Can I do a PhD after masters? How long does it take to get a PhD?

A common question that many graduate students have is whether they can pursue a PhD after completing their master’s degree.

The answer is yes, it is possible to continue your academic career by obtaining a doctoral degree in your field of study.

There are several factors that need to be considered before embarking on this path.

This article will provide an overview of the key factors students should consider when deciding whether to pursue a PhD after completing their master’s degree.

Should I get my PhD after my masters? What about industry?

Deciding whether to pursue a PhD immediately after a master’s degree or enter the workforce first depends on personal goals, interests, and circumstances. A PhD typically requires around five years of self-directed effort, similar to starting a business. If passionate about research, it might be best to begin right away.

Working in the industry before pursuing a PhD can lead to habits that may not benefit academia. Long-term relationships are essential in academia, and aggressive industry tactics might not be well-received.

Starting a PhD earlier allows for more time to produce research and establish a successful career, particularly for those considering a long-term academic path.

PhD pursuit offers flexibility in research topics and projects, enabling exploration across various subjects and building connections with professionals from different fields. This leads to unique opportunities and experiences that may not be available when working for a single company.

Considering factors like personal goals and readiness for the workload and demands of a PhD program is crucial.

Weigh the potential benefits of advancing education against the time, cost, and personal demands of a doctoral program. If a PhD aligns with one’s career aspirations and personal goals, it may be a worthwhile pursuit.

However, if the investment required outweighs the potential benefits, it might not be the best choice.

It’s always possible to try a PhD program for a year or two and then make a more informed decision based on individual experiences.

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD? Time to complete everything

Leading up to getting a PhD there are many qualifications you need to get. Here is the amount of time a typical US Doctorate can take to achieve including all of the previous qualifications. It can take up to 13 years to complete

Qualification/StageDurationCumulative Time
Bachelor’s Degree4 years (typical)4 years
Master’s Degree (optional)2 years (typical)6 years
PhD Coursework3 years (average)9 years
PhD Comprehensive Exams1-2 semesters9.5 years
PhD Dissertation Research3 years (average)12.5 years
PhD Dissertation Defense1-2 semesters13 years

The length of time to complete a PhD varies depending on several factors.

On average, in the US it takes about six years, with three years dedicated to coursework and another three years for the dissertation project.

Factors that can influence the duration include:

  • prerequisites of the program,
  • program format,
  • the student’s motivation,
  • prior knowledge,
  • personal circumstances,
  • funding and scholarship stipend, 
  • field of study,
  • dissertation topic,
  • support of the graduate advisor.

The range can be as short as three years or as long as seven to eight years, depending on the individual and the circumstances.

Do you need a master’s for a PhD? A shorter career path that doesn’t take so long.

In certain fields, such as clinical psychology, it is possible to pursue a PhD without obtaining a master’s degree first.

To do so, one must demonstrate a strong academic and research background, as well as a commitment to the field.

Here are the most important attributes if you are thinking about going straight into a PhD without a master’s:

  1. Strong academic and research background: Ensure that you have excelled in your coursework and maintained a high GPA.
  2. Undergraduate research experience: Engage in research projects during your undergraduate studies, preferably with a thesis component.
  3. Clinical exposure (if applicable): Gain relevant experience in the field to showcase your practical knowledge and commitment.
  4. Leadership experience: Participate in activities that demonstrate your ability to lead and work effectively within a team.
  5. Interpersonal skills: Develop strong communication and collaboration skills, which are essential for success in a PhD program.
  6. Clear determination: Express your dedication to pursuing a PhD directly from your undergraduate studies, highlighting your commitment to the field.
  7. Assess your certainty: Be sure that you are confident in your goals and prepared to invest the necessary effort to be competitive without a master’s degree.

By satisfying these requirements, you can better assess your eligibility to apply for a PhD without a master’s degree and potentially save time and money in the process.Top of FormBottom of Form

PhD without a Masters – How Does It Work?

Obtaining a PhD without a master’s degree is not a common path, but it is possible under certain circumstances.

Typically, a PhD candidate has an undergraduate degree with high grades, a master’s degree, and relevant research skills.

However, there are exceptions where individuals have successfully transitioned from their undergraduate studies directly to a PhD program.

One such scenario involves having a strong rapport with a potential PhD supervisor, perhaps from your undergraduate program.

This relationship can help compensate for the lack of a master’s degree, but it’s not a guarantee.

Another example is being an exceptional student with a first-class undergraduate degree and a dissertation closely aligned with the advertised PhD project.

Demonstrating an outstanding attitude and performance during your undergraduate project may give you an edge over other applicants.

In applied PhDs, practical experience can also be beneficial, particularly if it includes valuable contacts in the field.

For instance, if your PhD is related to professional sports and you have numerous connections within the industry, it may facilitate recruitment and collaboration, enhancing your chances of acceptance.

However, as with the other examples, this is not a sure-fire way to secure a position.

While securing a PhD without a master’s degree is challenging, it is not impossible. The best approach is to pursue a master’s degree, as it will better prepare you for a PhD program. Nonetheless, if you are determined to bypass the master’s route, perseverance and strategic networking can potentially lead to success.

What after Masters: MPhil or PhD?

After completing a Master’s degree, you may be considering whether to pursue an MPhil or a PhD.

Here are the differences between the two:

LevelIntermediate research degreeHighest academic research degree
ObjectiveDevelop research skillsProduce independent research contributing to the field
Duration1-2 years (full-time)3-7 years (full-time or part-time)
ScopeSmaller in scale and depthBroader scope and deeper engagement
Research FocusLess complex topicsMore complex topics
SupervisionSupervised researchSupervised research with more independence
TrainingLimitedResearch workshops, writing classes, group work, interdisciplinary modules
Career ImpactGood for research-oriented positionsGreater career advancement in academia and research
DissertationSmaller in scale and less comprehensiveLarger, more comprehensive, and novel research project

A PhD, being the highest academic title awarded for independent research, offers a broader scope and deeper engagement with complex topics than an MA or MPhil.

It can be thought of as an apprenticeship in planning and conducting your research.

The program duration ranges from three to seven years, depending on whether you choose to study full-time or part-time.

Entry is competitive, as candidates must demonstrate a strong track record of academic success.

PhD students attend research workshops, writing classes, and work in groups to explore each other’s studies.

They have opportunities to discuss their research across the university, in graduate school, and other classes. A PhD involves a multi-year project based on independent research, with support from supervisors and training that contributes to the chosen field of study.

It’s essential to have a clear idea of the topic you want to explore in-depth and the methods you plan to employ before applying for a PhD program.

Doing a PhD can be both intellectually and emotionally demanding.

However, working in a department with dedicated and talented staff, excellent supervisors, ongoing training, and support from fellow students can make the experience enjoyable and rewarding.

It is crucial to choose the right supervisor and have a good working relationship with them, as this can significantly impact your PhD journey.

Wrapping up PhD programs after a masters

Pursuing a PhD after a master’s degree is a common path for those looking to advance in academia or research-intensive careers.

While obtaining a PhD requires a significant commitment of time and resources, it can lead to prestigious positions or high-paying jobs. It is crucial to consider personal goals, interests, and the job prospects in the field before enrolling in a doctoral program.

For those considering a PhD without a master’s degree, it is essential to demonstrate a strong academic and research background and commit to the field.

The decision between an MPhil and a PhD depends on the desired scope, depth, and career impact of the research. Ultimately, individuals should carefully weigh the potential benefits against the time, cost, and personal demands of a doctoral program before making a decision.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.