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Different postgraduate degrees: Masters, DPhil, PhD

28 FEB 2022

These days, there is a postgraduate degree for just about every academic niche. While there are well known differences that separate professional degrees—e.g., in law (JD), medicine (MD), and business (MBA)—it can be difficult to distinguish amongst different postgraduate degrees in academic fields. What separates a doctoral program from a masters program, and which should you pursue? The aim of this post is to help you consider what kind of postgraduate degree may be the best fit for your personal goals. 


What separates a masters degree from a doctorate? Three factors: professional qualifications, time, and money. In professional terms, a PhD or a DPhil signals that you are an expert in your area of study, or in academic terms, a “Doctor of Philosophy.” If you’re aiming to become a professor, curator, or high-level researcher, you will need a doctorate. In terms of time, doctoral degrees require more of a commitment than masters. In financial terms, masters degrees generally cost more than doctorates.

These distinctions are the best known and most basic that you’ll encounter in your research about postgraduate programs. Yet, when you take a closer look at different types of doctoral degrees, the temporal and financial differences between a masters and a doctorate get complicated.

How much more time does it really take to earn a doctorate versus a masters? If you apply for a DPhil program in the UK, then you can work efficiently and graduate in as few as three years. The first year will be an entry-level masters program, from which you must graduate in order to qualify for a DPhil—and you can always choose to walk away after one year, with your masters in hand. Compare that to a US PhD program, which takes around six years to complete. Whereas most PhD programs offer you a masters after a year, the expectation is that you will continue on to earn your doctorate, unless you cannot see yourself surviving another five years in academia.

Does this mean that the DPhil is a shortcut to earning your doctorate? No. Think of the DPhil track, beginning with its one-year masters degree, as a sort of gradual on-ramp to academia, with a potentially high cost. In your initial one-year masters, you will have a chance to decide whether or not you enjoy UK academia, with all of its tutorials and traditions. In years two and three of a full-time DPhil program, you may have the opportunity to fast-track your dissertation work by focusing wholeheartedly on your research. 

In the US, PhD candidates pour the same amount of time and energy into their independent research, but they add on years to their degrees so that they also have time to teach. Whereas many DPhil candidates must pay out-of-pocket for their degrees, PhD programs assign student teaching, giving doctoral candidates a way to fund their degrees, earn a small paycheck, and gain pedagogical experience. In other words, the extra time that you spend in a PhD program is essentially your teacher training plus your part-time job to pay the university’s bill. In a DPhil, you will have to find the money to pay for your tuition either: from work that you line up for yourself or comparatively scarce academic funding.

How can these differences—between the DPhil and the PhD—help you decide whether to apply for a masters before (or instead of) a doctorate? Well, if you want to earn your doctorate as quickly as possible, but you’re not sure about the cost or speed of a DPhil, then you should apply and seek scholarship funding for a one-year masters in the UK. By midway through this year, you will know whether or not you enjoy researching without teaching—and if you are willing to foot the bill or likely to get university funding for a DPhil. If you’re not thrilled with UK academia or if the cost is too high, then you can always take your masters and use it to bolster your application to a PhD program. 

On the other hand, if you’d really like to learn to teach, are excited about earning a postgraduate degree, and don’t have money on hand to pay for a one-year masters, then you might want to apply directly to a PhD program. In the worst-case scenario, you can always graduate with a terminal masters degree. In the best-case scenario, you won’t even notice when you earn your masters, because you’ll be so caught up in teaching and gradually crafting your dissertation.

Want to chat with an expert about your options? Book a consultation with one of Crimson’s postgrad advisors!