By Karly B., MPP Tutor

You’ve made it to senior year and decided that you want to go to graduate school, but should you apply for MA programs? PhD? Both? MA and PhD programs present some overlaps, but there are distinct pros and cons associated with each. This article will cover pros and cons associated with social science or humanities programs, as programs in other disciplines vary. Personally, while working as a tutor for Orange County-based company My Private Professor, I’m pursuing a Master of Public Policy degree and can speak to that decision. That said, I’ve gone through application processes for both MA and PhD programs as well.

The MA Advantages:

  1. Shorter program length: MA programs generally take less time to complete than a PhD. Whereas a PhD may take between 4 and 6 years to complete, full-time MA students can typically finish in 1 or 2 years.
  2. The GRE: Many MA and PhD programs require the GRE to be considered for admission, but certain MA programs may not require it. During Covid-19, this has become the case for several PhD programs as well but, in a traditional year, PhD programs are more likely to require that you submit these scores. Some PhD programs may also specific GRE subject tests, whereas MA programs are less likely to require subject tests.
  3. The intent: Perhaps the biggest difference between these programs is the intent. PhD programs are usually intended to train people to become researchers, whereas MA programs are intended for practitioners. If you find that you are not interested in research, the MA is probably the way to go. That said, many MA programs are designed for current practitioners hoping to advance in their current job positions. This might mean that you should consider working in a job for a while after graduation before enrolling in any graduate program.

If you are not sure whether you want to pursue research or not, an MA can be a better option than a PhD. Some programs might provide opportunities to work as a research assistant while you’re in school, so you can “test the waters” to see whether you enjoy research without the PhD commitment. Working as a research assistant while earning an MA may also help strengthen your PhD application, should you decide to apply for a PhD later down the line.

  • Time spent on applications: MA applications generally require less time and effort than PhD applications. For both applications, you’ll need to submit relevant test scores, transcripts, fees, and personal statements or statements of purpose. In terms of content though, the MA statement is generally focused on what you hope to do with a masters, details about the specific program that appeal to your interests, and any relevant background information about yourself. Some of this information is school specific, but a lot of it can be reused for multiple schools and programs. This might be appealing if you’re balancing other demands of senior year and want to keep options open by casting your net wide.

PhD statements are typically much more involved and will require substantial time and effort for each program. In many cases, you will need to begin perusing journal articles and identifying faculty to work with the summer before you apply. You will then need to contact these potential advisors, potentially meet with both them and current students, and draft a statement that clearly outlines your goals and why you need to go to that institution to accomplish those goals. Each statement should go through several rounds of editing and will be highly individualized for the program, so there’s less content that you can reuse for multiple schools. To apply for multiple programs, expect to dedicate time over several months to this process. If you’re unable to make the commitment while balancing other demands of school, consider saving the application fee and waiting to apply to PhD programs.

  • Less competitive: Generally, MA programs are less selective than PhD programs. PhD programs have to provide a lot of resources up to fund one student, so they do not tend to admit many people. MA programs can also be competitive but, typically, with less financial burden on the institution to provide funding, they will admit more students.

The Ph.D. Advantages:

  1. Funding: Typically, MA programs are not fully funded. This means that you will need to pay for the courses that you take. PhD programs, on the other hand, are typically fully funded. This means that you usually will not have to pay for tuition or health insurance, and you’ll receive a living stipend while you’re enrolled. Keep in mind that you will generally be expected to teach and research in exchange for this funding, and that living stipends are generally modest.
  2. The intent: Program intent can be an MA advantage for those who are not sure what they want to do or those who want to advance within their current field. On the other side, a PhD’s intent can be a pro if you know that you want to be a researcher, especially an academic one. Most academic research jobs require a PhD, and you’ll also need one to have your research published in many academic journals. If you have a specific plan for the type of research you want to do and experience to demonstrate that interest, a PhD program might be right for you.
  3. Earning potential: Generally, a PhD will yield more income than an MA. However, keep in mind that PhD programs take longer and only provide a small living stipend during that time. You may find that you’ll ultimately earn more by using those extra years to work and advance in your given career field.

Final Thoughts:

The decision of whether to pursue an MA or a PhD is a big one, and the right call depends on the person. When I was a senior in college, I received advice from multiple professors to take time off and work for a while before choosing either. I followed that advice and worked for a year before coming back to graduate school, and that time gave me a better sense of what I wanted to do. If you’re similarly unsure and your circumstances allow you to take time off, I recommend doing it. If you’re sure about graduate school though, it can be a good option too. Consider all your options and try to make a choice that best balances your needs and aspirations. No matter what you decide though, you should pat yourself on the back for making it through college!


Karly B. is a tutor at My Private Professor, which provides individualized online & in-person tutoring to students in all subjects, including K-12 math, science, language arts, history, foreign language, AP exams, test prep, essays, & college counseling, by top tutors from top universities.