PhD Without Masters: Should You Apply or Not? — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
8 min readApr 18, 2023

If you have ever considered taking the leap and applying for a PhD, then you know it can be quite a daunting task. Even more challenging is targeting a PhD without masters — after all, isn’t a master’s degree usually the path to take before embarking on doctoral studies?

But let’s be honest; if you’re feeling brave enough to attempt such an ambitious feat, then why let the lack of prior qualifications hold you back? Should you attempt to go after your doctorate without first earning your master’s?

Here we discuss the pros and cons of skipping the master’s step in pursuit of a PhD and how having a master’s degree or not can influence admissions decisions when applying to doctoral programs.

Differences Between Terminal and Non-Terminal Masters Degrees

It’s important to understand that a PhD without masters is not feasible. All PhDs require the completion of a master’s degree first. The question that often arises is whether to enroll in a terminal or non-terminal master’s degree before earning a PhD. What are the differences between the two? A master’s degree is simply considered terminal or non-terminal, depending on whether or not it leads directly to a PhD.

Terminal master’s degrees are designed for those who plan to pursue a career in research or academia and provide students with advanced knowledge within a specific subject area via the completion of a thesis or project. Other terminal master’s degrees (the MBA, MPA, or MPP for example) are geared toward professionals who want an advantage in their current field, or those looking to shift careers entirely. They provide students with practical skills that can be applied directly in the workplace. In general, these programs take one to two years to complete.

Non-terminal master’s degrees are already built into an existing doctoral program. With employers now looking for candidates that possess highly advanced knowledge in their respective fields, many universities found it necessary to combine their doctoral and master’s programs into one degree to better prepare their graduates for the future workplace. Ultimately, this move towards combining degrees allows universities to better manage their resources by not having to maintain two separate degree programs.

Non-terminal master’s degrees may involve completing coursework and passing an exam to earn the degree. Alternatively, some programs require writing a shorter thesis than what is required in terminal master’s degree programs. This can help students complete their master’s degree within one year and continue to pursue their doctoral studies.

However, it is important to note that although they are meant to lead graduates back to the job market, terminal master’s degrees are not necessarily the end of the road for many students. Many graduates of terminal master’s degrees end up applying and getting admitted to doctoral programs successfully.

So what are the pros and cons of applying to PhD programs with or without a master’s degree? Does having a master’s degree increase your chance of admittance into a PhD program or not?

(Would you like to know what PhD admissions committees are looking for? Watch this quick video to find out key elements to highlight in an application)

PhD Without Masters: The Pros

Enrolling in a PhD program without having obtained a master’s degree is becoming increasingly common, and in many cases can be beneficial for those who would like to pursue further education. By skipping the master’s program, students can save time and money by bypassing an additional level of schooling.

Not having to go through the time-consuming process of obtaining a master’s degree with a full thesis cuts down the time it takes to complete the entire program significantly. This allows applicants to pursue their career goals sooner and gain experience in their field faster. This can be especially helpful for those who already have extensive experience or knowledge about their chosen field of study.

Finally, the PhD without masters can be less expensive overall since applicants are not required to pay the additional tuition or fees associated with completing a standalone master’s program. This route is especially beneficial for those students who do not have access to scholarships and other financial aid opportunities. Since many PhD programs are fully funded in the U.S., enrolling in a PhD program without a master’s degree is a great way to reduce costs.

PhD Without Masters: The Cons

While it is possible to apply to a doctoral program without having completed a master’s degree, there are a number of potential disadvantages associated with this approach. One is that holders of a master’s degree often have more background knowledge in the field they wish to pursue at the PhD level, which can lead to superior academic performance and faster completion of the program.

Additionally, universities may set higher standards for applicants who lack a master’s degree and can be less willing to admit them into their doctoral programs because they may lack certain skills or prerequisites needed for successful completion. Many competitive funding sources require applicants to possess a master’s degree to be eligible for grants or fellowships, which could limit opportunities for those who do not hold master’s degrees.

In addition, a PhD is a complex and demanding academic program that requires a great deal of dedication, hard work, and research. If you are unsure if academia is really what you want, enrolling in a PhD program without first obtaining a master’s degree can be an unwise decision as you may not understand the full scope of what you’re getting into or have the necessary skills to succeed.

Additionally, since most PhD programs require much time and energy, taking on such an undertaking without having thoroughly thought through one’s career plans could result in wasted resources if you decide that the field isn’t right for you.

Before enrolling in any doctoral program, it is important to carefully consider your long-term career objectives and make sure you have realistic expectations about the work and commitment it will take to complete the program. If your career goals remain uncertain, then taking a master’s degree first might be an appropriate path to explore before deciding whether or not to pursue a PhD.

When Is a PhD Without Masters a Good Idea?

In our opinion, your academic performance and career goals should determine if it is worth it or not to apply directly to doctoral programs without a master’s degree. If your heart is set on becoming an academic, you have already completed an undergraduate honors thesis with high marks, and have a high GPA and excellent standardized test scores (GRE), then it may be a good idea to apply directly to a PhD program instead of enrolling in a master’s program.

Your grades and research experience make you competitive and will allow you to compete with other solid applicants.

Additionally, if you already have a clear vision of your research goals and the potential impact your project can make on the field, skipping a master’s program and going straight into a doctoral program could be beneficial by allowing you to finish earlier and become the professor you were meant to be!

When Is a PhD Without Masters a Bad Idea?

If your grades are less than stellar and if you are unsure about your academic career plans, then enrolling in a terminal master’s degree is a great option to simultaneously upgrade your profile as an applicant and provide you the opportunity to explore the world of research a little bit more before the plunge into doctoral studies

Earning a master’s degree before applying to a PhD program is a great way to increase your academic credentials. If you have a so-so undergraduate GPA, acing your master’s degree classes is a great way to offset your undergraduate academic performance. It will not only boost your GPA, but also make up for eventual lower standardized test scores.

Having a master’s degree does not guarantee admission to a doctoral program, but it can influence admissions decisions and make it easier for someone to be admitted into the program. Many doctoral programs prefer applicants who already hold a master’s degree because they have had the opportunity to refine their research skills, develop their knowledge in a specific area of study, and gain additional experience working in the field.

For example, the thesis project involved in a master’s program provides the opportunity to delve deeper into a particular field that you’re interested in. It’s a good way to ensure that both research-based work and your chosen field of study are suitable for you before committing to a PhD that may take several years to complete. Another benefit of pursuing a master’s degree thesis project is that it provides the chance to collaborate closely with a supervisor.

This experience can help you grasp the ideal communication frequency and student-supervisor dynamic involved in pursuing a PhD. You can use this new knowledge to find the most appropriate supervisor for your PhD project application.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, when deciding whether to pursue a master’s degree during your doctoral studies, it is important to assess the practicality of its application. There are advantages and disadvantages in either scenario; those already holding a master’s may find themselves more prepared for the application process than those without one.

Whichever route you choose, be sure to do your research thoroughly and understand the admissions process before diving head-first into the program of your choice. Keep in mind that resources like our Application Services exist to help make this step easier.

So don’t be afraid to reach out and get the support you need! With dedication and hard work, you can achieve whatever goals you set for yourself. Next time you’re considering skipping a master’s program in your pursuit of a PhD, remember that no feat is too great if you stay focused and don’t lose sight of your ambitions!

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Philippe spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Philippe has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on April 18, 2023.

--

--

Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/