degrees, and while it’s not required to get a PhD you may be competing against other candidates with more experience and more education.

If I Do Get A Masters, Does It Matter What Kind?

But just because other people have master’s degrees, doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to get one. I was recently speaking to a MIT PhD who doesn’t have a masters, but instead had 2 years working as a research associate for a think tank. That type of research experience far outweighs a masters degree. 
If you do want to get a PhD in preparation for your PhD, make sure the masters program is giving you the skills you need to be a successful PhD applicant. PhD programs are looking for people with research experience. If you’re going to spend time and money on a masters, make sure there are research opportunities. 
Doing an online degree might be more convenient, but it’s harder to get these research opportunities that will make you competitive. You may want to consider an on-campus or hybrid program to give you more chances to strengthen your research profile.
If you are pivoting to a new field, say going from computer science to psychology, a masters will definitely help. You need something to show them that you’ve bridged the gap from your earlier degree to your new field. You may not even need an entire masters, taking some prereqs or certifications may be enough. Check with admissions committees to see what they are expecting for successful candidates.

The 1 Question to Ask Yourself To Evaluate If You Need A Masters To Be Successful in PhD Admissions

Ask yourself this one question to determine if getting a master’s would help you be admitted for PhD programs: Do I have research experience?
Notice, I’m not saying “enough” research experience. Because, really once you have a semester or an internship doing research, that’s enough to get into PhD programs. The goal is not to have 5 years of research experience and 10 publications before you apply to a PhD program (although that would be nice, it’s overkill).
If you are lacking research experience and want to get your PhD, you have 3 options:
  1. Get research experience
  2. Get a masters to gain research experience
  3. Become an expert networker and marketer to get into a program
Of course people get into PhD programs without research experience, but they are rare. In general, most successful PhD applicants have some type of research experience or have considerable professional experience. Becoming an excellent networker and being able to market yourself as the best PhD candidate will go a long way, and this is a skill you can learn (in fact we teach it here). So if you feel you have enough of a research background, it’s time to focus on selling yourself to PhD committees.
If this is your first application cycle, I say give it a go with what you have. You probably have more to offer than you think.
If this is your 2nd, 3rd, or 4th attempt at PhD admissions, I suggest gaining more research experience to be competitive or improving your application materials (aka sell yourself). You can gain research experience by becoming a research assistant, coordinator, volunteer, etc., or you can start a masters where you will be working on research projects. You can also assess your networking and writing abilities, if those need an upgrade it’s time to invest in those skills so you finally get into your dream PhD.

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