Master’s or PhD? My Advice – Follow the Funding

Feb 07, 2017 • Views 2,854

Masters vs PhD

Master’s degrees and PhDs are two very different types of postgraduate degrees that you can pursue after your undergraduate education. A full-time master’s degree is typically one to two years in length and is primarily coursework. A PhD can take five to six years to complete and typically includes two years of coursework and at least two but typically three or four years of research for a dissertation of your own design. The PhD is the higher academic award, but it is typically only considered necessary for careers in academia, such as professorships and scientific research.

Many people who have no intention of working in academia quickly abandon the idea of pursuing a PhD because of its length and its presumably limited career tracks. Also, many people assume that a PhD is more expensive than a master’s. However, neither of these assumptions are accurate. A PhD can lead to high-level positions in almost any non-academic industry and many PhD programs offer full scholarships, typically referred to as “full funding.”

So, when considering a master’s vs. a PhD for a non-academic career track, there are a few key questions you should consider, starting with:

What graduate programs offer full scholarships?

Most master’s programs do not provide full or even partial scholarships and stipends to accepted students. If a program does offer funding, full and partial scholarships are typically offered only to the most competitive candidates. There are several external fellowships to fund graduate study offered by organizations like the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, the American Society for Engineering Education, and the American Association of University Women. However, these opportunities are awarded to a very small number of people, and full fellowships for two years of graduate study are few and far between. The reality is, many graduate students rack up five to six figures in student debt over the two years of their master’s program.

On the other hand, many schools offer all their PhD students a “full funding” package (i.e., a merit-based financial aid package) when they are accepted to the program. A full funding package typically includes a full tuition scholarship and a modest annual stipend for three to five years. In most cases, doctoral students are expected to serve as graduate teaching or research assistants in exchange for the awards. This responsibility is typically complementary to your PhD research and can provide valuable teaching experience.

That said, PhD students need to live frugally to survive on annual stipends that range from $10,000 to $30,000 a year. There is also an opportunity cost to being out of the work force for six years vs. two years. However, if a graduate degree is necessary for your career goals and you are unable or unwilling to borrow the amount necessary to complete a master’s degree, a fully funded PhD can be a good alternative.

But what if I don’t want a career in academia?

Despite common perceptions, a PhD does not limit your career to positions in academia and research – in fact, I would argue it’s quite the opposite. Professionals with doctorates are found in positions as wide ranging as marketing, teaching, human resources, program management, journalism, public policy, public health, counseling, technology, finance and public administration. A PhD provides you a very valuable skill – the ability to analyze and conduct rigorous research. In addition, it gives you the opportunity to gain expertise in a niche topic, ideally in a field or industry that you want to work in long-term.

This skill and expertise can be applied in a wide variety of positions. Think about it – an excellent product manager will know how to effectively gather customer feedback and evaluate consumers’ needs to create and improve products (that’s research). A leading urban planner will know how to review and compare outcomes of policies that have worked or failed in the past in order to effectively justify a newly proposed policy (that’s analysis). A dedicated emergency manager will know what types of emergency warnings for tsunamis are effective based on the latest research in human behavior in emergencies (that’s expertise).

If you’re considering a PhD for a non-academic career track, just be sure to be strategic about the PhD program you choose. Consider your ideal position – in the private or public sector – and the type of expertise that would be most valuable for that position. For example, if your goal is to work in a tech company in Silicon Valley, a PhD in English won’t do you much good. However, a PhD in Machine Learning, Engineering or Data Science would make you a competitive candidate for six figure jobs. In addition to your career goal, consider what research question you would enjoy spending 4-6 years of your life investigating.

But am I cut out for a PhD?

You may have heard the horror stories of frazzled, isolated PhD students, always on the verge of quitting and without any job prospects. It’s true that pursuing a PhD can be physically and emotionally isolating – you are working alone on a self-led project for a period of two to four years (sometimes longer). However, most PhD students who fall behind were simply not strategic in planning their doctoral studies. Some students choose research topics that are very difficult to investigate – because they are obscure, require significant amounts of field work or administration, or lack structure. And regarding limited job prospects, this is also a symptom of poor planning. Your career goal – and the role of the PhD in getting you there – should be the most important thing you consider before selecting a PhD program and dissertation subject. Throughout your PhD, you should engage in activities that will set you up for your post-PhD dream job. Many PhD students undertake summer fellowships and jobs, attend and speak at conferences, and even do some paid work for potential employers, such as part-time research and writing. These networking opportunities are what line you up for non-academic positions after your PhD, moreso than your dissertation research.

That said, a PhD is not for everyone. Here are three prerequisites: 1) you enjoy reading (A LOT), 2) you enjoy writing and/or are an efficient writer, and 3) you have an intellectual curiosity about the topic you plan to dedicate your dissertation to. It also helps if you are someone who is relatively self-motivated, you’re ok working alone, and you can handle constructive criticism.


All of this is simply to say, if you’re considering graduate school to advance in a non-academic career track and student debt is a concern, consider a fully funded PhD. Start with your career goal and work backwards to identify a PhD program and dissertation topic that could make you a hot commodity in your industry. If you’d like to learn more about fully funded PhD programs, see my article How to Fully Fund Your PhD, which includes discipline-specific lists of universities that offer full funding to all incoming PhD students.

Also sign up to browse and bookmark more than 800 funded fellowships in ProFellow’s database, including fellowships to fund graduate and doctoral study.

© Victoria Johnson 2017, all rights reserved.

  • Methodius

    Interesting perspective! For comparison, here’s a link to Yale’s Nuno Monteiro’s take on this topic:

    He’s a PoliSCi person, though, so this might be different in other areas.

  • Duwanda Scott

    In the field of rehabilitation the US gov offers a program to Universities that does indeed pay full tuition for a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation and students in the program also receive a monthly stipend.