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Understanding the Master’s of Science Degree to PhD Process

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 6/22/2010

An MS degree is typically a requirement before a student can be accepted into a PhD program. However, some schools changed this process so the student can earn the Master’s degree en route to a doctoral degree. Learn about the MS to PhD degree process.

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    If you are thinking of doing a PhD, there are a few things you should know about the MS to PhD degree process. Although each university has its own rules for regulating both Master’s degree and doctoral programs, some schools offer two options to make the graduate school process easier on the student.

    The PhD is a degree higher than a Master’s degree. Consequently, it makes sense that one must hold a Master’s degree before being admitted to a doctoral program. However, some universities offer two paths to a PhD. Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of the MS to PhD process.

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    Master’s Degree First, Then PhD

    There are two major advantages to getting a Master’s degree first before you go after a PhD. First, if you already have an MS degree in a similar field to the field in which you want to pursue a PhD, you will make a smoother transition from Master’s student to doctoral student. Second, you will have the advantage of exploring different aspects of your field at the Master’s level and have a better idea of the subjects you want to focus on during the PhD.

    One of the disadvantages of getting your MS degree first is that you won’t be able to enjoy the assistantship that comes with most appointments to doctoral student status. This means you will have to self-fund your way through the Master’s degree. Second, it will typically take longer to get an MS degree and then the PhD because you have to finish one program before you start the other.

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    MS Degree en Route to PhD

    The second option you may have available to you is to earn the MS degree en route to the PhD. This process also has advantages and disadvantages. First, there is typically overlap between a Master’s degree program and a PhD. You may be able to more efficiently earn both degrees concurrently than earning each individually. Second, if your university offers assistantships to its doctoral students, you can enjoy not having to self-fund through the MS degree first.

    One disadvantage to the en route option is that you will have to make transitions from Master’s degree work to PhD work. The PhD is different from other degrees. An MS to PhD en route process may thwart your ability to make the transition from student to independent researcher because you are at least partially still thinking like a Master’s student. Another disadvantage to the en route option is that you will simultaneously be responsible for Master’s level and PhD level study. If you don’t already have another Master’s degree, the amount of graduate work required of you may be overwhelming.

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    The MS to PhD degree process can take two forms. The Master’s degree first option means you will have to self-fund your education and accept that ultimately getting through the PhD program will take a little longer. With the en route option, the process is shorter but you have to play dual roles as a Master’s student and a PhD student. Weigh the advantages and disadvantages carefully before you decide which process from MS to PhD degree is right for you.