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Master’s Degree vs. PhD: How to Choose the Right Graduate Program For You

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at CTU 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.

You’ve earned your bachelor’s degree. Now what? Will you dive right into the workforce, apply to graduate school or pursue your career at the same time as your graduate degree program?

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If you’re considering graduate school, you may be comparing the benefits of pursuing a master’s vs. PhD or applied doctorate program. There are a number of considerations you should take into account, including: How long does it take to earn a master’s degree vs. doctorate? How do the requirements for a master’s compare to the requirements for a PhD or applied doctorate? Are there advantages to pursuing an online master’s degree or online doctoral degree program vs. an on-campus program?

We’ll start our discussion by examining what a master’s degree is, move on to what a PhD or applied doctorate is and then compare master’s vs. PhD program requirements.

What Is a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is a type of graduate degree. In most fields, it is not a terminal degree—meaning that it is not the highest degree you can earn. The one notable exception is in the fine arts, where the master’s is a terminal degree—there is no “Doctor of Fine Arts.”

Master’s degree programs typically take around two years to complete, but this can vary depending on a number of factors—for example, the number of courses taken per term, whether courses are taken during summer and winter breaks and how many credit hours are required by the master’s program. Online master’s programs, like the fully online master’s degree programs at Colorado Technical University, may make it easier for you to complete your coursework according to your own schedule—which could enable you to take more courses per term than you could in a campus-based program and graduate in less time than you might expect.

Although not always required, some fields may require a master’s degree for entry-level positions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Finder is one resource that can help you determine whether pursuing a master’s degree (or bachelor’s or doctoral degree) is necessary to enter your chosen occupation.

Potential benefits of pursuing a master’s degree program may include:

  • Higher earning potential1
  • If continuing your studies in your current field: More advanced opportunities in your current field
  • If studying for a new field: Could help you gain new knowledge and skills to help you pursue a career change
  • May be less time-consuming than pursuing a doctoral degree program

Types of Master’s Degrees

Most people are probably familiar with the MA and MS, but other types of master’s degrees may be conferred depending upon the field.

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)— MBA degree programs focus on versatile business skills that can be applied across various industries. MBA degree program curricula typically include courses that examine the fundamentals of management, accounting, economics, marketing and other related subjects.
  • Master of Arts (MA) & Master of Science (MS)— Much like a Bachelor of Arts (BA) vs. Bachelor of Science (BS), an MA degree curriculum is typically more focused on the humanities, while an MS degree curriculum is more focused on technical and science-oriented fields.
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)— Unlike other types of master’s degrees, an MFA degree is a terminal degree. The fine arts traditionally includes literature, visual arts, plastic arts, decorative arts, performing arts, music (as composition) and architecture.2
  • Master of Education (M.Ed)— M.Ed degree programs are geared toward educational practitioners who wish to advance their knowledge of research method application, learning theory and curriculum design.

Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of types of master’s degrees—there are many others out there that align with particular fields of study—and not all schools offer all types.

What Is a PhD or Applied Doctorate?

When it comes to doctoral degrees, you can choose to pursue either a PhD or an applied doctorate.

What is a doctoral degree?

As discussed above, a doctoral degree is usually the most advanced degree you can earn in any given field.

What is a PhD, and what does PhD stand for?

PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy. PhD degree programs are focused on original research and the expansion of knowledge and understanding within a field of study.

What is an applied doctorate?

An applied doctorate (or professional doctorate) is similar to a PhD degree. However, the focus of these programs is not on conducting original research or expanding the body of knowledge in a particular area. The focus of an applied doctorate is on the development of practical skills that can be directly applied within the student’s professional field. CTU’s online doctoral programs are applied doctorate programs that are designed to challenge you and help you work to develop advanced knowledge and tools that you can apply directly in the field in which you work.

Benefits of a PhD or Applied Doctorate

The benefits of a PhD or applied doctorate are both objective and subjective.

Data suggests that the more education you have, the higher your median weekly earnings and the lower your overall unemployment tend to be.1 As doctoral degree holders have reached the highest level of formal educational achievement, it makes sense that they typically earn the most and have the lowest rate of unemployment.

Subjective benefits of a doctoral degree may include the sense of personal achievement and pride that comes with joining a distinct group of academic achievers—after all, doctoral programs are rigorous, challenging and time consuming. And any soft skills you develop during the course of your program—advanced critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, for example—should be applicable both in and out of the workplace.

Master’s Degree vs. PhD or Applied Doctorate

If you’re considering a graduate degree but still don’t know which type to pursue, you should also consider how long it takes to earn a PhD or applied doctorate and the requirements for a PhD or applied doctorate vs. the requirements for a master’s.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Master’s Degree?

Master’s degree programs can take about two years to complete, though some students may need more or less time depending on personal circumstances and the number of credit hours required. The majority of CTU’s online master’s degree programs are designed to be completed in as few as 18 months and our MBA degree program can be completed in 12 months.

Requirements for Master’s Degree

Master’s degree programs require applicants to have at least a bachelor’s degree, though not all programs require you to have the bachelor’s degree in the same or related subject. Certain programs may have required clinical components. Each of CTU’s online master’s degree programs contains a capstone course that provides an opportunity to demonstrate the knowledge and skills you’ve studied throughout your program.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a PhD or Applied Doctorate?

Time to degree can vary widely. The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides information on the median number of years taken to complete a doctoral program, and its survey data shows that in 2020, the average for all fields was 5.8 years since starting a doctoral program.3 At CTU, it’s possible to complete your doctoral program in as few as three years.

Requirements for PhD or Applied Doctorate

Doctoral degree program requirements include successful completion of assigned coursework, examinations and a dissertation. CTU’s online doctoral programs requirements include online coursework, submission of a research proposal and a final dissertation. Doctoral students must also attend at least two symposia events. Some PhD and applied doctorate degree programs may admit students who only possess a bachelor’s degree, while others require a master’s degree.

Ready to learn more? Come and explore CTU’s graduate degree programs today.

1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment, 2021,” (visited 4/24/2023). This data represents national figures and is not based on school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.
2 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “The Arts,”, (visited 4/19/2023).
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 4/19/2023).

CTU cannot guarantee employment, salary, or career advancement. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. REQ1929387 04/2023

Jan 02