Written by Hannah Slack
Most students will complete a Masters before going on to study a PhD. But can you do a PhD without a Masters?
The journey prior to starting a PhD can be individual and PhD students studying something similar could have very different previous experiences. Some may come straight from their previous degree and others may have years of experience in work. This can feel very confusing when you are trying to work out whether you can apply for a PhD without a Masters.
This page will explain how you can get onto a PhD programme without a Masters, and whether this could be the right choice for you.
Do you need to get a Masters to do a PhD?
The short answer is that it is possible to do a PhD without a Masters. The long answer is that it is dependent on your personal experience, your subject area, the duration of your PhD programme and the location, as requirements can vary by country. It's technically possible in any discipline, but much more common in STEM or vocational subjects. Most Arts and Humanities PhDs will require a Masters.
It's worth noting that even when a Masters is not technically a requirement for a PhD, it may still be an advantage if places are particularly competitive.
PhD in Arts and Humanities without a Masters
Though not impossible, it is more uncommon for Arts and Humanities students to make the jump from Bachelors to PhD. As these subjects require students to propose an original research project, they need to be able to justify their work in the context of a wider field before they begin. A Masters degree is designed to give students the research experience and additional taught content to be able to do this.
If a Humanities student wanted to jump straight to a PhD they would need to demonstrate extensive research experience, an advanced knowledge of an academic field and a viable topic that will generate original research.
Can you get a PhD without a Masters in the USA?
In the USA, it's fairly common for students to go straight from their undergraduate degree to a PhD. This is because universities will usually award PhD candidates a Masters degree on their way to achieving their final doctorate. American PhD programmes typically have a large taught element during the first 1-4 years, making them suitable for students who have no previously studied at the postgraduate level.
How do you know whether you need a Masters?
PhDs are typically focused on niche topics, so it’s possible to do a project that you have no direct experience in. Instead, do you have experience of research that is relevant to the subject area you want to study? This could look like independent management of a research project over an extended period of time or particular skills that would suit the type of research you want to do. Although a PhD is a time to learn, it is also worth considering whether you would feel confident in your skills and knowledge without a Masters degree.
To gauge if this could be the route for you, make sure to talk to the right people. Talk to an academic who knows you if you’re currently at university. They will be able to advise if they think you’re ready for a PhD, based on their knowledge of your academic ability. It’s also important to talk to potential supervisors at the institutions you plan to apply for. They will let you know whether they think you would be suitable based on your current academic experience.
How to get a PhD without a Masters
There is no one way to get onto a PhD programme without a Masters. Usually, the route you take will depend on your abilities and your subject’s requirements.
Apply for Integrated PhD programmes
PhDs that are four years in length may include one year of training before moving onto a three-year PhD. These programmes may be advertised as Integrated, 1+3 or as part of a Doctoral Training Programme (DTP). If you secure a position with Research Council funding, then you will be funded throughout the entirety of the programme.
An Integrated programme may include lectures, seminars and practical workshops to help improve your research skills in preparation for a PhD. Some of these programmes may offer the opportunity to complete a Masters of Research (MRes) as part of this. You would be required to finish a substantial research project in the first year of study, likely related to your PhD topic. Most Integrated programmes will assess your progress or MRes project and upon successful completion, you will be automatically enrolled onto the PhD programme.
These programmes are a good option for those struggling with the eligibility requirements to go straight onto a PhD programme. Entry onto these programmes is usually a good undergraduate degree (at least an upper 2.1) in a relevant field. They also limit some of the hassle of doing two separate postgraduate degrees. For example, you won’t have to spend time searching and applying for a PhD during your Masters year.
Looking for an integrated PhD programme?
You can browse four-year integrated PhD programmes here on FindAPhD.
Gain professional experience
The other route that students can take to get on a PhD programme without a Masters is through professional experience.
This could look like an Industrial Experience year as part of an undergraduate degree or one to many years working after completion of your previous degree. This is more common in STEM fields and subjects that are predominantly vocational, such as Social Work, Psychology and Business.
The key to optimising professional experience is to demonstrate your relevant research and transferable skills – after all, to complete a PhD you must be able to contextualise your topic in a larger research field. Usually, applicants taking this route will apply to write about a specific subject theme or case study they have professional experience working with.
Develop a strong research CV and show academic prowess
Generally this is a less common route, but a strong research CV and academic prowess may be sufficient in subjects where you apply to an advertised project. This is more common in STEM related topics.
If you’re overachieving throughout your Bachelors degree and know you want to move on to postgraduate study, it’s worthwhile talking to an academic you know or your personal tutor. They will have a better grip on your potential fit to current and future research opportunities. They can also advise you on possible internships or summer projects that could help you be more successful in PhD applications.
The benefits of professional experience or a Masters degree
There are many reasons to consider having professional experience or taking a year (or more) out before starting a PhD.
- Experience of life outside of academia – This will help you to decide whether to do a PhD for the right reasons: such as whether you really want to pursue research on a specific topic and how it might benefit your career.
- Transferable skills from professional experience benefit a PhD – Developing strong time and project management skills can help you balance the demands of a PhD. Usually professional workplaces have set working hours/days and this can teach you to have a good work life balance when working in academia.
- Connections outside of academia – Having a professional network can open up opportunities for collaboration during your PhD or help you in the non-academic job market post PhD.
- Save time and money – An application with relevant professional experience is still a competitive one and you won’t have to fund and spend additional time studying. It’s worth noting that for those that have been in work for some time, the change in earnings during a PhD could be a consideration.
But there are many reasons to consider studying for a Masters degree. It is worth considering these reasons so as to help you decide whether applying for a PhD without a Masters is for you.
- The opportunity to experience postgraduate life – A Masters is more practical and involves more independent work than an undergraduate degree. A PhD builds on this as you are expected to work independently and lead your project. A one year Masters is a good way to assess whether you would want to spend three to four years doing a PhD.
- Skills relevant for a PhD – The skills learned during a Masters could be directly applicable to a PhD in that field or a related one. It can be hard to pick a specific research topic and a Masters could help you confirm your interest or show you whether your interests lie elsewhere.
- Connections within academia – A Masters allows you to experience working with an academic supervisor and puts you in the best location to connect with other academics and PhD students.
- Competitive application – PhD applications are competitive and a Masters degree can offer specific and relevant experience.
Should you do a PhD without a Masters?
Whether you should or should not apply for a PhD without a Masters will depend on you. The first year of a PhD could also prove more difficult for you than others. Without a Masters degree you will have limited (if any) experience of maintaining a supervisor relationship, conducting original research and writing up your findings – all important parts of doing a PhD.
But it is important to remember that while it might initially feel overwhelming, that’s not to say you won’t catch up. And, as someone without a Masters, you shouldn’t face unrealistic expectations from your peers and supervisors. It is possible to have a good PhD experience with either professional experience or a Masters, or both!
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Last Updated: 30 January 2024