Five Questions to Ask If You're Deciding Between a Master's or PhD Program

By Beth Kenkel

I didn’t plan to get a master’s degree. I wanted to be a scientist and you need a PhD to be a scientist, or so I thought. So I entered a molecular and cellular biology PhD program in 2011, which I left four years later with a master’s. At the time my degree felt like a consolation prize, but in time I realized its value. My master’s strengthened my critical thinking and problem solving abilities, increased my technical know-how, and helped develop my science communication skills. Ultimately, my degree prepared me to be exactly the type of scientist I wanted to be.

But prior to graduate school, I wasn’t sure a master’s was a good decision. So how do you know if you should earn a master? Here are a few questions to help you decide if a master’s might be for you.

Selfie of Beth in the lab with a thought bubble that says "Master's... Or PhD...."

1. Are you interested in master’s-level jobs?

Ultimately a degree is a means to gain employment, so it’s important to make sure a masters helps you get a job you want. But how do you know if a masters will lead to a career you will like? Here’s two things to do to answer this question:

Look at master's-level job postings 

Look at master’s-level job postings on a job search website like Indeed. Do the job descriptions sound interesting? Is the work something you can see yourself enjoying? 

To find master’s-level postings, try adding “master’s” to your favorite search term, i.e. “biology + masters.” For lab-based roles, look for “research associate,” “associate scientist,” or “scientist.” For jobs away from the bench, look for “technical or product support specialist,” “field application scientist,” or “scientific or technical writer,” among others. Don’t discount job postings looking for PhD applicants since many will also accept applications from master’s candidates with experience. 

Use LinkedIn to see what types of jobs people with master's have

Job descriptions often fail to capture all of the responsibilities of a role, so it helps to see how people describe their actual work. To do this, try looking at LinkedIn profiles of people who have masters by using the search term “master’s degree.” Use the LinkedIn search filters to limit results to people that work in industries you’re interested in (i.e. biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, etc.) Do their jobs sound interesting? Is their career path one you could see yourself taking? If so, consider setting up an informational interview with them to learn how their master's degree prepared them for their career. 

2. Are you looking for career advancement and growth?

A master’s is a tool that can help you advance your career, promote career growth, and/or switch your field of work, both in academia and in industry. Advancing along a career path in these two fields looks different however.

In industry the career ladder is larger and there are more opportunities for promotion. It’s not uncommon for bachelor’s and master’s level scientists to have job titles also held by PhDs, i.e. Principal Scientist or Scientist I/II. Promotions don’t happen overnight though, and it might take longer to advance without a PhD, but it’s possible. 

In academia, the career ladder is smaller, but career growth is possible even if your job title doesn’t change. Master’s level training can prepare you to present your work at conferences, help with manuscript and grant preparation, and lead your own research project. 

3. Do you prefer being a generalist?

Working on a variety of projects and in different fields of research is one of the best parts of my career with a master’s. While it's possible to change fields of research with a PhD, a master’s is less specialized so it might lend itself more readily to a switch.

4. Do you want more autonomy? 

Before my master’s, I worked in an academic lab where I ran a handful of assays over and over. Everyday was the same and I was bored. I wanted more variety and more power to influence the direction of my work. My master’s gave me a deeper foundation of scientific knowledge and technical know-how that increased my autonomy and satisfaction with my work. 

5. Do you enjoy bench work?

It’s easier to stay at the bench longer (or for your whole career) with a master’s. Career advancement for PhDs, both in academia and industry, often means moving from the lab to a desk, although there’s often technical career tracks for PhDs who want to stay at the bench. So if you enjoy wielding a pipette, it might make sense to earn a master’s instead of a PhD.

Deciding to pursue a master’s is a big decision, but hopefully the questions in this blog post can help you start to figure out if a master’s is a good fit with your interests and career goals. You might still decide to earn a PhD, but if I had to do grad school over, I would just do the master’s!

If you'd like more career development tips, take a look at the Addgene Science Career Guide eBook Addgene Science Career Guide eBook.  

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Topics: Science Careers, Early Career Researcher

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