Which should you pursue? Master’s or Ph.D?

Which should you pursue? Master’s or Ph.D?

First–I love this definition of the Master’s v. Ph.D. Quora stays with the winners!

The best answer I’ve seen to this question is by Prof. Matthew Might on his blog. Like many great answers, it uses pictures (taken from The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.):

Imagine a circle that contains all of the human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty:

A master’s degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you’re at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.:


Extending this boundary of human knowledge gives you a number of other skills apart from the knowledge gained:


Ability to work independently. The degree is not conferred until the candidate has proved to experts that he or she has produced original work and advanced the state of the field in some way. Though some work may be done in collaboration, the ideas as such must originate with the degree holder.

Critical thought. Extending the state of the art cannot be done without knowing what is wrong with the current state. A Ph.D. candidate learns to critically examine the thoughts of others and pick out the pros and cons.

Perseverance. Getting the degree is a long and arduous journey that tests the determination of the candidate.

Ability to work with poorly defined goals. One of the bigger hurdles of the Ph.D. is that there is no clear cut goal. You know you have to do original research, but no one can exactly say these are the things you need to do every day to do it. Research as such involves going back and forth, exploring blind alleys and so forth.

Effective communication. The candidate must be able to communicate about his or her research effectively, at least on paper. The better candidates will be able to communicate through oral presentations as well.

Though a Master’s degree equips one with specialized knowledge, most of the above skills are not learned during a Masters degree. Do note that you don’t need any degree to acquire the above skills on your own.

A masters degree equips you to do high level, complex design and potentially lead software engineering teams.

A Ph.D. degree equips you to do original research and potentially lead R&D teams.

Now that you understand the difference what exactly are you aiming for?
There are books that emphasize the importance of questioning your intentions for of any major decision. It’s really simple. Just ask why. Why is this important to me? Why should I do this? You have to know your ‘why’ before you start the doctoral journey.
It should be more than, “I’m not ready for the workforce”. You can kinda get away with using a Masters program as a holding place for work–and even that’s a reach. Since you are increasing your competitiveness over a relatively short amount of time it’s slightly more acceptable. But the doctorate degree is another beast.
If you’re thinking about starting your doctoral studies immediately following your undergraduate degree, you are committing your formative adult years to college. There are going to be some activities you will miss, some trips you won’t be able to afford, etc. You will still be in a version of a protected environment of college if you attend graduate school full time.
If you took a break after undergrad and are deciding it’s time to go back to graduate school, you could be sacrificing a comfortable salary to live below the poverty line. You are also sacrificing happy hours and brunch every weekend in exchange for homework, grading papers, research and rough nights. The trade off is a turn off for most people. You have to enter graduate school with resolve because it is hard. And you are feeling lukewarm about any variable of the experience it will be easy to leave the situation.
So stop and figure out your why then choose your path.
Stay classy

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