The Difference Between Masters and PhD Study | FindAPhD.com

The Difference Between Masters and PhD Study

Written by Sarah Hastings-Woodhouse

The main difference between a Masters and a PhD is the purpose of each degree. A Masters degree involves expanding your understanding of existing scholarship in a particular subject area. The purpose of PhD study, on the other hand, is to make an original contribution to your field.

So, the biggest adjustment to expect as you progress from Masters to PhD study is a higher degree of independence (and responsibility). Beyond widening your expertise and improving your research skills, you’ll be expected to break new academic ground.

But exactly how will your academic life change as you make the leap from Masters student to PhD candidate? In this guide, we’ll provide a quick overview of how PhD and Masters study compare, including applications, course structure, assessment and more.

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Masters vs PhD - An Overview
Area Masters PhD
Length (full-time) 1-2 years 3-5 years
Grading Four levels (Disstiction, Merit, Pass or Fail) Pass, Resubmit or Fail
Course structure Multiple graded modules Designed by you and your supervisor
Purpose To gain an advanced understanding of a research field To develop the scholarship of a research field

Applications

If you’ve already completed an undergraduate and a Masters degree, you might consider yourself something of a university applications veteran. How different can applying for a PhD really be?

There are quite a few similarities between the Masters and the PhD application process. Both will tend to require:

As at Masters level, you’ll submit each application directly to your chosen institution, usually through the university’s own applications portal.

The process of applying for a predesigned PhD will more closely resemble that of applying for a Masters. But if you’re planning on designing a self-proposed project, you’ll be in slightly more unfamiliar territory. Rather than responding to an advertised PhD project in your application, you’ll essentially be writing that project specification yourself in the form of your research proposal.

An academic CV is only occasionally required for a Masters application, but almost always required for a PhD application. Its purpose is to summarise your professional and academic experience, in order to demonstrate that you’re well-qualified to complete the project.

It’s useful to think of applying for a PhD as similar to applying for a job. While an application for a taught programme (such as a Masters) involves communicating why you want to study the course and how you feel it will aid your academic and professional development, the focus of a PhD application should be what you can do for the institution. Remember that, if successful, you’ll become a valued member of an academic department, and that those reviewing your application are your prospective colleagues!

Applying for a PhD also requires an extra step that you won’t have encountered at Master’s level – contacting prospective supervisors. It’s often preferable to complete this stage before you submit your final application (though this can vary from institution to institution). Reaching out to supervisors can be an intimidating and confusing process, especially since you won’t have had to do anything similar for previous applications. Our handy list of dos and don’ts will help ensure you’re familiar with all the relevant etiquette before you click send!

Applying for a PhD

Want to know how to apply for a PhD in more detail? Have a read of our step-by-step doctoral application guide.

The MPhil to PhD upgrade

As we’ve said, the main difference between a Masters and a PhD is that the latter requires you to contribute original material to your field. This might be a daunting prospect, but luckily the first phase of a PhD usually acts as something of a ‘transitional’ period which should help you adapt to the demands of doctoral study.

In the UK, most PhD students are initially registered for a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree, before being 'upgraded’ to the status of full PhD candidate (this will occur after 9-18 months for full time students, or after 15-24 months for part-time students).

This first stage of your PhD will largely be spent writing up your upgrade report. The largest component of this will usually be a literature review. You’ll likely have written a literature review as part of your Masters dissertation, so this part shouldn’t be too unfamiliar. You’ll need to demonstrate a comprehensive and critical understanding of existing scholarship in your field and situate your own research within this wider academic context.

This time round, however, you’ll need to illustrate how your research will contribute something new to the field. Don’t panic, though – now isn’t the time to present any original findings in detail (save that for your final thesis). You just need to identify a gap in the academic market and indicate how you plan to fill it.

The rest of the upgrade report should illustrate how you plan to progress with your project. You will be required to include a research question, planned methodology and a rough timetable of future work. Sometimes, you’ll also submit a sample of work you’ve already done towards your thesis.

You’ll then complete an oral presentation known as the PhD upgrade viva. It’s uncommon to ‘fail’ a PhD upgrade, though you may be asked to repeat the process if there is any concern about your progress. The important thing to remember is that you won’t progress to the status of full PhD candidate until the department is satisfied that you’re ready to (and you’ll often be given a couple of shots at demonstrating this).

Course structure

The most obvious difference between a Masters and a PhD in terms of overarching course structure is length. Whereas a Masters is completed in 1-2 years, a PhD will usually take 3-4 years (if studied full-time) or 5-6 years (if studied part-time).

3-4 years may sound like a long time, but by the end of a PhD you’ll not only researched, written and defended your thesis but also amassed significant additional experience. This might include:

Despite having longer to complete it, you can expect to work at a similar level of intensity for your PhD as you did for you Masters – and to undertake a much wider variety of activities in the process.

At undergraduate and Masters level, you’ll have grown used to each year of study being structured similarly. While the complexity of material will increase as the course progresses, each academic year will have followed a similar format (a series of taught modules culminating in assessment through examination or coursework).

A PhD, by contrast, moves through a series of phases. In your first year, you’ll usually write up a comprehensive overview of existing scholarship in your field in the form of a literature review and draw up a plan for the completion of your project. Your second year will typically be dedicated to completing the bulk of your research, before you write up your final dissertation over your third and fourth years. You can find out more about each stage in our guide to the PhD journey.

Assessment

PhD candidates aren’t assessed in the same way as Masters and undergraduate students – so yes, you can wave goodbye to regular coursework and exams! You’ll only be formally ‘examined’ at two points during your programme – your PhD upgrade viva (as explained above), and your final viva voce, in which you’ll defend your final thesis in an oral examination.

This doesn’t mean it will be a complete free-for-all between these two milestones, however. Most universities will monitor your progress to make sure that you are continuing to meet the standards of the department year-on-year.

It’s common for PhD candidates to be monitored through progression reviews (which are generally annual for full-time students). You may have to submit a report outlining how your thesis has progressed to date and what your plan is for the following year, as well as any training or other university work (such as teaching) you have undertaken. If the department feels that you haven’t made sufficient progress, you may be required to register for a lower award, or to leave the university altogether.

At Masters level, you’ll have been given a grade out of 100 for each examination or piece of coursework (if in the UK) and graduated with a degree classification ranging from a Distinction to a Fail. At PhD level you won’t be ‘graded’ as such – it’s better to think of your viva examinations and progression reviews as a series of checkpoints that you’ll need to pass in order to earn your doctorate.

Ultimately, the outcome of your final viva will either be that you are awarded a PhD or that you are not (or that you might be after you’ve made some tweaks – see our full guide to viva voce results). There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ PhD in the same way that you can receive different classifications of Masters degree.


Hopefully this guide has given you some idea of how PhD and Masters study compare, and helped you feel a little less apprehensive about making the leap!

To find out more about PhD study, have a browse of the many detailed guides in our advice section.

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Last Updated: 09 June 2023