Degree to PhD requirements: Do you need a master’s to get a PhD?

degree to phd requirement
Sara Nasserzadeh, a PhD graduate, speaks during In goop Health Summit presented by Porsche 2021. Source: AFP

Degree to PhD requirements aren’t merely an exhaustive list of things you should do to get into the most prestigious of academic qualifications — it’s a journey that will see you invest your time, effort, and money.

The first step is a bachelor’s degree, which usually takes up to three years and covers a subject of your choice.

While core modules are tied to your chosen subject, electives allow you to dabble in various areas and help you identify your interests, passions, and even expertise within a specific field.

Take law, for example. While all law students tend to pursue a law degree, they are free to pick whatever laws they want to specialise in during their second or third year.

If you are lucky, some universities even have modules with no exams — perfect for those who thrive on doing assignments.

degree to phd requirement

One of the laws you can choose to specialise in is criminal law, where you defend the rights of someone who has been accused of a crime. Source: AFP

Right after, your postgraduate journey will see you completing a master’s degree.

Generally, these programmes last for a year, but some programmes, like an MBA, can take up to two years in certain countries (the US is one of them).

For those who are passionate about research or want to be an academic, pursuing a PhD is the next logical choice.

From learning more about what you are passionate about to leveraging the tools to make meaningful contributions to specific research fields, a PhD degree can help you dive into key areas and challenges in your field, develop your theoretical approach, and apply it through your research. 

Degree to PhD requirements: Do you need a master’s to get a PhD?

While not the most known route, it is possible to skip your master’s degree and pursue a PhD.

In Australia, a popular option is to take an honours degree before doing a PhD.

Generally, an honours degree is a one-year qualification taken after your bachelor’s degree, which involves further study in a particular discipline.

Here, under the guidance of an academic supervisor, you will choose a thesis topic, create a reading list and identify your method of research.

This programme is specifically designed to build your research abilities — opening the door for you to pursue a research degree, such as a PhD. 

Do note that you would have to check with your institutions as to whether they accept an honours degree as a valid qualification to enrol on a PhD programme. 

Some universities also offer fast-track PhDs. These do not require a master’s degree, but may require you to meet a panel of the university’s supervisor during your first PhD year to defend your research.

Walden University, for example, has a Fast Track Option that increases your course load up to three each term and spreads your dissertation courses to expedite your path through the programme.

While faster, it’s important to note that speed doesn’t always mean good. For some us, the gap between a bachelor’s degree and a PhD may be too great, making us work doubly hard to catch up.

This can be intense, and not suitable for everyone, especially if you factor in all the other requirements of doctoral study: travel to conferences, potential equipment failure, having to work a second job, to name a few.

Ultimately, the answer to the question “Do you need a master’s to get a PhD?” is one that’ll depend on some deep soul-searching on what you want and what you’re ready for.

If you prefer a more traditional, longer route to get a PhD, here’s all you need to know about doing a bachelor’s degree, a master’s and a PhD: 

From degree to PhD: A step-by-step guide to your academic journey 

Stage 1: Laying the foundation The bachelor’s degree

The bachelor’s degree is the first step in the academic ladder. It is an undergraduate programme where you immerse yourselves in a subject of your choice.

Whether it’s the intricacies of astrophysics or the magic of storytelling in literature, you’ll immerse yourself in core courses, explore diverse electives, and hone essential skills like critical thinking and research.

degree to phd requirement

A bachelor’s degree can expose you to the magic of storytelling in literature. Source: AFP

Getting your bachelor’s degree is a significant investment of time and money. Hence, picking the right major will influence your chances of securing some of the best-paying jobs in the employment market. 

Three of the most common types of bachelor’s degrees are:

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA): For those drawn to the humanities and social sciences, a BA in history, psychology, English, or communications could be your perfect fit. This degree emphasises critical thinking and communication skills, preparing you for diverse careers in education, human resources, writing, and government work.
  • Bachelor of Science (BS): If your heart beats for the world of numbers, logic, and the natural world, a BS in biology, chemistry, finance, or computer science might be your calling. This degree focuses on quantitative skills and opens doors to exciting careers in STEM fields.
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA): You can unleash your inner artist with a BFA in creative writing, theatre, drawing, or graphic design. This degree equips you with the skills and knowledge to pursue careers in the arts, from theatre production and museum curation to graphic design and animation.

Requirements to apply

To pursue a bachelor’s degree, you need a high school diploma or equivalent. Most universities require standardised test scores, such as the SAT or ACT, letters of recommendation and a personal statement.

If you’re an international student, you’ll need to show English language proficiency, such as TOEFL and IELTS.

Each institution may have specific criteria, so it’s essential to research and understand the requirements of your chosen university.

What will you gain?

Earning a bachelor’s degree is an investment in your future, providing a deep understanding of your field, critical thinking skills, and a broader perspective. 

It opens doors to entry-level jobs and lays the groundwork for advanced studies at the master’s level. 

A bachelor’s degree expands job opportunities. From 2020 to 2030, over 875,000 yearly job openings in business, science, engineering, education, healthcare, media, arts, and sports will require this qualification.

What’s more, it establishes a solid foundation for higher-paying jobs, with bachelor’s degree holders earning an average of US$1,001 per week compared to US$809 for those with only a high school diploma.

degree to phd requirement

A master’s degree after completing your bachelor’s degree is the logical next step. Source: AFP

Stage 2: Specialising your expertise The master’s degree

Upon completing your bachelor’s degree, pursuing a master’s degree becomes the logical next step — a programme tailored to deepen your expertise and specialise in a specific field.

Various options are available for obtaining your master’s degree, depending on your desired study area. Common types include the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Science (MS), encompassing majors in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences.

For those interested in business, library science, health, or a more specialised field, specific master’s degrees such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Public Health (MPH) are attainable. 

According to the National Centre for Education Statistics, the most frequently earned master’s degrees in the US are in business, education, and health professions.

A master’s degree typically ranges from one to three years, depending on the chosen field. 

For instance, a standard MBA programme takes two years, while an MFA generally requires three years. Accelerated master’s programmes or dual degrees can expedite the completion time.

Those looking to work while pursuing their degree may find online master’s programmes beneficial. These programmes are usually designed asynchronous and self-paced, allowing flexibility in scheduling your learning.

degree to phd requirement

Some master’s programmes won’t accept you without some form of experience. Source: AFP

Requirements to apply

To pursue a master’s degree, you need a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Some programmes necessitate relevant work experience, letters of recommendation, and a compelling statement of purpose.

Additionally, specific professional master’s programmes may require standardised test scores like the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT).

What will you gain?

Once enrolled, students delve deeper into their chosen subject, engaging in research and internships. The focus shifts from general concepts to advanced theories and practical applications. 

The culmination of a master’s programme often involves a thesis or a comprehensive examination demonstrating your mastery of the subject.

A master’s degree positions you for leadership roles while offering you higher earning potential and often have a competitive edge in the job market. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), individuals with a master’s degree in the earn a median of US$1,574 weekly, approximately US$81,848 annually.

What’s more, a master’s degree serves as a foundation for those considering a PhD, offering a robust groundwork for advanced research.

degree to phd requirement

A PhD is an advanced degree students can use to maximise their expertise in a particular field. Source: AFP

Stage 3: Pinnacle of academic achievement The PhD

A PhD is an advanced degree students can use to maximise their expertise in a particular field. Offered in several disciplines, this is often the highest formal education a student can earn through universities and colleges. 

If you want to pursue a career in academia as a researcher or a professor, you’ll most likely need a PhD.

PhD programmes are often three to four years long. You’ll perform tasks like research, writing and professional work that contribute to a particular field of study, like science, mathematics or the English language.

Earning your doctorate means that you have expert-level knowledge in your chosen field. It would help if you got a PhD because you’re passionate about a particular subject and are ready to exponentially expand your understanding of that topic through research.

Professor Paul KH Tam, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice President (Research) at the University of Hong Kong, emphasises the transformative potential of a PhD, stating:

“A PhD is about pursuing knowledge for the passion of acquiring knowledge. If one is fortunate, one’s discovery/invention may even change society.”

Requirements to apply

Pursuing a PhD requires a master’s degree in a related field.

Admission is highly competitive, and universities often seek exceptional academic achievements, relevant research experience, strong letters of recommendation, and a compelling research proposal.

Standardised test scores may be required, depending on the programme.

What will you gain?

Today’s job market is competitive. With more and more students earning bachelor’s and even master’s degrees, making your PhD will set you apart from the pack.

The rewards of a PhD are profound. Beyond the title of “Doctor,” graduates gain recognition as experts in their field. They contribute to academic discourse, publish research in prestigious journals, and often secure university faculty positions. 

Earning a PhD will also make you more qualified for various industry jobs. Through your graduate studies, you’ll develop the skills employers value and seek in new hires.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with a doctoral degree can expect higher earnings —US$1,909 weekly — and lower unemployment rates compared to those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.