If you know you're going for a PhD, should you skip the master's? How to find a program that will allow you to head straight for the end and shave a year off your journey.
Why Get a Master's Degree?
Generally there are two reasons to earn a master's degree: as an end in itself (either just for the knowledge or for career advancement) or as a step on the road to a doctoral degree. The traditional path for someone earning a PhD is to get a bachelor's, then a master's, then a PhD, possibly with some time in the workforce along the way.
Can I Get a PhD Without a Masters Degree?
Yes and no. There are doctoral programs without masters degrees requirements, which you can go into straight out of undergrad. Additionally, some people will enter programs having graduate credit but without ever having completed the master's. However, in most cases you will still need to complete the coursework required for a masters degree; you simply do so as part of the PhD program.
For example, many universities will offer a five-year program, where the first two years are spent completing the PhD breadth requirement and also earning the master's, after which the next three are spent finishing the PhD. Because the traditional path is two years for a masters and another four years for the PhD, this allows you to save a year; partially this is because you're able to start working towards figuring out your PhD dissertation sooner.
Finding Doctoral Programs Without Masters Degrees Requirements
If you're interested in doing a combined program, there are several options available to you. One is to look specifically for a university that offers such a program. Just head to the website for the school you're interested in; it should list all of the degrees. available. As an example, suppose I wanted to get a graduate degree in computer science from Colorado State University. I go to www.cs.colostate.edu (cs standing for computer science, of course) and a few clicks takes me to a page listing the available degrees, including one combined program (BS/MS in this case).
Another option, if this isn't formally offered, is to see if you can set up your own individualized program at your university of choice.While you can certainly apply to the school's master's program, complete it with an eye to continuing, and then apply to the PhD program, another option is to see if you can be accepted directly into the PhD program. If the school doesn't officially offer a combined Masters/PhD program, you'll most likely need to talk to the professor you want to do your research with; a letter of recommendation from a professor on staff (particularly if he has tenure) can get you in to the program even if you wouldn't normally be accepted. At this point, you're likely in the same position as someone who has a masters degree in a different subject area: you may not need to get the master's en route to the PhD (although you might as well apply for it if you meet the requirements anyway a few years in) but you will have to take some extra classes to make up for the missing credit hours (and learn the material you'd normally have learned during the course of the master's).