If you’ve been wanting to get ahead in life or teach at the college level, you may be contemplating the possibility of getting a Ph.D. A doctoral degree can prepare you for a variety of careers in the arts and sciences as well as in engineering and education. With a Ph.D., you can work at a university, in secondary education, in the government or in private-sector companies that lead many industries.

Tip

For many graduate school paths, a master's degree is not required for admission to a Ph.D. program.

Do I Need a Master’s Degree to Get a Ph.D.?

All of those options could be your future dream job, but you may be wondering, "Do I need a master’s degree to get a Ph.D.?" or "Do you have to have a master's to get a Ph.D. in psychology?" The answer isn’t so simple.

Whether or not you need a master’s degree to get a Ph.D. depends on several factors including your academic background, the requirements of the Ph.D. program you’d like to enter and the standards for the sector or industry you want to join. To find out what kind of academic path is right for you_,_ talk to people who already have a Ph.D. in your desired field and contact professors and admissions officers who represent the program to which you want to apply. They are in the best position to advise you on your future career endeavors.

Talking to people in your desired field might give you some secrets on the application process or tell you what it’s really like to have a Ph.D. in ways that reading about it on the internet just can’t do. If you’re a teacher, the people at your school might be able to tell you why you should get a Ph.D. in education. If you want to be a psychologist, you could ask some of the psychologists who work in your town. They will be the people who are best equipped to answer that question.

Requirements of the Ph.D. Program

Many Ph.D. programs have prerequisites you need to fulfill in order to be considered for admission. Some schools will require that you have a certain number of hours of coursework in a subject. Others will say straight out that you need a master’s degree to be considered. Most of these requirements vary by the individual program.

For other programs, the admission requirements are more opaque. One program might not say that it requires all applicants to have a master’s degree, but if you ask students who have been admitted to the program, you might find that all but a select few (who probably have different outstanding credentials) had already earned a master’s degree before applying to earn a Ph.D.

"Do I need a master’s degree to get a Ph.D.?" can become a complex question. To find the answer, begin by reading the requirements listed online by the particular program or programs you would like to attend. After you do that, see if you can talk to admissions officers or former or current students of the program to learn what you’ll need on your resume to get a leg up in the admissions process.

How Your Academic Background May Change the Requirements

If your academic background is different from most of the students who have matriculated from the program, you should know that your requirements may be a little different. You might have to put in more work to cover gaps in your knowledge that students from more traditional paths won’t have.

For example, if you want to study a subject in the medical field, but your undergraduate degree is in art, you’ll probably have to pass numerous prerequisite classes in the sciences for your application to be considered by your prospective program. In such instances, it may be beneficial to complete a master’s degree anyway, even though a master’s degree is not specifically listed as a requirement by the program. Doing so will not only fulfill the requirements of the program, but it will also show how serious you are about that field of study, and it will demonstrate that you are prepared to complete rigorous coursework in the field itself.

Earning a master’s degree can also help repair the damage of a less-than-stellar undergraduate performance. If your grades for your undergraduate classes are middling to poor, obtaining a master’s degree in your desired subject and earning excellent grades in all of your courses will show your prospective program that your abysmal academic record is something from the past, and it will not affect your performance in their program. In other words, earning a master’s degree with good grades can almost make bad undergraduate grades disappear.

Standards for Your Industry or Field

In many industries and fields, a doctoral degree is not required to find work, but it may make it easier for you to get the career you want. In these instances, you will find more people who have earned master’s degrees before obtaining doctoral degrees. For example, if you want to become a university professor, there are some specialties, such as creative writing, that don’t mandate a Ph.D. as a prerequisite for university teaching. However, candidates applying for jobs as university professors may find the process easier if they have more credentials, like a Ph.D. or more publications on their curriculum vitae.

In other fields, having a Ph.D. is the norm. If you want to become a scientist who leads a team of researchers, you will most likely need a Ph.D. to even be considered for the job. In these cases, you might earn a master’s degree along the way, but it will usually be conferred by the same school where you are earning your Ph.D., making the master’s degree less of a prerequisite and more of a milestone you have earned along the way to your goal.

Even in some of the sciences, a Ph.D. is not required, and you will find practitioners in those careers who have various types of master’s degrees. One such career field is psychology. If you’re wondering, “Do you have to have a master's to get a Ph.D. in psychology?” the answer is "no." Many working psychologists have a master’s in science or a master’s in social work.

Why Get a Ph.D. in Education?

While you were growing up, you probably noticed that some of your teachers and principals had “Dr.” in front of their name instead of "Mr." or "Ms." That is because they had earned a Ph.D. Though some of them probably had a Ph.D. in their particular field, others may have had a doctoral degree in education itself.

Why get a Ph.D. in education if you’re already a teacher? Earning a Ph.D. in education is most often used as a stepping stone to higher positions, such as becoming a principal. A Ph.D. in education is also suitable for students who want to become professors and teach future teachers.

People with doctoral degrees in education also write books about education and conduct psychological research on the process of learning. You may have already noticed that teachers are very talented people.

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About the Author

Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.