Students pursuing a doctorate don’t have to hold a master’s degree. Most doctoral programs accept applications from students coming straight out of college as well as from students who already have a master’s degree. Additionally, many doctoral programs grant their enrollees a master's degree as the students progress in the program, often after they pass their qualifying exams. However, students should consider several factors when deciding whether to earn a master’s degree before continuing on to doctoral study.

Better Preparation

With two years of graduate study under their belt, students who earn master’s degrees before applying to doctoral programs can feel far better prepared for graduate study than they were as undergraduates. Master’s study doesn’t make students experts in their field, but it trains them in the conventions of academic writing specific to the discipline, gives them opportunities to publish articles and exposes them to theoretical and methodological approaches and subfields not covered in college.

Better Chances for Admission

Because students who earn master’s degrees are better prepared for doctoral study than those who only have bachelor’s degrees, some doctoral programs may be more likely to admit them. Their generally stronger writing samples and personal statements, letters of recommendation from graduate faculty and demonstrated dedication to graduate study make them attractive candidates. Many students also retake the Graduate Record Examination while earning their master’s degree, and their additional education can lead to higher scores, especially on the GRE subject tests. To find out whether a specific program prefers master’s degrees for its applicants, students can ask a department administrator what percentage of the incoming doctoral class holds master’s degrees.

Informed Decision-Making

Master’s programs can help students decide both whether and where they want to pursue doctoral study. While some students thrive on the intensive nature of graduate study, which requires long hours and the ability to self-motivate, others find that they don’t want to spend an additional five years to earn their doctorate. Students can also use the time in a master’s program to gain a clearer sense of whether a doctorate will appreciably increase their earning potential and employment prospects in their field. Finally, students may learn more about which professors are leaders in their chosen subfield, and they can consider applying to study with those faculty members for their doctoral research.

Cost of a Master’s Degree

One important consideration when deciding whether to pursue a master’s degree before a doctorate is the cost of each degree. Doctoral students in the United States are typically funded by their program; they work as research or teaching assistants in return for a small stipend, tuition coverage and, sometimes, health insurance. In contrast, master’s programs rarely fund their students, who usually take out student loans to finance their study. Students who are certain that they want to earn a doctorate may thus benefit financially from applying directly to doctoral programs upon completing their bachelor’s degree.