The first step in deciding on the right graduate program for you is to figure out which degree will best serve you—a master’s or a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). Here are a few factors to consider.
What are your career goals?
- Professional master’s: A good choice if you want to develop a particular skill set in order to practice a particular profession. This type of degree provides coursework focused on learning and practicing skills.
- Research master’s: A good fit if you want to gain expertise in a discipline and know how to teach it. A research master’s typically includes a research project or thesis and comprehensive exams in addition to coursework and provides experience in research and scholarship.
- Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy): Consider this option if your goal is to ground yourself in a body of research and develop the ability to add to that body of knowledge. Ph.D. study includes a major research project in addition to coursework, and a Ph.D. is the highest scholastic degree awarded by American universities. Contrary to common perception, career paths for Ph.D. graduates are quite varied, not just limited to academia. Ph.D. training helps you hones skills such as writing, research, teaching, data analysis, communicating complex topics—all of which can translate into many sectors, including industry, government, nonprofit, and entrepreneurship.
How much time do you have to pursue a graduate degree?
Master’s degrees typically take two years to complete, while Ph.D. programs generally take five to seven years (see Duke programs' time-to-degree). That is a significant difference in commitment and opportunity costs. It might also play a key role in deciding which factors take higher priority as you evaluate a program. How does the length of the program fit with your career and family plans? How important is the surrounding community if you are going to be there for seven years instead of two? How long are you able or willing to go on a limited income while in graduate school?
How much can you afford to pay for a graduate degree?
Consider your personal financial situation (e.g., how much savings and student loans do you have), as well as how much financial aid you can get. Master’s and Ph.D. programs differ greatly in the amount of financial aid available. Ph.D. programs tend to offer significantly more financial support than master’s programs (but often will have research or teaching requirements).
A typical Ph.D. financial aid package usually includes coverage of tuition and fees, a living stipend, and some level of support for health insurance for a set number of years. For instance, Duke’s standard Ph.D. package covers tuition, mandatory fees, and a stipend for five years, as well as health insurance premiums for six years.
Within an institution, the level of financial support often differs across programs, so be sure to ask your specific program about the financial aid it offers. There are also many national organizations that provide competitive fellowships and scholarships for graduate students.
Know which degree you want to pursue? Here are some key things to look for in a program.