Can You Earn a PhD without a Master’s?

Learn why earning a master’s is optional for more and more doctorate-level programs today. And if you don’t have a master’s and want that PhD, what’s next?

Written by Staff

Last updated

Feb 15, 2021

The short answer is yes. While earning a master’s degree prior to pursuing a doctorate is the norm, it’s definitely not mandatory. Many schools and programs have ways that students can skip the master’s step altogether, as long as certain requirements are met. And, in some cases, it’s actually preferred. Here are four common scenarios that could help you gain admission to a PhD program with only a bachelor’s degree on your resume.

You’ve passed core graduate-level courses

PhD admissions panels want all students they admit to have the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in their program. In many cases, this means having completed specific foundational courses in the field. In public health, for example, students may need to have passed graduate-level courses in both epidemiology and biostatistics, two areas on which many advanced public health curriculums are built. In history, students may need at least an A- in historiography and/or historical theory to progress to PhD work.

However, taking and passing these courses often requires admission to a master’s program. Or, at the very least, permission to take the courses by the department (if you’re an undergraduate). Therefore, this option makes the most sense for students who have experience in a master’s program, but may not have finished the degree.


You have demonstrated research ability

PhD programs are research-heavy, often involving a dissertation that can take more than a year to complete. If you don’t have the necessary research chops (qualitative or quantitative or both, depending on the subject), you’ll likely struggle. Some doctorate programs and their departments will look first and foremost at your research accomplishments. Have you published an original research paper in a journal or magazine? Have you presented papers at multiple conferences? While these are more common for master’s students, undergraduates can seize these opportunities, as well. This scenario is the most likely for clear PhD-track students with master’s-level research abilities.


Some graduate programs are PhD-focused anyway

Some programs, especially those where PhDs are more common than master’s, e.g. psychology, a PhD is the goal by default. You also may see this in the guise of “combined Master’s/PhD programs” or “BA-to-PhD tracks”. Programs like these often tackle master’s degrees in the following ways:


Master’s degree as option
Once the student finishes his or her master’s-related coursework, they can choose to earn a master’s before starting the PhD.


Master’s degree as requirement
Here, students must complete all master’s-related coursework, exams, and papers, and even defend a thesis, before an advisory committee approves their move to the PhD.


No master’s degree available
Some programs don’t even offer a master’s degree as an option, with all curriculum requirements guiding students to completion of the PhD from the start.

If one of these options sounds like a good fit for you, make sure you research all requirements carefully. In essence, these opportunities can be great for all advanced students interested in PhD work.


You have years of professional work experience

A history of strong research is key here. It may come in an academic setting (see #2 above) or via years of relevant experience in a professional setting. Ideally both. If you’ve been performing complex original research at work for 5+ years, PhD admissions boards may deem that sufficient for admission. For example, someone with a bachelor’s degree in history and five years of work in archives and record management may be able to secure doctorate program admission. This scenario makes the most sense for bachelor’s-holders with years of professional research under their belts.


The Fine Print

Earning a PhD without a master’s is definitely possible. In fact, it can be rather common in a number of major areas. The scenarios above can help you go straight to that doctorate without the master’s in the middle, but make sure you keep the following potential hurdles in mind.

Hurdle #1: Transferring credits

If you’ve taken master’s courses but never finished the degree, those courses may not transfer to your PhD program. This can be for a number of reasons, either those courses don’t mesh with your PhD of choice, or the program requires specific courses that are only available in their department. Always talk to a program advisor to see which of your courses will transfer and which ones will not.

Hurdle #2: Watch the costs

This is especially relevant if too many of your credits don’t transfer. This can mean taking master’s-level prerequisites that don’t earn you credit toward your PhD. And with some colleges charging $1,000+/credit, that can add up.

The Good News

The silver lining? You have options (see above). What’s more, if you’re coming right out of a bachelor’s degree, a straight-to-PhD track is the fastest and most affordable way to earn that doctorate. In this case, you don’t need to go through any master’s coursework that doesn’t support your PhD path directly. No wasted credits, no sunk tuition.

As with any program or degree path, always talk to both an admissions representative and a program advisor in the department in which you intend to work. These two people can give you details that may not be apparent on the website, and answer any questions you may have while researching. The last thing you want to do is apply to a program only to find out that it just won’t work.