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April 15, 2006 6:13 AM   Subscribe

Do you have to have a Master's degree to get a Ph.D.?

I was just reading this question and I noticed that the OP didn't even really acknowledge that they didn't have an MA and wanted to start a Ph.D. program.
Have I been living in a cave? I ask because I'm about to start my M.Div, on the long road to getting a doctoral degree, but why the hell am I spending all this money if I can just skip the Master's and go right to Dr. Balrog?
Of course, in that case I won't be Rev. Dr. Balrog, but I always thought that it was sort of an A -> B -> C sort of progression, with the Bachelor's leading to the Master's leading to the Doctorate.
posted by Baby_Balrog to Education (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can skip the M.A. on the way to the Doctorate.
posted by Atreides at 6:21 AM on April 15, 2006

Answers will vary depending on the particular institution and field. I can tell you, though, that most graduate students in Physics in the U.S. (and, I believe, most of the natural sciences) don't do a separate Master's degree from their Ph.D. In the case of my institution, I could obtain a Master's incidentally to getting my Ph.D. — I'd just have to go & fill out some paperwork in the departmental office.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:25 AM on April 15, 2006

If you want a Ph.D. in Religion, you will be way more successful if you have some sort of Master's degree--an M.Div or an MTS. You'll get the methodological foundation and languages skills that a Ph.D. program will expect you to have.

(I went straight into a Religion Ph.D. program from undergrad and it didn't work out that well.)
posted by leesh at 6:29 AM on April 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Many/most biological sciences graduate program skip the Masters and go right to the PhD.

Most bio programs have stopped offering separate Masters programs, though. If you leave those PhD programs early, you can get take a Masters--sometimes just for coursework, but usually after writing up a shorter thesis.
posted by divka at 6:36 AM on April 15, 2006

Not doing a master's degree in the sciences is much more common in the U.S., although it still happens elsewhere. At my alma mater, you could not even apply to do a master's degree in many sciences—the degree was only for those who washed out of the PhD.
posted by grouse at 6:38 AM on April 15, 2006

Many doctoral programs include a built-in master's program during the first one to two years. You'll notice that many programs have something along the lines of "A terminal master's is not offered, but a master's degree is earned during progress toward the PhD" on their FAQ pages.
posted by trey at 6:40 AM on April 15, 2006

This is based on my own personal experience and that of my friends and family who are doing 'higher' education, so YMMV.

Like what was said above, it'll depend on the program and field. I don't know for Div, but in the hard sciences in North America from what I've seen people tend to get accepted into MA programs with a review after a year, and if they're doing well it's automatically into the PhD program. That's to keep the offer's competitive, since people are more likely to accept to the program that offers them more letters behind their name. In addition, that way if you suck they can ditch you by giving you the MA and asking you to leave, which is less painful for all involved. In small departments like Psychology 1 failed student ever 10 years can really ruin the metric, so they'd much rather give you something lesser like an MA then have the drop in their stats.

For arts it's rarer for direct entry PhD offers, although I have seen it happen in a competitive fields or for outstanding students (read: not me). Generally though arts PhD programs will require you have an MA or equilivant background (aka work experience for mature students).

Then of course you get into the issue of the so called terminal MA programs, which don't involve as much research and rely more on skills from classroom based learning. Those are directed more towards people who want to go into the field professionally, and are often said to be no good for accessing PhD programs. Mind you, I don't know anyone who's done one and tried at all, so I can't speak to whether the 'rule' actually holds.

(I know one person in my MA class of 4 who's trying this right now, but she won't hear back about acceptances for a while, so I'm not counting that one way or the other, except to say that people do try to get into PhD programs from 'terminal' MA's from time to time.)
posted by tiamat at 6:44 AM on April 15, 2006

There's no single answer to this question, it's more a question of trends. The broad trend seems to have been that the basic pathway to a doctorate has changed.

Traditionally a student would earn a Bachelor's of some kind, then earn a Master's, and the independently of that, apply for and hopefully complete a PhD.

In North America there has been a change that I have attributed (though I don't know if this is correct) mostly to increased competition for top students. In many cases now you apply to enter a PhD program directly out of a BA program. The Master's degree, in such cases, is either a) a step along the way to a PhD (before comps or dissertation) or b) something they give you as a consolation prize if you don't complete your doctorate.

Traditionally as well to earn a Master's (in the Liberal Arts in particular) it required a student to complete coursework, a comprehensive exam, and a full thesis with a formal defense - this often no longer seems to be the case. The main difference between an MA and PhD in such cases was a) length of the work and b) the level of originality - the MA wasn't required or supposed to be particularly original work while the PhD must have been.

Note that there are also terminal Master's degrees that are still standalone programs, but these are usually in slightly more applied areas of study - Public Policy, say, instead of Political Science.
posted by mikel at 6:53 AM on April 15, 2006

It definitely depends on the field. I don't know of any institution that offers a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Writing without requiring that the applicant first have a master's degree in hand, typically in a related field (classics, communications, composition, linguistics, creative writing, English literature, education research, etc.). For various reasons, I don't think this will change anytime soon.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:30 AM on April 15, 2006

In Philosophy you pretty much have to get a M.A. to get the Ph.D. . Though most programs build the Master's into the process of getting the Doctorate.

There is one thing I've learned about graduate school however. The departments have a heck of a lot more leeway to break (or bend) university rules for graduate students than for undergrads. So, you can often get them to do something special if they think you are worth it. Contact your prospective schools and inquire with them.
posted by oddman at 7:49 AM on April 15, 2006

yeah, the thing is that in a lot of fields, a terminal master's is just not worth anything. having an MA in philosophy is just a step toward getting a phd; sometimes people will transfer to a different school for the second half, but that's generally only if they are unhappy with the program.

A PhD in the US usually takes 5-7 years to complete, and in most cases you get the MA part of it done in the first 2 years. Where I am, it's another 2 years of coursework & exams for the Phd, and then the dissertation, which is what makes the length so variable.
posted by mdn at 7:57 AM on April 15, 2006

Like everyone has said, it totally depends. Not just on the field, but on the particular school as well in some cases. You sound like you know what you want with your PhD, but something to keep in mind is that life often throws things at you that you don't expect. Doing a Masters ensures that you end up with at least one graduate degree if you get halfway through your PhD and change your mind. (At least that was one of my considerations when making the choice to do my MA first.)
posted by meerkatty at 8:41 AM on April 15, 2006

In my experience advanced degrees are much less standardized than we're used to with Bachelor degrees. Depending on the institution (or even the graduate coordinator) you can probably get your degree or degrees in any order that amuses you.

I know of institutions where the Master's is terminal and you aren't allowed to apply for a doctorate; if you want their doctorate apply for that up front. Other university's throw the Master's in almost automatically with a Ph.D. I have a friend who wanted to study history without all the baggage of a four year degree and got a Masters with no Bachelor's degree.
posted by deanj at 8:52 AM on April 15, 2006

In North America there has been a change that I have attributed (though I don't know if this is correct) mostly to increased competition for top students.

USA only, as far as I can tell, although I am not particularly well versed.

Certainly there are lots of enrolled M.A.Sc. students in U of T engineering. Many of them only ever plan to do the masters, with no intention of ever doing a PhD. My sense is that many PhD bound students did a particularly fast (easy? how do you even judge) masters thesis to get on with the later work ASAP.
posted by Chuckles at 9:33 AM on April 15, 2006

At my alma mater, you could not even apply to do a master's degree in many sciences—the degree was only for those who washed out of the PhD.

Also true at the top math programs. Everybody -- to the extent that it's done without a smile -- refers to such Masters degrees as "consolation prizes". Of course they're very useful if one wants to teach.
posted by Aknaton at 9:53 AM on April 15, 2006

Depends on the field -- call the Ph.D. program you're interested in.
posted by salvia at 10:17 AM on April 15, 2006

USA only, as far as I can tell, although I am not particularly well versed.

Certainly there are lots of enrolled M.A.Sc. students in U of T engineering.

That's an engineering difference, not a Canada difference.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:33 AM on April 15, 2006

Maybe, but I was just talking with some classmates who did grad work in the US. They were talking about a masters for an aborted PhD in US engineering programs. Confusing..
posted by Chuckles at 12:15 PM on April 15, 2006

I was in Ph.D. program where after two years of courses and passing your comps, you got your M.S..

They didn't accept anyone for a terminal Master's degree. And even if you had a masters degree before you started the program, you usually wound up taking a bunch of introductory courses anyway. Not all programs are created equal in their eyes.

The M.S. could also be considered a consolation prize if you decided that you didn't want to continue in the program.
posted by bim at 2:03 PM on April 15, 2006

Certainly there are lots of enrolled M.A.Sc. students in U of T engineering.

That's an engineering difference, not a Canada difference.

Actually, I'd say it's a "sciences in Canada" difference (can't speak for Arts).

As I understand it, an MSc in the USA is usually one of 2 things:
1. a professional/terminal degree with little to no funding support available to students in the program
2. a "consolation prize" for those who can't hack the PhD, as mentioned above

In Canada, most MSc students are fully funded (either through research grants or TA-ships), and many of them go on to complete a PhD afterwards.

I'm in a Computer Science PhD program right now, and while some people start out in a Masters and "fast track" to the PhD without finishing the MSc, the majority of us (myself included) already have an MSc under our belts.
posted by sanitycheck at 12:46 AM on April 16, 2006

Yes, it depends on which country.

In Britain, you didn't use to do a masters, but now you do (usually coursework and thesis or just thesis), but the PhD has no coursework.

In the US, many doctoral programs seem to accept students directly from B.A., and include the masters (often just coursework without thesis) as part of the doctoral program.

In the Canadian system, they seem to have mixed the two with disasterous results. You do a masters (coursework and thesis) for 1-3 years, and then you enter a PhD, where you do more coursework and finally your thesis. (I love my country, but this is insane. Okay, not as insane as the Oxbridge masters students receive for turning 24, but that's insane in the opposite way.)

That said, having a masters may make you a more competitive student, and it definitely gives you time to learn languages or other skills. Students with masters also do less coursework in my doctoral program (history) than students without.

Also being Rev. Dr. is much cooler than being just plain Dr. But are you reverend if you aren't ordained? I thought the Rev. bit was from being ordained. And you can do the M.Div. without heading towards a calling - a friend of mine started her M.Div. and only realised after her program that she had a calling to ministry.
posted by jb at 1:30 PM on April 28, 2006

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