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Can you get a PhD without a Master's?

Learn about an unconventional education path and if getting a PhD without a Master's is the right choice for you.

Apr 26, 2024
  • Education
  • Student Tips
Can you get a PhD without a Master's?

Are you considering getting a graduate degree and have just heard that you can actually jump over a Master's and go straight for a PhD? In this article, we'll explain how you can get a PhD without a Master's and if it's the right choice for you.

Master's vs PhD: Basics

Both Master's and PhD are graduate degrees focused on advanced knowledge and producing original ideas and research, culminating in a final academic paper or project. However, they differ in scope and duration.

Master's degree

A Master's degree is usually a 1 or 2-year graduate-level degree that students can pursue after getting a Bachelor's. Master's programs are designed to deepen career-oriented knowledge and skills. They often include advanced subjects related to the major and a thesis or a capstone project.

About 44% of undergraduate degree holders in the US get a Master's according to the NCES.

Can you do a PhD without a Master's? - Bachelor's to PhD statistics

PhD

A PhD (or a Doctor of Philosophy) is the most common among the highest academic level degrees and can take anywhere from 2 to 8 years. Doctorate programs typically prioritize empirical research, which is presented in the form of a dissertation before graduation.

Around 10% of Bachelor's graduates get to the Doctorate level in the US.

Can you get a PhD without a Master's?

In short, yes, you can get a PhD without a Master's. But it's not that simple and often requires preparation since Bachelor's to Master's to PhD is the most common progression in higher education.

Although it's technically possible in any field, students in STEM and vocational fields would probably have an easier time jumping from a Bachelor's to a PhD.

Also, some countries are more open to this unconventional path than others. For example, the UK has a lot of integrated PhD programs and it's quite normal to do a Doctorate right after your Bachelor's, while in the US you're generally expected to get a Master's first.

Benefits of a Bachelor's-to-PhD path

Going straight to a PhD can be a very enticing option. The most convincing benefit is that you can save resources. If your end goal always was earning a PhD then getting on this fast track instead of spending an additional couple of years on a Master's program would be an obvious choice.

Especially if you consider how much those years can cost you. Depending on your citizenship, the country you want to study in, and the program, a Master's degree can amount to $100,000, and that's only for tuition and required fees. So getting a PhD right away can significantly cut your spending on education.

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Whether or not you're eligible to get a PhD if you don't have a Master's degree depends on the specific requirements of your program. Usually, at least one of the following must be true:

  • You've completed required graduate-level courses
  • You've conducted research, published papers, or participated in conferences
  • You have many years of work experience
  • You have a promising research idea and the skills to implement it
  • Your field is very research-focused, offers integrated or fast-track programs, and the academic bar is set at the Doctorate level anyway

How to get a PhD without a Master's

There are a few different paths you can take to skip the Master's level and go right for a PhD. Which one is right for you is determined by your field and abilities.

Integrated PhD programs

Integrated PhD programs often combine the foundation and specialization courses of a Master's degree with the research of a Doctorate, allowing for a smooth transition between the two.

An integrated program is a great way to get both a PhD and a Master's degree, usually a Master of Research (MRes) or a Master of Science (MSc), in a shorter amount of time. You're required to finish a research project during the Master's part, and if you succeed, you'll be automatically enrolled in a PhD.

Start researching early

Completing a few research projects during your Bachelor's degree would definitely be an advantage. A PhD project is very demanding, so you need to demonstrate that you have the necessary skills to execute it.

It's great if you've published any research papers or presented your projects at conferences. While this is usually easier for Master's students, there are still many opportunities for undergrads to train their research abilities and explore academia.

Get work experience

Another way to gain in-depth knowledge and understanding of the field is through work experience. Especially if during that time you're able to develop an innovative research idea.

It's important to showcase your dedication to the field and emphasize relevant and transferable skills. Of course, research-related roles would be best but other professional experience could be a good fit, in particular for predominantly vocational fields like Social Work or Business.

a PhD student on the campus

Should you get a PhD without a Master's?

Getting a PhD as a Bachelor's degree holder is not for everyone. Before deciding on that, it's important to weigh the benefits of following a traditional path and starting with a Master's.

Pros of a PhD without a Master's:Cons of a PhD without a Master's:
You can save time and moneyYou might feel a skill gap and have a hard time understanding the structure of a research project
You can go straight to research and dive deeper into your passionsYou may be going for a long-term commitment without testing it first
It can be a disadvantage on your resume

A Master's is a shorter commitment and can allow you to explore your interests and the field as a whole. You have to keep in mind that a PhD would take you around 5 years to complete, with the majority of the time spent on one specific topic.

Typically, you need to propose a research idea and plan when applying for a PhD. It might not be easy to understand what that entails without working on a Master's thesis, which is usually a year-long research project. It can also be hard to dive head-first into such an intense part of academia without much previous experience.

Bottom line

Not having a Master's on your resume can be a disadvantage, particularly since it's likely that most of your competition would have it. A degree is a great way for the committee to have a confirmation of your research skills and required knowledge.

However, that doesn't mean that you won't be able to catch up. If you're really passionate about your PhD project, you'll have no problems learning along the way. Moreover, if you're coming back to academia after years of working in the industry, you could have a better understanding of what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how your findings can benefit the field.

In conclusion, if you're ready for a few hurdles and see your goals clearly, go for it!

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Keystone Team

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The Keystone Team is comprised of experienced educators and advisors dedicated to providing valuable resources and advice to students all over the world.

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