If you’re thinking about becoming an expert in your field by getting a PhD, you might already know how long the road ahead of you may be. Many people dream of getting a PhD, but they often get put off by the time commitment and cost involved before they can even get started.
After all, PhDs can take anywhere from 3 to 8 years to finish — and in some cases, even more. Getting a PhD can be quite a difficult endeavor for people who have jobs, families, and other financial responsibilities to balance along the way.
If you want that coveted PhD without compromising your other responsibilities, you might find yourself asking, “do you need a master’s to get a PhD?”
The short answer is: not necessarily.
Although the traditional route to a PhD often involves getting a master’s degree first, many direct to PhD programs allow academics to skip an MA altogether. Even those with bachelor’s degrees have a decent chance at getting into a PhD program. However, going directly for a doctorate still has its advantages and disadvantages.
How to Get a PhD Without a Master’s Degree
The minimum requirement to be considered for a PhD is a bachelor’s degree, but your chances of getting accepted will depend on how well you tender your application.
Educational institutions won’t freely advertise that they offer doctorates without master’s degrees. It becomes your task to look into the core beliefs of the universities you’re interested in to see whether you have a chance at success.
When putting together your application, you’ll have to check the universities’ requirements to ensure that your previous academic performance qualifies. The better your qualifications and recommendation letters are, the higher your chances of being considered.
Of course, you may be able to eliminate many of your troubles by going the direct to PhD route, which takes you from undergrad straight into a doctorate program.
PhD Without a Master’s – How Does it Work?
PhD programs that consider candidates who don’t already have a master’s will expect you to have at least a bachelor’s degree.
The expectation can vary depending on the doctorate, but the bare minimum requirement is generally:
A three-year undergraduate degree in a related discipline for STEM PhDs
A relevant four-year undergraduate degree for PhDs in the arts and humanities.
To be considered for a PhD without a master’s, you’ll also need to have a strong academic record from your undergraduate studies. Universities are highly selective when admitting PhD candidates without master’s, so you’ll need to show academic transcripts with a high GPA.
The first way you can study a PhD without a master’s is by applying to a program that allows a direct route from bachelor’s to PhD. There are a number of doctoral programs, especially online ones, that only require you to have an undergraduate degree to apply. Be aware that even if a master’s is not required, you’ll need to submit a strong application, including a compelling research proposal, in order to stand out from other applicants, many of whom may have master’s degrees.
Even if the program normally requires a master’s as a prerequisite, you may be able to get around this by first pursuing an MPhil. Under this process, you’re given a year to prepare a thesis, which outlines your initial research and how you plan to expand on it for a full PhD dissertation. If successful, your MPhil will be upgraded to a doctorate, you’ll become a PhD candidate, and eventually be able to earn a PhD. If you don’t demonstrate strong enough research skills, you may also pass and be awarded an MPhil degree, but won’t be upgraded to a PhD student.
Another option would be to pursue an integrated PhD program, sometimes known as an integrated master’s degree. These are specific courses offered by some colleges that combine a master’s and PhD: if you’re successful, at the end of the course you’ll be awarded both qualifications. Typically, integrated PhD programs last for four years, covering a one-year master’s and a three-year PhD.
How Long Does it Take to Get a PhD Without a Master’s?
Studying a PhD program without a master’s will typically add an extra year to the usual timeline, as you’ll need to spend an additional year either completing an MPhil or as part of an integrated PhD program. Therefore, as most doctorates take three to five years to complete, a PhD without a master’s will usually take between four and six years.
On the other hand, if you choose a PhD program that only requires a bachelor’s degree to join, it will only take the standard length of time for that program, usually three to five years.
Which Universities Offer PhDs Without a Master’s?
Unfortunately, most universities don’t advertise PhD programs without master’s, as candidates are generally accepted on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, admission requirements for PhD programs are usually set by the school or department, so even if one PhD program accepts candidates without master’s degrees, this may not be the case across the university.
If you want to pursue a PhD without a master’s, you’ll need to contact the admissions committee of the programs you’re interested in, and check their requirements.
Is it Possible to Get a PhD Without a Bachelor’s Degree?
It is not impossible to get a PhD without first having a bachelor’s degree, but it is very uncommon. In some rare cases, universities may accept candidates for doctoral programs with extensive professional experience in lieu of an undergraduate qualification.
If you’re able to demonstrate significant contributions to your field through either work or self-directed study, and that you’ve directly contributed new knowledge to the discipline, you may be accepted into a PhD program. You’ll be more likely to be accepted if you’ve been published, preferably multiple times, and have a number of professional accreditations.
Advantages of Going Straight to PhD
The biggest advantage of bypassing a master’s degree is easily the amount of time and money you can save in the process.
An MA can take as short as a year or as long as three to obtain. And when doctorates usually take anywhere from 5-7 years, shaving 1-3 years off can make a huge difference — especially for busy people who want to get ahead in their careers quickly.
Of course, you also won’t need to pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees for an MA. These savings alone are usually enough to convince many people to go for a PhD without master’s degrees slowing them down along the way.
Other benefits you may encounter are:
- Grants and Stipends – Another advantage of joining a direct-entry doctorate program is the possibility of obtaining outside funding (if you qualify). Many PhD programs offer students financial assistance in the form of partial funding or full tuition waivers. If you can benefit from financial aid, you might be glad to know that some programs also offer stipends on top of the tuition grants.
- Research Projects – As a doctoral candidate, you might want to start or join certain research projects that may be time-sensitive. In cases like these, it’s usually advisable to go directly for PhDs to increase your chances of securing your dream project. If the project you’re looking at is a long-term endeavor, a doctoral program may also be the best route to allow for more in-depth fieldwork and experiments during your studies.
- Less Stress and Hassle – Choosing not to go for a master’s degree might help eliminate stress and hassle, such as school applications and potential relocations. Going direct to PhD means you’ll likely only need to move once (if at all) to your chosen school’s area.
Disadvantages of Skipping a Master’s Degree
Although the answer to the question “can you get a PhD without a master’s?” is a resounding yes, it doesn’t always mean that it’s the right choice for everyone.
Going from undergraduate studies straight into a PhD program can be quite a huge adjustment. The program might suddenly expect you to get familiar with new techniques, work, and professional relationships — and fast!
This adjustment period may put you at a disadvantage compared to other doctorate candidates who have previously completed a master’s degree.
Other hindrances you might encounter are:
- Difficulty During Applications Process – PhD programs are competitive and often only take the best-qualified applicants. If you’re competing with other students who have master’s degrees, it may affect your chances of securing a spot. However, if you go for a direct to PhD program (undergraduate straight into PhD), it may be possible to avoid this problem.
- Less Experience in Research and Dissertation Work – A thesis or dissertation is a major requirement of completing a master’s degree. Skipping an MA means you’re missing out on all of the experience you’d otherwise get in research and fieldwork. You’ll also have less experience actually writing a dissertation.
- Less Time to Confirm Your Interests – Working on your master’s thesis will allow you to select a topic that interests you. You usually spend about a year working on your thesis, during which you can explore the topic further to confirm whether it’s really what you want to go into. By skipping the MA, you’re potentially giving up the chance to verify if the field truly interests you before you fully commit to it for the duration of your PhD. Going straight into a doctoral program may also mean that you miss out on the chance to choose your own topic and create your own research proposal.
- Missing the Opportunity to Work with a Thesis Supervisor – When doing a master’s degree, postgraduate students work with a thesis supervisor who provides guidance and advice for their projects. Going direct to PhD means you miss out on the experience of working with a supervisor and finding the right types of communication, schedules, and professional relationships for your needs. This means you’ll have to figure all of this out during your doctorate program, which can add to your stress.
So Can you Get a PhD Without a Master’s? Yes, But Not Always
You don’t necessarily need a master’s in order to pursue a PhD. Some PhD programs accept candidates with a bachelor’s degree only, or you may be able to get around a master’s prerequisite by signing up for a MPhil or an integrated PhD program.
The “ideal” doctorate program doesn’t come along often. If you find yourself faced with a choice between pursuing a master’s degree or trying to get into your dream doctoral program, you might want to skip the master’s degree altogether.
Although you may miss out on an MA qualification, often, a finished PhD supersedes the need for one anyway.
Getting a PhD without a master’s degree can be difficult, but it’s certainly not impossible! For more inspiration, take a look at our guides to the highest-paying PhD degrees and the best one-year online PhD programs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you skip a master’s and get a PhD?
Yes, there are a few ways you may be able to get into a PhD program without completing a master’s first. You could opt for a PhD program that doesn’t require master’s as a prerequisite, or go for a MPhil or integrated PhD program. However, keep in mind that not all universities or programs allow you to apply for a PhD without a master’s.
Can I apply for a PhD after my bachelor’s?
In some cases, you can apply to a PhD program as soon as you’ve finished your undergraduate degree. Some doctoral programs accept candidates with a bachelor’s degree only, though you’ll probably need to have an excellent academic record and a strong research proposal.
Is a PhD better than a master’s?
PhD and master’s degrees are valuable in different ways, so it’s not really fair to say that a PhD is better than a master’s. Although a PhD is a more advanced degree, there are roles and professions that would prefer you to have a master’s rather than a PhD. Master’s programs usually have a more practical, real-world focus, which can be more useful for many roles in the business, non-profit, and government sectors. On the other hand, a PhD is strongly rooted in in-depth research, so prepares candidates to work in research and academia.