Do You Have to Do a Master’s Before a PhD?

The majority of UK universities require PhD students to possess a relevant master’s degree in addition to a bachelor’s degree at 2:1 or higher. However, several universities only require a 2:1 bachelor’s degree; there are further exceptions to these entry requirements for PhD students who are self-funding their study or possess significant professional experience in the respective field. 

Specific universities or programs may prefer that PhD applicants hold a master’s degree, but exceptional circumstances do apply, and if you can prove in your research proposal that you would make a valuable contribution to your field and clarify why you are the student who should embark on the research, a master’s degree isn’t always a pre-requisite. 

Prospective PhD candidates may have fewer options when searching for the right university and program, but if you are confident in your ability to pass your PhD viva with flying colours after submitting your thesis, it is entirely possible. Opting for the direct entry bachelor’s to PhD option is a great way to reduce the time and money spent completing your education so you can fast-track your career path. However, before you jump the gun on your master’s degree, you may also want to consider how not obtaining a master’s degree can impede your educational journey and ultimately your career objectives.

Do You Have to Do a Master’s Before a PhD?

As all universities and PhD programs set their own entry requirements, the admission criteria can vary significantly. Some PhD programs even offer dual programs, which will allow you to obtain your master’s degree while working on PhD research and coursework. To improve your chances of being accepted as a PhD student and to increase your options, a master’s degree is recommended by many in academia. As eager as you may be to get started, it may be worth considering that many UK universities now offer master’s programs which only take a year to complete. In some fields, including social sciences, finance, and economics, you can even obtain your master’s degree online.

The Pros and Cons of Applying for a PhD without a Master’s Degree

The pros

If you can hear the clock ticking on your academic career and you are keen to get started on researching for your thesis, opting to forego a master’s degree will, more often than not, save you time. As a minimum, a master’s degree will take you one year to complete; however, some students need three years to complete their master’s education.

The average annual cost of a master’s degree in the UK is £8,740; fees can vary greatly depending on the subject area, program and university. In addition to covering your tuition fees, you will also need to consider how you will support yourself while completing your master’s degree. For international students, the average cost is almost double what domestic students pay at £17,109.

While some PhD students enrol on a program through their thirst for knowledge and the opportunity to contribute to the field they are interested in, the majority of PhD candidates embark on the research to advance their careers. By skipping the 1 – 3 years that master’s degrees require, you will enter the workforce faster and obtain advanced positions in your field.

The cons

As a PhD student, you are doing something that no one has ever done before; unlike your bachelor’s degree, there are no right answers, curriculums to follow or exams to pass with flying colours. You are creating completely original knowledge. By the very nature of your PhD, you will never find the answers to your hypothesis in a book or an academic article. 

While studying for a bachelor’s degree, you will become familiar with general aspects of your discipline; your knowledge only becomes specialised through your graduation project or thesis. A master’s degree is a great opportunity to immerse yourself further into the field with its research-orientated approach. As a PhD student, you will be racking your brain within a specialised field for up to six years; being as prepared as possible is naturally highly recommended by academics who have experienced the process. 

Furthermore, a master’s degree will allow you to find your feet in the process of postgraduate study, which is naturally far more complex than an undergraduate degree. Your master’s degree can either affirm you are on the right academic path or prove that you should be on a different one if you find the subject matter less appealing and interesting than you did while being introduced to it via your bachelor’s degree.

While you can absolutely become a PhD student without acquiring a master’s degree first, one of the biggest benefits of obtaining your master’s first is your chances for success with funded programs and your preferred courses. 

When searching for a PhD course which doesn’t require you to hold a master’s degree, you will undoubtedly find that the options are slim pickings. And even if you do find courses with entry requirements that you fulfil, students with master’s degrees may still have the advantage over you. Even when master’s degrees are not a specified requirement, universities will still favour students with a master’s degree. A master’s degree will especially work in your favour if your bachelor’s degree grades aren’t above average; a master’s degree is one of the only ways to turn the tide in your favour. 

Additionally, if you do your master’s degree at the same university you want to apply to be a PhD student, the connections you make with the lecturers and other staff members will drastically increase your chances of acceptance. You will be a familiar name and show loyalty to the university. 

If you do not have the right academic background within a subject area, the chances of you being accepted into a PhD program are slim at best. So while it is possible for some people to do a PhD without a master’s degree, this won’t be the case if you have recently changed career paths and you are dipping your toes into new academic waters.

Tackling a new subject at a doctoral level, regardless of how interested you are in it, is no easy feat. It typically takes specialised knowledge to write a compelling research proposal, let alone a passable PhD thesis.

While some students can perceive spending years on their master’s degrees as a waste, this is often far from the case; during your master’s you will hone your knowledge on your definitive research topic and gather information on it. This can give you a multi-year head start on the doctoral students who have jumped straight from their bachelor’s degree into a PhD program.

How Competitive are PhD Programs?

The level of competition among PhD students is highly dependent on which PhD program you are applying for, which university you are attempting to get into as a PhD student and the level of interest in that particular program. 

With some programs, there are hundreds of applicants for every position; giving yourself the best possible chance of being accepted by completing a master’s degree prior to the PhD is highly recommended for this reason. Even if you draft the best research proposal, you still have to appear to be the best candidate for the position. If you want to be accepted into a funded PhD program, the pressure is even more intense for applicants to stand out and prove that the investment will be worth it.

Still Unsure if a PhD is Right for You?

So, is a PhD worth it? Any advice you are likely to receive online, no matter how sage, is likely to be generalised. Every student’s situation, skills and academic journey are different. With this in mind, it will always be beneficial to ask someone who knows academia and can give you advice on your particular circumstances. If you are currently a student, ask your current lecturers or other advisors within the university; ask as many people as possible, including current and former doctoral students. The information you receive here may even help inspire you on how to write your PhD personal statement.

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