Tag Archives: MA vs PhD programs

What is the difference between applying to MA and PhD programs?

This is a good question to ask yourself before you look into programs. Some programs offer direct-entry to the PhD program; this does not mean you will not have to complete the equivalent coursework of a master’s degree, but given satisfactory completion of master’s work, you’ll be allowed to progress to the PhD level with that department.

If you have a bachelor’s degree and you are deciding whether to apply to MA programs or directly to PhD programs, here are a few important things to consider:

  • Most PhD programs offer funding along with acceptance; this is not true of most MA programs.
  • Acceptance is more competitive for PhD programs. It is more comparable to the competition to get a scholarship than it is to admissions for undergraduate programs.
  • MA programs usually take 1-2 years to complete. PhD programs usually require 5-7 years past undergraduate (but actually completing the dissertation can take even longer than this statistic suggests).
  • Just because a school offers you acceptance to their MA program does not mean that you will have an “in” to progress to the PhD. In fact, many competitive schools do not feed their PhD programs from their own terminal MA programs.
  • If you are applying directly to the PhD with a BA, it is important to look carefully into each school’s directions for the application. Some will want to you choose the MA program on the application, but then indicate your intention to continue through the PhD in your personal statement. Others will have a specific option for direct-entry to the PhD.
  • Some schools will still consider you for their MA programs even if you don’t get into the PhD directly. While this can be a fall back, if you are not confident that you are qualified for the PhD program, there is no guarantee that your application will get referred to the MA program unless you apply for it.
  • While MA programs (in general) improve your pay scale and your qualifications for jobs, a PhD can actually over-qualify you for many jobs. Earning more money and/or improving your qualifications for any job that does not specifically require a PhD are not good reasons to apply to PhD programs.
  • Unless you eventually hope to get into a top-tier PhD program with your MA, where your degree came from matters more with the PhD than is does with the MA. If you’re a high school teacher and you go back to get an Masters in Education, in the end, the degree matters more than where it came from. This is unfortunately not the case with PhD programs; it is generally not worthwhile to pursue a PhD from a program that does not have the resources available for you to do research in your specific field and has limited success in finding tenure-track jobs for its recent graduates.

More than anything, I wish someone would have stressed this point to me before I applied. I mentioned before that the competitiveness of top PhD program is akin to the competition for a scholarship. You can imagine when you are applying to a prestigious scholarship, there may be many applicants who are qualified to receive the scholarship, but the selection committee only has so much money to offer to the applicants. Once the applicant pool has been whittled down to its most competitive applicants, it is the subjective process of judging personal statements and/or samples of the students’ work that ultimately determines who gets the scholarship. Admissions to a PhD program is exactly this: there are too many qualified applicants and not enough funding to go around. Therefore, “fit” is everything when it comes to getting accepted to a PhD program – not necessarily your GPA or GRE scores.

When I first sent one of my recommenders a list of the schools I was applying to, he sent me back an email commenting on how my list didn’t have any “back up schools.” At first I was offended – if he was writing my letters of recommendation, did he really think I didn’t have a chance at getting into any of the “top” programs? However, he ended up being completely right. Admissions to those programs was far more competitive than I originally thought, and getting into an MA program helped me keep my sanity knowing IĀ stillĀ had the option to go to graduate school if I didn’t get into any PhD programs.