Master’s vs Ph.D. Degrees for Graduate Students

For recent grads of a bachelor's program, the idea of spending several more years on a master's or Ph.D. is often the further thing from their mind. While the vast majority of industries only require a bachelor's degree to begin work in the field, more employers are starting to prefer candidates with a graduate-level education. In fact, employers in a number of industries simply require candidates to hold a master's degree or Ph.D. before they will even consider them.

Below are a list of career paths that require job candidates to hold at least a master's degree. Typically, master's programs require a time commitment of up to five semesters (about two to three years). Earning a master's degree in the following fields will ensure you have the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed.

Education Administration: Many careers in education administration require candidates to hold an advanced degree. A master's is usually enough to prove you have the professional qualifications to handle the more advanced positions found throughout the industry. Courses you may want to take as a master's candidate in education administration include School Leadership and Management Practices, School Policy and Law, and Principalship P-12 (preschool through 12th grade). In addition to the master's degree, education administrators must obtain licensure in the state where they plan to work.

Environmental Science: Thanks to a growing number of positions — as well as the appealing ‘outdoor work' aspect — environmental science is poised to become a very popular career choice in the coming years. Many careers in science often require a master's degree or higher in order to be considered for employment, and environmental science is no exception. Earning a master's in this field provides you with a deeper knowledge of environmental science, as well as the various laws and policies that currently impact the field. Courses that budding environmental scientists should expect to take include Applied Ecology, Environmental Chemistry, and Environmental Policy.

Executive-Level Business Management: These days, it's all but impossible to break into executive-level business management without a master's degree. Possessing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree proves to prospective employers that you have the executive leadership skills needed to keep their company running smoothly. Some courses you can expect to take as a master's degree candidate in business include Financial Reporting and Control, Leadership and Organizational Behavior, Marketing, and Entrepreneurial Finance.

Mental Health Counseling: Today, there are more than 100,000 licensed mental health counselors in the United States. Counseling a patient on his or her mental health requires high level skills in critical thinking, as well as a deep knowledge of many theories and practices that can be used to treat psychological distress. A bachelor's degree in psychology is usually recommended before taking the plunge into a mental health counseling graduate program. Some courses you might expect to take as a master's degree candidate in mental health counseling include Developmental Psychology, Group Dynamics and Group Counseling, Psychopathology, and Multicultural Issues in Counseling.

Physical Therapy: Providing patients with effective physical therapy requires years of education and experience. Like other medically-trained professionals, physical therapists often take on a great amount of responsibility in ensuring the physical limitations faced by their patients improve over time. As a result, employers of physical therapists often require that they hold a master's degree or higher in the field before being hired. A few courses one might expect to take in a physical therapy master's degree program are Foundations of Patient Care, Human Physiology and Exercise Physiology, Structure and Function of the Nervous System, and Musculoskeletal Examination. In addition to accredited degrees, the American Physical Therapy Association lists several professional certificates and other credentials that can be used to launch a successful PT career.

Below is a list of fields that will most likely require all job candidates to hold a Ph.D. at minimum. These roles often involve a tremendous amount of responsibility and field-specific knowledge. Not being adequately prepared with several years of advanced graduate education (often seven years or more) could make a huge difference down the road.

Medicine (General Physicians, Surgeons, etc): It should come as no surprise that earning a Ph.D. (or equivalent) in medicine is a steadfast requirement for most medical practitioners. General physicians and surgeons take on an awesome level of responsibility when it comes to applying their years of medical knowledge when treating and diagnosing their patients. One wrong move could lead to malpractice lawsuits, or worse, having one's medical license revoked. Therefore, earning a doctorate is often the best way to show that you have the dedication, learning, and skills needed to become an excellent medical doctor. A Doctor of Medicine curriculum typically includes courses in Molecular Biology, Human Anatomy and Pathology, Medical Diagnosis, and Pharmacology.

Veterinary Medicine: A passion for taking care of animals and good business sense are just two of the most important qualities for veterinarians. Providing quality healthcare to our beloved pets and animals often requires the same degree of competency and skill as physicians who treat humans—and in some cases, more so. Like medical practitioners, veterinarians also face a significant amount of responsibility when it comes to ensuring their patients receive adequate medical attention. Courses you can expect to take in a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program include Principles of Veterinary Anatomy and Embryology, Veterinary Cell Biology, Basic Comparative Animal Nutrition, and Veterinary Ethics and Jurisprudence.

Law: Understanding the ins and outs of the American legal system is going to require much more than just a normal advanced degree. Earning a doctorate (or Juris Doctor) in the field of law provides the minimum level of knowledge needed to effectively navigate the labyrinthine web of codes and laws that make up our legal system. Courses you can expect to take as a budding practitioner of the law include Administrative Law, Antitrust Law, and History of the American Legal System, as well as several specialized courses based on your chosen legal specialization. In addition to J.D. credentials, the American Bar Association lists several job-hunting tips for aspiring attorneys.

Psychology: Because understanding the mind on a clinical level requires many years of careful study and training, psychologists often require a doctorate in their field before they are able to practice. Like mental health counselors, psychiatrists should have an in-depth understanding of human psychology. The ability to counsel patients on mental health, however, comprises a small but very important part of a psychiatrist's overall job responsibilities. Some typical courses you can expect to find in psychology doctoral programs include Statistics, Developmental Psychopathology, Clinical Research Methods, and Foundations of Psychotherapy. The American Psychological Association provides an extensive career guide for new professionals.

Academia: If teaching and learning all there is to know about your chosen field is your ideal career path, becoming a valuable member of academia is certainly a great option. Professors are required to be paragons within the field they choose to specialize in and earning a Ph.D. should only be the beginning of a lifelong learning process. In addition to the field-specific curriculum professors-to-be must take as Ph.D. students, several courses in teaching and research methodology should also be taken to help prepare them for a career in academia.

Earning an advanced degree can also mean great things when it comes to potential salary. Most employers value the hard skills and knowledge acquired by job candidates who hold a master's degree or doctorate, particularly if their degree is in a related field. Below is a comparison of salaries one can expect with a master's degree or a Ph.D.

‘What's It Worth?', an informative report published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, provides an overview of salaries in several different fields for both master's and doctoral degree holders. Fields where having a Ph.D. over a master's degree may not make much difference in terms of salary include communications and journalism, industrial arts and consumer services, and education. In these fields, holding a doctorate will only increase your salary earnings potential by $15,000 per year at the most.

Fields where holding a doctorate could provide a generous salary increase over those with only a master's degree include engineering, physical sciences, social sciences and biological sciences. In these cases, the potential salary earnings for those with a Ph.D. can be $30,000 higher per year than those with just a master's degree. This is largely due to the level of knowledge that is required to take on high-paying roles in these fields.

Earning a master's degree or Ph.D. is an excellent way to prove yourself in your chosen career path. There are several occupations that require either degree in order to effectively take on the responsibilities of the role. On the other hand, there are occupations where having the highest degree you can get (i.e. a doctorate) will not increase your salary potential or your chances of getting hired. Therefore, taking some time to research the difference between earning a master's degree or a Ph.D. in your chosen field could help save you a substantial amount of time and money in the long run.