PhD vs Masters in Education

PhD vs Masters in Education

Key Takeaways

  • A PhD in education degree program generally takes four to seven years to complete.
  • A master’s degree in education can be completed in one to two years of full-time study.
  • A PhD prepares you for a career in academia, research, or higher-level educational policy-making, while a master’s degree qualifies students for advanced professional roles like subject matter specialist or administrator.

Failing to understand the fundamental differences between a PhD vs master’s in education can lead to misaligned expectations, wasted time and resources, and potentially diminished career prospects. Using the expertise of our researchers and data analysts, this article breaks down the main differences between these two programs to help you make more informed choices.

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Featured Programs

General Overview of PhD vs Master’s in Education

When considering an advanced degree in education, it’s helpful to understand the main differences between a doctor of philosophy and a master’s in education. Choosing between the two depends on your career aspirations, so start by exploring their main objectives.

Overview of PhD in Education

With a PhD in education, intensive research and theoretical knowledge will form the cornerstone of your studies. The focus of your PhD program is largely on developing new insights in the education sector. You will often spend a significant amount of time on:

  • Advanced coursework: Deepening your understanding of educational theories and methodologies.
  • Research methodology: Becoming proficient in statistical analysis, qualitative and quantitative research methods, and data collection techniques.
  • Dissertation: A substantial piece of original research that contributes to the field of education and demonstrates your expertise.

Overview of Master’s in Education

A master’s in education is a graduate-level degree designed to enhance your knowledge and skills in the field of education. This degree can be a pivotal step in your career advancement if you’re aiming to expand your teaching capabilities, take on administrative roles, or specialize in a specific area. It mainly focuses on:

  • Theoretical knowledge: You gain a deeper understanding of educational theories and policies.
  • Practical application: Courses typically include strategies to effectively apply this knowledge in real-life educational settings.
  • Culminating experience: Most programs require a capstone experience, such as a thesis, research project, internship, or comprehensive exam to demonstrate mastery of program concepts.

Comparing Master’s vs PhD in Education

The United States has witnessed a significant increase in the number of individuals pursuing advanced degrees beyond a bachelor’s. Over the past two decades, there has been a substantial rise in the proportion of Americans who hold either a master’s or doctorate.

Since 2000, the number of people with a master’s degree has experienced a twofold increase, reaching an impressive 21 million individuals. Even more remarkably, the number of doctoral degree holders has more than doubled during the same period, now standing at 4.5 million.

This upward trend reflects the surge of inquiries about determining which educational pathway to take. When deciding between a PhD vs master’s in education, you also need to consider their similarities and how they equally contribute to the professional goals of educators.


You’ll find that PhD and master’s in education programs share a core dedication to the advancement of educational practices. Whether you choose a PhD or a master’s program, you will:

  1. Develop a strong focus on pedagogy, understanding how people learn and how to teach effectively.
  2. Embrace a commitment to lifelong learning, which is vital for educators at different levels.
  3. Make significant contributions to your field through your research, projects, or innovative instructional strategies.
  4. Enhance research skills necessary for educational inquiry and evidence-based practice.

Both degrees involve considerable engagement with educational theory and enhancing your subject matter expertise. You can specialize in areas like educational psychology, curriculum and instruction, educational leadership, special education, or education technology.


From their application and admission process to the depth and breadth of study of each program, here are some key differences between a PhD and master’s in education degree:

Application and Admission Process

A doctor of philosophy in education often necessitates a master’s degree or equivalent. It emphasizes research experience and may require a detailed proposal.

On the other hand, an MA or MS in education typically requires a bachelor’s degree with a suitable GPA. Some schools may require professional experience or teaching certification.

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Program Structure and Content

A doctorate in education prioritizes research methodologies and original research in education. This is why the coursework can be designed to support your research agenda.

In contrast, a graduate degree in education focuses on advanced theoretical knowledge and practical skills in education. It balances coursework with potential opportunities for hands-on teaching experiences.

Nature of Research and Dissertation

The nature of research is one of the key differences between a graduate and a doctorate in education.

In a doctorate program, you will be expected to produce a substantial dissertation based on original research. Your research should significantly advance academic understanding in education. A master’s program may require a capstone project or a thesis that demonstrates your grasp of the field.

Length of Programs

A PhD in education programs generally takes four to seven years, depending on the country and research scope. Some may even take longer, depending on the complexity of the research. The completion rate for doctoral programs is around 57%, while the completion rate for master’s degrees is generally higher, at around 75%.

Most master’s in education programs can be completed in one to two years full-time. However, part-time routes can extend the duration. We often guide students to find accelerated master’s in education programs to help them finish their degree in less than a year.

Cost and Funding Options

Finishing a PhD in education may incur higher costs due to length. The good thing is that it often comes with more robust funding opportunities, such as fellowships and teaching assistantships.

Meanwhile, getting a master’s degree in education is typically less expensive due to its shorter duration. Scholarships and grants may be available, although they are less common.

Academic and Professional Pathways

A PhD prepares you for a career in academia, research, and higher-level educational policy-making. It opens doors to positions such as those of university professors or educational researchers.

A graduate degree aims to enhance your current educational practice or pivot your career within the education sector. It qualifies you for advanced professional roles like subject matter specialist or administrator.

Job Opportunities

Jobs requiring a doctoral degree have an anticipated growth rate of slightly under 15%. Academic and advanced research positions for professionals with a PhD are more competitive, although research-oriented roles offer unique opportunities.

The demand for educated professionals with a master’s degree in administrative and specialized education roles is growing. Occupations demanding a master’s degree are forecasted to experience robust growth of 16% by 2026.

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Salary Outcomes

A PhD in education graduate may earn 24% more than that of a master’s degree holder. Completing a PhD in education typically results in a higher earning potential over master’s graduates, particularly in academia and research positions.

A graduate degree may offer opportunities for salary increments as you gain experience and take on more responsibility. Meanwhile, positions associated with a PhD often have a higher starting salary due to the level of expertise required.

Major Distinguishing Factors

A doctor of philosophy in education immerses students in extensive research and analysis, ideal for those pursuing careers in academia or high-level educational research. In contrast, a master’s degree in education concentrates on the practical application of educational theories and skills, preparing students for hands-on roles within educational settings.

While a PhD demands a substantial dissertation based on original research within a specialized area, a master’s typically involves a final project or thesis. A PhD is more costly due to its longer duration of four to seven years, whereas a master’s program is generally less expensive and can be completed in one to two years.

Those with a PhD may find more specialized academic career paths, while graduates with a master’s degree tend to have a broad range of opportunities across various education sectors. This table can help you assess which degree aligns best with your career aspirations and personal commitments.

AspectPhD in EducationMaster’s in Education
Application and admissionsHighly competitive, requires GRE scores, research proposals, letters of recommendation, and a strong academic recordLess competitive, and typically requires a bachelor’s degree, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement
Education PrerequisitesMaster’s degreeBachelor’s degree or equivalent
Program structure and core focusExtensive coursework in advanced research methods, educational theory, and specialized areas, culminates in a dissertationPractical teaching methods, curriculum development, educational administration, and a master’s thesis or capstone projec
Research or capstone projectOriginal, independent dissertationThesis or a capstone project
Program Length4 to 7 years1 to 2 years
Costs and fundingHigher tuition costs, with more funding opportunitiesLower tuition costs, with fewer financial aid options
Academic and professional pathwaysCareers in academia, research, and higher education leadership rolesTeaching positions, curriculum development, educational administration, and instructional leadership roles
Career advancement and salary outcomesHigher earning potential and more opportunities for advancement in academia, research, and top leadership roles.Higher salaries than those with only a bachelor’s degree and may advance to leadership roles in education administration or curriculum development

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When to Pursue a PhD in Education?

When deciding whether to pursue a PhD in education, consider your long-term career goals and your passion for research. We generally recommend getting a PhD in education if you are interested in scholarly research and academic careers. Here are some things you can consider to determine if this path aligns with your professional aspirations:

  • Academic pursuits: A PhD will provide you with the necessary credentials if you’re aiming for a career in academia, such as becoming a university professor or contributing to educational policy development.
  • Research-focused roles: For those passionate about conducting original research, contributing new knowledge to the field, and publishing scholarly work, a PhD is a vital qualification.
  • Leadership positions: A doctorate is often a requirement in high-level administrative roles in educational settings.

Pursuing a PhD in education involves a significant commitment to developing research competencies. It includes conducting extensive and original research. The decision to pursue a PhD should be made with careful consideration of your career trajectory and a clear understanding of the demands of the program.

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When to Pursue a Master’s in Education?

We often recommend a master’s in education for a deeper understanding of educational theories, leadership skills, and specialized knowledge in your professional growth without having to spend more than three years. Here are a few scenarios where pursuing an MS or MA in education might be the right step for you:

  • Advancing your career: A graduate degree is often a requirement for positions such as curriculum developer, school counselor, or educational administrator.
  • Continued learning: A master’s degree in education is practice-oriented, so it’s a great pathway for applying existing knowledge to educational knowledge while integrating innovations.
  • Higher salary potential: Many school districts offer salary increments for educators with advanced degrees, so obtaining your graduate degree can have financial benefits.

Pursuing a master’s degree involves a significant investment in time and resources, so you should only go for it if it aligns with your career goals and personal aspirations. This degree can be particularly advantageous if you’ve been teaching for a few years and are now looking to enhance your expertise or aiming for roles involving educational leadership or policy-making.

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Which Is a Better Degree Level in Education?

You’re better suited for a PhD if your aspirations include an academic career involving research and teaching at the post-secondary level. However, a master’s in education might be your best choice if you’re aiming for a mid-leadership role in education without a primary focus on conducting research.

A doctor of philosophy in education could be your best bet if you’re inclined toward academic research or university-level teaching. This degree emphasizes creating new knowledge through research and is ideal if you’re passionate about contributing original insights.

In contrast, an MA or MS in education usually provides a strong foundation. It’s a hands-on degree, focusing on improving your practical skills and understanding current educational practices. This degree often takes less time to complete and can be a stepping stone to higher positions in educational administration without the lengthy commitment of a doctorate program.

Related Questions

What Is the Highest Degree Level for Education?

The highest academic degree you can achieve is a doctor of philosophy in education. This level of scholarship often involves contributing original research to the field. Alternatively, an education doctorate (Ed.D.) is another degree that blends research with practical application.

Which Education Degree Is More Impactful: A Master’s or a PhD?

Choosing between a master’s degree and a PhD largely depends on your career goals. When you aim for practical roles in education, an MA or an MS may serve you well with its focus on application. However, for pursuing academic research or a tenure-track university position, a PhD may be the better choice.

How Hard Is a Doctorate in Education Compared to a Graduate Degree?

Pursuing a doctorate, such as a PhD in education, is typically more demanding than a graduate degree. PhD studies require a greater depth of research, with the dissertation process itself being a rigorous endeavor. An MS or MA degree, though challenging, usually focuses more on practical skills over a shorter period.      

Final Verdict

While a PhD in education emphasizes theoretical knowledge and research expertise, a master’s degree in education focuses on practical application and advanced practitioner skills. Evaluate your ambitions, and let them guide you to the degree that aligns with your envisioned path.

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