Can you get a PhD without a master’s degree?

Students can bypass a Master's degree to get a PhD in many universities abroad
Many international students are unaware that many universities accept direct entry into a PhD programme after a Bachelor's degree. Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP

Traditionally seen as the pinnacle of academic success, a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) rigorously prepares you for a career in research and academia that might even earn you the title of “Professor” one day. Getting a PhD is no easy feat, and involves years of gruelling hard work, often with a few life crises and probably thoughts of quitting in between. That said, the question of whether there’s a ‘shortcut’ on how to get a PhD often pops up in student forums and discussions.

Although getting a master’s degree after completing your undergraduate studies is the conventional route taken towards a PhD, you can in fact bypass your master’s degree entirely and go straight into a doctorate programme. Granted, not all subjects or countries have this option, but there’s plenty to go around if you want to save time and money to get your research going.

The University of California, Berkeley, for instance, only admits Bachelor’s degree holders into its political science PhD programme, with a possibility for students to obtain a master’s qualification if they withdraw from the doctoral degree as long as sufficient coursework has been completed. Similarly, you can get a PhD in the Ohio State University’s chemical engineering programme without having done a master’s.

Across the pond, the University of Cambridge can accept students without a master’s degree, where they’ll be placed in a probationary year before progressing into their dissertation. As you can see, various routes are available for direct PhD entry in different fields.

How long does it take to get a PhD?

The doctoral degree is primarily a research degree, where you have to come up with your own original ideas and spend some years of fieldwork, lab work, or any other type of real-world practice that will contribute towards your final dissertation.

If you’re wondering why the US is a bit relaxed in terms of entry requirements, it’s probably because a PhD there is almost never a pure research degree, and generally takes a much longer time to complete as a full-time student than in the UK or Australia.

Many US doctorate programmes begin with coursework and assessments in the first two years. After passing an exam, it’s only then that you’ll start working on your research and dissertation. Overall, you’re looking at a time frame of four to six years full-time if you want to get a PhD in an American university.

Compared to anywhere else, you can get a PhD in the US without forking out any for tuition, even for international students. This is because the programmes there tend to be fully-funded, with enough stipend and income from teaching assistantships to cover your cost of living.

Meanwhile, a PhD in Australia or the UK is generally a pure research degree, where you dive headlong into your dissertation topic from the start of your programme. You’ll already be discussing your doctoral thesis with a supervisor in your first year, starting with a literature review and critiquing existing scholarship on your subject before moving on to independent research in the following years. The programme duration is shorter than in the US — a full-time study takes about three to four years.

How can I get a PhD without a master’s degree as an international student?

Students can bypass a Master's degree to get a PhD in many universities abroad

Full-time PhD programmes in the US are a few years longer compared to other countries. Source: Roslan Rahman/AFP

It goes without saying that being in good academic standing will go a long way in getting into a PhD programme right after your undergraduate studies, but that’s only part of the equation. PhD applications require more paperwork, including a statement of purpose tailored to the university and recommendation letters from your previous instructors that can vouch for your potential as a candidate.

The best way to get into your programme though? Contact the university directly to express your interest and see what funding package is available based on your circumstances. The graduate admissions page will list what is required for application, where you’ll know if you can be admitted with just a bachelor’s degree.

Although skipping a step to get a PhD sounds ideal, you need to assess if you have the capacity to undertake a high-intensity academic life. A master’s degree might cost you an extra year or two, and a few thousand off your account, but it builds a solid foundation for the kind of discipline and knowledge you will need to survive your PhD.

If you do decide to take the plunge, you might want to look out for programmes that can grant you a master’s qualification along the way, so your hard work pays off in case you choose to withdraw from your PhD in the future.