Master’s Degree vs. PhD: Choosing the Right Grad Program for You

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at AIU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

More and more people today are pursuing graduate degrees. Meanwhile, occupations that require an advanced degree are projected to grow faster than average—9.1 percent projected growth for doctoral or professional degrees and 13.6 percent projected growth for master’s degrees between 2021 and 2031.1

If you’re considering graduate school, you might not be sure whether to pursue a master’s degree vs. PhD or applied doctorate program. Just because doctoral programs are more advanced than master’s programs doesn’t necessarily make them the better choice for everyone.

To decide, you should consider things like how long it takes to earn a PhD or doctorate vs. a master’s degree, which degree could help you more in your chosen career path and which program can help you satisfy your academic aspirations.

What Is a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is a type of graduate degree that is more advanced than a bachelor’s but less advanced than a doctorate (except in the fine arts, where an MFA is the most advanced degree you can seek and a doctorate option does not exist).

Generally speaking, it typically takes about two years to complete an on-campus master’s degree program as a full-time student, but there are a number of factors that could affect your time to graduation—how many credits you’re able to transfer-in, how many breaks you take, how many courses you take per term and how many credits are required by your program are just a few examples. Online master’s programs could provide a convenient alternative to the campus-based model, making it more feasible to manage a full-time course load. American InterContinental University’s master’s degree programs are designed as two-year programs but can often be completed in a year or less.

Benefits of a Master’s Degree Program

There are a number of potential benefits of pursuing a master’s degree program. To start with, earning a master’s degree could lead to higher weekly median earnings. Attainment of a master’s degree is also associated with a lower overall unemployment rate compared to those who have less advanced degrees.2

A master’s degree can also potentially help open up new opportunities—there are a number of career paths that require a minimum of a master’s degree to qualify for entry-level roles. If you haven’t already done so, you should utilize the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Finder to see whether a master’s degree vs. PhD vs. bachelor’s degree is required for the career path you want to pursue. And even if you’re already working in a field you love, a master’s degree might be able to open up new opportunities for advancement.

Types of Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees are very diverse. Different types of master’s degrees may be defined by the type of coursework contained in your program (humanities vs. math and science) or by the specific field (think of the MBA degree, which is neither a Master of Arts nor a Master of Science).You can pursue a master’s degree in almost any academic area of study you can think of.

Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS) degrees are similar to Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees in that MA degrees are typically conferred when you complete a program based in the humanities and MS degrees are typically conferred when you complete a program that is based in math or the sciences. However, it’s not uncommon to find that one school offers a Master of Arts in a certain area of study while another school offers a Master of Science in the same area, so make sure you’re fully aware of what you’re signing up for before you apply to any graduate program.

Other common types of master’s degrees include Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Education (M.Ed.), Master of Philosophy (MPhil) and Master of Public Health (MPH).

What Is a PhD or Applied Doctorate?

What is a PhD, and what does “PhD” stand for? A PhD degree is a research-based degree, and it stands for Doctor of Philosophy. It is a more advanced degree than a master’s degree (except in the fine arts, as described above) and can be thought of as the second level of graduate education. In most cases, you may have to earn your master’s before you can pursue a PhD program. PhD programs are typically pursued by those who want to not only acquire expertise but also to expand the body of knowledge in their field—and to do that involves research, research, research.

An applied doctorate is similar to a PhD, but the primary focus of applied doctorate programs is not research. The primary focus of applied doctorate programs is instead on developing skills that can be applied in practice (you may also hear these degrees referred to as “professional doctorates”). These doctoral programs aren’t any less rigorous or inferior to PhD programs—their focus is simply different.

Because doctoral programs are rigorous, lengthy and often more expensive, you should weigh whether your academic goals will be better served with a master’s degree vs. doctorate. You may find that the generally shorter duration and career-focused curriculum of a master’s-level degree program may be all you need to pursue your objectives.

Comparing Master’s Degree Programs vs. PhD Degree Programs

How long does it take to earn a master’s degree vs. PhD?

It typically takes longer to earn a doctoral degree than it does to earn a master’s degree. PhD programs can last five years or more,3 while the typical master’s program could take around two years to complete. At American InterContinental University, many of our master’s programs can be completed in 12 months or less. A great benefit of our online master’s degree programs is the flexibility they provide—making it possible to advance your education without rearranging your entire life and potentially graduate in less time than you might think possible.

Academic Requirements for Master’s vs. PhD Programs

Both master’s and PhD or applied doctorate programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree. Some doctoral programs, however, may require that you also possess a master’s degree, so you should always familiarize yourself with a school’s degree prerequisites. Certification or licensure may also be required. For example, AIU’s M.Ed. programs require teacher certification that is current at the time of enrollment. (Visit our Graduate Student Admissions Process page for an overview of the admissions and application process.)

Submission of a doctoral dissertation is a standard PhD requirement. A dissertation is a final scholarly document that focuses on the PhD candidate’s original research. PhD students essentially spend their entire doctoral program preparing for their dissertation. Candidates for applied doctorates may not have to submit a dissertation based on original research since these programs are not research based, but they may nonetheless have to submit a final capstone project that contributes to their area of practice.

Master’s programs do not require a dissertation, although some may include a capstone course. (AIU’s master’s in healthcare management program includes a capstone course, while our other master’s degree programs do not.)

Explore AIU’s Master’s Degree Programs

Graduate school is a big step. Earning a graduate degree could both bring a sense of pride as well as help you prepare to pursue a new career path or advancement within your current field.

Come and explore AIU’s master’s degree programs today. Or, if you’re ready to take the next step in your academic journey, apply now.

1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Projections Program, “Table 5.2 Employment, Wages and Projected Change in Employment by Typical Entry-Level Education,” (visited 8/29/2023).
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Education Pays, “Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, 2020” (visited 8/29/2023).
3 National Science Foundation (NSF), Survey of Earned Doctorates, “Table 31: Median years to doctorate, by major field of study: Selected years, 1970–2020,” (visited 8/29/2023).

American InterContinental University cannot guarantee employment, salary, or career advancement. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. REQ1944994 8/2023

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