Apr 21, 2023
Yes, it is possible to earn a PhD without a master’s degree. Though the traditional path entails completing a master’s program before embarking on a doctorate, some schools and programs offer options to skip the master’s entirely. Actually, in select cases, it’s the preferred approach. Below, we’ll share four common scenarios that can aid in securing admission to a PhD program with just a bachelor’s degree.
You’ve passed core graduate-level courses
Admission panels for PhD programs require students to demonstrate necessary knowledge and skills. This often entails completing foundational courses in their field, like epidemiology and biostatistics in public health, or historiography in history. The key takeaway? Courses and accomplishments pave the way for securing admission, paving the path towards a successful PhD program.
Although, gaining admission to a master’s program is often a prerequisite to take and pass certain courses, for those students who already have experience in a master’s program, this may be the most effective option to pursue. And even for undergraduate students, obtaining permission from the department to take these specialized courses may be possible. So keep in mind that although these courses can be challenging, they offer many advantages and should be duly considered.
- PhD in Economics from the University of Washington. Bachelor’s degree required, plus completion of intermediate micro- and macroeconomics, one year of calculus, linear algebra, and statistics.
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.
- PhD in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. Bachelor’s degree required, plus “students with significant field research”.
Some graduate programs are PhD-focused anyway
Many programs, such as psychology, where PhDs are more prominent than master’s, typically set the academic bar at a PhD by default. Other times, you may encounter “combined Master’s/PhD programs” or “BA-to-PhD tracks.” Such programs often offer master’s degrees in distinctive 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
Experience counts a lot in research, but what really catches the attention of PhD admission boards is consistent contribution to your field, both academically and professionally. They would be particularly interested in original research experience of 5+ years in a professional setting, but academic research experience is valuable too. It’s all about showcasing your commitment to research, and a bachelor’s degree with years of relevant experience in research could potentially land you in a doctorate program. For instance, someone with a degree in history and 5 years of work in archives and record management could have a good shot at admission.
- PhD in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Minnesota. Evidence of “substantial experience in the discipline”.
- PhD in Epidemiology & Biostatistics, University of California, San Francisco. Students with “exceptional research backgrounds” or professional research experience on par with master’s work may be considered without a master’s degree.
The Fine Print
Achieving a PhD without first earning a master’s degree is indeed possible, and in many fields, it is a relatively common occurrence. However, it is important to be aware of potential obstacles that may arise when pursuing this route. While the aforementioned scenarios can help you bypass the master’s degree, it is crucial to keep the following considerations 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 good news is that there are viable options available to you, as mentioned earlier. Moreover, if you have just completed your bachelor’s degree, pursuing a straight-to-PhD track may be the most efficient and cost-effective way to attain your doctorate. By taking this route, you can avoid any master’s level coursework that is not directly relevant to your PhD program, which translates to no wasted credits and no unnecessary tuition expenses.
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.