Do You Need a Masters to Get a PhD?

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Do you need a masters to get a PhD? If you have a bachelors and are considering going for a doctorate, you might be wondering this same question.

Do You Need a Masters to Get a PhD

Options vary by program and school, but many schools do provide opportunities for students to apply to a PhD program without a masters degree.

Going directly from a bachelors to PhD can have a number of pros and cons, depending on your situation.

Do You Need a Masters to Get a PhD?

PhD students studying together in library

Many universities allow you to apply to a PhD program without a masters degree. Some schools will require that you earn a masters along the way, though. By getting a PhD without a masters, you may have a chance to save time and money.

That said, it may be more difficult to get accepted or to compete with other applicants if you don’t already have a masters. If you are hoping to skip the masters degree, you’ll likely need prior upper-division coursework aligned with your PhD objectives. This coursework may be completed in your bachelor program, if available.

If you’re pivoting to a new academic field of inquiry or to a new career, getting a masters degree may be more realistic and advantageous. Post-baccalaureate course credits and work experience related to your area of academic interest may add to your qualifications for going straight into a PhD program without a masters.

Getting a PhD without a masters is not uncommon, but you also have the options of getting a masters first or applying to a PhD program that allows you to earn a masters along the way.

Should I Go Straight to PhD After Bachelors?

PhD student studying

You’ll likely save time and money if you directly pursue a PhD after bachelors. It is helpful to keep in mind, though, that PhD programs require time and extensive research. One advantage with the masters before PhD pathway is that it gives you a chance to explore the graduate program without making a full commitment to a longer PhD track.

If you were to decide after a year or two that a lengthy PhD program is just not right for you, then you can end your study and likely have a masters in hand as a reward for your efforts.

If you go straight into a PhD program that doesn’t include a masters along the way, then you may leave largely empty handed if you don’t finish or don’t complete your dissertation, despite years of study and tuition costs. That said, it could certainly make sense for you to go straight into a PhD program, depending on your circumstances.

If you have a strong interest in your chosen academic field and have some experience studying and working in that field, then it may be advantageous to go straight into a PhD program that’s aligned with your interests and career goals.

Can You Get a PhD Without a Masters?

PhD students in university class

Going straight for a PhD after a bachelors degree can be done, though the options will vary from school to school.

Universities that allow you to apply to a PhD program without a masters will likely require you to hold a bachelors in a subject area that is the same as or closely related to the PhD program. In most cases school admission officers may also be looking for evidence that you are prepared for the academic challenges of a PhD program.

You may want to consider what work or learning achievements can help qualify you for admissions. Those qualifications can then be presented in a resume or in letters of recommendation.

Some schools may only qualify you if you have other course work, subject-area certifications, or work experience related to the field, in addition to your bachelor’s degree.

Should I Get a Masters or a PhD?

PhD student studying in university library

While both graduate programs involve advanced coursework and at least some research, there are several factors to consider when deciding whether to get a masters or a PhD.

A masters might be best when:

  • You’re seeking to fulfill specific job requirements. For example, a masters is needed to work as an IT specialist, a secondary teacher, therapist, accountant, or business manager.
  • You want to qualify for promotions. A masters can help you advance your skills and knowledge to qualify for promotions in your field. A PhD is often not required to work in roles that have more responsibility, that require more expertise, or that lead to greater seniority.
  • Your bachelors is not conducive with your career goals. If you have a bachelor’s degree that is not well aligned with your present career goals or interests, a masters may allow you to quickly gain a strong foundation to help you pivot to a new career.

A Ph.D. might be best when:

  • You want to dive into research. If your academic interests include doing extensive, original research that advances knowledge in your area of specialization, then getting a PhD may be the path for you.
  • You want a career in academia. If your goal is to pursue a career in academia and either teach at a university or engage in original research for consulting or advocacy work, you’ll likely need a PhD to qualify and to acquire the needed expertise.

Can You Get a PhD Without a Bachelors?

You will need a bachelors before you can qualify to get into a PhD program. If your interests or your specific career goals dictate getting a PhD, you may save time and money by going straight into a PhD program once you have completed your bachelors.

Even if you decide to get a masters before entering a PhD program or earn one as part of a PhD program, you’ll first need to get a bachelors.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Masters vs. PhD?

PhD students studying together in library

Since getting a graduate degree requires you to have a bachelors beforehand, you will already have completed all or most of any required lower-division general education requirements.

Even though the time it takes will vary by university and program, you should be able to get a masters in about 1 to 2 years. A PhD program entails more extensive research and dissertation writing requirements, so it typically takes 3 to 5 years to get a PhD.

Any capstone project, whether for a masters or a PhD—such as a practicum, internship, or dissertation—may factor in to how long it can take you to receive your degree.

Is It Easier to Get into a PhD Program with a Masters?

PhD students taking exam in university classroom

Earning your master’s degree prior to applying to a PhD program may offer some advantages. Having a bachelors may qualify you to apply for PhD programs at many universities.

On the other hand, a bachelors may not provide you with the qualifications you need to get accepted or to be competitive with other applicants, especially in high-demand programs or at more selective schools.

Getting a masters first can be a great way to sharpen your academic skills and to build a more impressive academic resume, making you a more qualified and competitive PhD program applicant.

Your masters program coursework and research may also help you identify the areas of specialized research that will most interest you in your PhD program. This can allow you to be more selective about schools, identifying the ones that are best aligned with your interests or that have the most promising academic colleagues.

Last but not least, getting a masters can help prepare and motivate you to do the kind of extensive research and writing required by a PhD program.

What Is the Difference Between a Masters vs. PhD?

PhD student participating in class

With a masters program, you can quickly access upper-division course work that gives you mastery of core knowledge and expertise in your area of academic study.

A masters is likely to be a great way to increase your job qualifications with just a couple years of study. Career fields that can benefit from a masters include technology, engineering, communications, finance, counseling, business management, or organizational leadership.

A PhD may be required if you want to get the best jobs in senior administration, analysis, consulting, or advocacy roles in school administration. A PhD may also be needed for certain roles in leadership development, in the social sciences, or in public policy.

If you’re studying the humanities and want to work in academia as a university professor and researcher, for example, you’ll likely need a PhD. For some roles, you may also benefit from the research skills and expertise you gain from a PhD program.

Getting Your PhD Online

Getting Your PhD Online

Earning a PhD means you have the chance to become a thought leader in your field down the road.

Whatever your area of academic interest, there are many accredited schools that will allow you to get a PhD, even without a masters. Many of these schools also offer accredited online programs to provide study options tailored to your needs.

It’s never too early to start exploring accredited online PhD programs to find the one the best suits your needs and your career goals.

Keith Nickolaus
Keith Nickolaus
Keith has a Ph.D. and Master's in Comparative Literature from the University of California - Berkeley and a Bachelor's in Literature from the University of California - Santa Cruz. A retired educator, Keith lives in Berkeley and researches and writes about trends in innovation, policy, and education leadership.