Deciding to pursue a Master’s, PhD or dual degree depends on a number of factors. What kind of work do you want to do after you obtain your degree and what do you see as your career trajectory?
It is often difficult to imagine your next horizon. That is why many people recommend working for a couple of years once you have completed your undergraduate degree before embarking on an advanced course of study. This gives you time to investigate the opportunities in any given field and to get a sense of what you need to know to succeed. Taking the time to find out what kinds of careers alumni from various programs are involved in and what the market is like for jobs in a field you wish to pursue can be helpful.
In general, you will want to obtain a PhD if you are interested in a career in research or want to become a professor. Many PhDs also work in private industry, government and nonprofit organizations. If you decide to apply for a PhD, you will spend a couple of years taking classes and then move on to take your qualifying exams. You will work with an advisor to design a research project, write a dissertation with the input of a faculty committee and ‘defend’ that dissertation research in order to obtain your PhD. Talking with PhD students and doctoral candidates can help give you a good idea of what it’s like to be a PhD student. Depending on the discipline, completing a PhD can take quite a number of years.
Many students complete a Master’s degree before working on a PhD, taking some time to increase their knowledge of the field, bolster their GPA and improve their chances of getting into a program of their choice. This can be useful, but it is not necessary. Some degrees, such as an MBA (Master in Business Administration), MSW (Master in Social Work), and MFA (Master in Fine Arts), are often called terminal degrees because they do not typically lead to a PhD. Most people receiving these degrees want to enter the workplace, although many people working on MFAs do so precisely because it allows them to teach. The phrase “terminal degree” is used differently in various contexts and a good discussion can be found here.
In the last few years, many universities have started offering more “dual” degree programs. Some combine two related Master’s degrees such as an MPP ( Master in Public Policy) and an MSW or a JD (Juris Doctorate) and an MBA. These joint degrees often shorten the time it would take to do the degrees separately and allow you to get two degrees without doubling the costs of graduate school. There are also programs that combine PhDs with other courses of study, such as an MD/PhD or a JD/PhD, with the MD and JD being the professional degrees and the PhDs adding a more scholarly focus. Dual degrees can be more cost and time effective, however, the applications can be more complicated than applying for one degree. You will have to complete two applications simultaneously and also take two tests such the GRE and the LSAT.
One aspect of graduate education that students always have to consider is funding. Master’s degrees and professional degrees are usually funded by the student whereas if you apply for a PhD, you are often funded by the professor who will be your mentor. This is a common arrangement in the sciences. If you are studying for a PhD in the social sciences or humanities, you may also be funded with teaching and research assistantships. These funding options all depend on the program and the discipline that you want to pursue. Again, talking with students in various programs can be extremely helpful in determining what kind of degree(s) program will best help you meet your goals.
Here is a good discussion of whether to pursue a Master’s degree or PhD and a simple decision tree that might shed some light on the matter can be found here. However, these general discussions don’t always take into account your personal circumstances, such as family and financial obligations as well your very own determination and perseverance. Talking with those who know you well, academically, professionally and personally, can help you make the more personal decisions about how long you want to be in school and how much debt you are willing to take on.
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