Should I go on to a Ph.D. after my M.A.? Four insights about the differences between being an M.A. and a Ph.D. Student

We’ve previously posted articles on if graduate school is right for you (or if it isn’t!), and today we will expand on these topics with a guest post by Tori R. Montrose, where she discusses differences between pursuing an M.A. program versus a Ph.D. program. Tori is a Ph.D. Candidate in Japanese Religion at the University of Southern California. You can read more from her at


For those of you currently in an M.A. program and wondering if a Ph.D. program is just like a longer version of an M.A., or if it really is a different beast, I’m here to offer some insights from my own experience making the transition. Of course, program styles vary by school and discipline, so my experiences are by no means universal. Still I think you’ll find a lot of this applies, at least within the humanities.

  1. Time

Most M.A. degree programs are 1-2 years, the average time to degree for a humanities Ph.D. is 5-7 years.  I am currently in the fourth year of my Ph.D. program (fifth if you include the year I paused coursework/research to do a language intensive). Compared to the Ph.D., my M.A. program went by in a blink. Four semesters, fifteen classes, one thesis and *poof* I had an M.A. degree. When I crossed the commencement stage, the best way to summarize my feelings at the time was, “Wait…what?” I have a few more years to go before Ph.D. commencement so I can’t say for sure how I’ll feel then, but what I’ve gathered from others is that after 5,6,7, even 9 years working on a Ph.D., the feeling is more like “Finally!” and “Hallelujah!”

image © Jorge Cham

image © Jorge Cham @ PhD comics

It’s hard to overstate just how significant this time commitment is, and it will have important consequences on other aspects that I’ll discuss in the other sections below. And it’s not just the amount of time, it’s also how the time is spent. In my M.A. program, I was given a fair amount of leeway, at least in the first year, to explore different subjects and courses that fell outside my research area. My research is on modern Buddhism in Japan, but I took a course on pre-modern Buddhism and food, another on foundational social theory, and (because my school was part of a theological consortium and why not?) even Youth Spirituality. Where else can you be taught by a funky nun who enjoyed analyzing religion in pop culture? Sigh. Those where good times. In a Ph.D. program, you will likely not get that kind of flexibility to explore fields and coursework outside of your discipline, or at least not that outside your discipline.  There are many reasons for this: your department is paying for your tuition and therefore gets final word on what classes you can take, or your advisor may discourage it. But most importantly, it’s because you probably won’t have the time. Yes a Ph.D. program is two to three times longer than an M.A. program, but in that time you are expected to acquire far more than two to three times the focus and expertise of an M.A. program.  In addition to that, you’ll be teaching, grading, guest lecturing, attending and organizing conferences, researching, writing, publishing, and applying for jobs. Even if you also did all of these things as an M.A. student, you’ll without a doubt be doing even more of these things as a Ph.D. student. So time, both the amount of it and the way it is spent, is a major difference between an M.A. and a Ph.D. program.

  1. Money

This will be different for everyone but I’ll speak from my own experience. I took out student loans for my M.A. degree but am now in a fully-funded Ph.D. program. Most M.A. programs are not funded, but I believed the investment would be worth it if I could get into a funded Ph.D. program. As luck would have it, the investment paid off and I now earn a salary (be it ever so modest) doing things I love: reading, writing, and teaching. It’s important to me that I explain that I am paid to do this because, as I recently discovered this summer over a somewhat awkward meal with extended family, many (or most?) Americans don’t know that many Ph.D. programs are fully-funded. So what I didn’t realize was that every time I was asked by these relatives “How long until you graduate?” it was a veiled way of asking “How long until you can begin to crawl out of this no-doubt massive hole of debt you are digging for yourself?” When I told them that I was paid to do this, the relief on their faces was clear. If you pursue a Ph.D., there will be well-meaning people you know and love who will also secretly (or not so secretly) worry about your financial situation. And they are not wrong to do so. For one thing (and this relates back to our first topic of time), pay raises and cost-of-living increases for Ph.D. students are rare, and it can be difficult to pay off existing student loans, save for retirement, or do other things like buy a house while you’re in graduate school. While I’ve been in my Ph.D. program, several of my non-academic friends have bought houses, started successful businesses, a few have even become actual millionaires, all the while my pay and quality of life have stayed the same. When I was doing my M.A. program in my mid-twenties, my peer’s financial accomplishments had not yet reached that level of fruition, so I didn’t experience feelings of “falling behind” quite like I do now.  Getting a Ph.D. requires a lot of patience, and is only suitable for people who are comfortable with (very) delayed gratification.  It’s a platitude at this point, but no one should ever pursue a humanities Ph.D. for the money.  It takes too much time and there are no guarantees at the end of it. But you can always take comfort in all that fancy knowledge in your brain. Knowledge that someone else paid you to acquire. And that’s pretty special if you ask me.

  1. Expertise
Photo by Diliff

Photo by Diliff

My advisor once described academia to me as a place where everyone is busy building their own molehills. Every once in awhile, you look up to see what other molehills are emerging around your own and you attempt to make connections between them. These molehills are your research and your expertise, and it takes time (there’s that word again) to build them. One of the major differences I’ve found between being an M.A. student and a Ph.D. student is that as a Ph.D. student you are expected to write and speak with more authority about your molehill.  This has been the largest source of struggle for me during my time as a Ph.D. student, and I know I am not alone in this. Some people call it imposter syndrome, but I think it’s about more than fearing you will be discovered knowing less than people think you know. Sometimes you can feel confident in what you know, but not yet have the right words to articulate what you know. Other times, you are in transition from one molehill to another (like when you switch dissertation topics two years into your program, as I did), and you’re overwhelmed with the idea of starting a whole new molehill. For others, the struggle is about how to make your molehill connect with other molehills, and how to make other scholars understand what makes your molehill both relevant and novel. A major part of my journey from M.A. student to Ph.D. student has been a chipping away of all the things I thought I knew, and a gradual building of my very own molehill; my very own corner of academia to call my own, so that when the fate of the world rests on expertise about the emergence of Buddhist universities in Japan, I’ll be there, standing on my molehill, hands on my hips and cape flapping in the wind, ready to drop some serious knowledge. (I may have indulged myself in these visions of grandeur as an M.A. student but I was a lot less clear about how truly far away I was from realizing it.)

  1. Relationships

The final difference between an M.A. and Ph.D. program is found in the type, nature, and fate of relationships. The most impactful relationship during your time in any graduate program, M.A. or Ph.D. is with your advisor(s) and no two advisor-advisee relationships are the same. Advisors can make your time in grad school rewarding, challenging, and stimulating; but advisors are also capable of making your grad school experience unnecessarily difficult, painful, even humiliating. I’ve been lucky to have wonderfully supportive advisors through both of my degree programs, but I know that is not the case for everyone. In my M.A. program, my advisor did everything she could to prepare me for my next goal: getting into a Ph.D. program. And while that was no easy feat, it pales in comparison to my post-Ph.D. goal: getting a tenure-track position at a university. For this reason, the job of a Ph.D. advisor is much harder and it is why your relationship with them is so very important. Your advisor has to believe you are worth the immense amount of time and energy they will put into your development over the 5+ years you are with them. And as an advisee, it’s equally important to consider this when entering a Ph.D. program. Choosing a school and/or advisor on reputation alone can lead to many frustrating outcomes, so it is essential to consider what your relationship with your advisor will look like by spending time getting to know them and speaking with their other advisees as much as possible.

Next to your relationship with advisor(s), your relationship with your fellow graduate students, whether or not they are in your same department or even school, also gains greater significance when shifting from the M.A. to the Ph.D..  As an M.A. student, my school friends were largely from my cohort– people that entered the program the same year as me. From post-9/11 public religion discourse, to 19th century religious architecture in America, to philosophical and systematic theology, our research interests and fields could not have been more different, though it made for very lively happy hour discussions. Now, as a Ph.D. student I’ve had more years in this game, and thus more opportunities to meet people in my own field. They aren’t always at your school, but attend enough conferences and workshops and you’re likely to meet “your people.” By “your people,” I am referring to any one of many different types of friends you might make during your time in a Ph.D. program.  One type are those rare birds whose eyes light up when you’re talking about your research because your areas of interest overlap and you can talk for hours about the same authors, theory, or period of history while the outside world just kind of smiles and nods.  Another type may not share your research interests
but shares your particular views on academia, the wild world that it is, and they become your go-to friend for venting bureaucratic frustration or celebrating every milestone in this long journey you’re both on. It may be that “your people” are embodied in just one personperson (like Christina Yang was for Meredith Grey (I know, I’m bringing it way back with the Grey’s Anatomy reference)). And “your people” could all be in your department, or scattered across the country, or globe. But these relationships are important because these are the people who will be your co-editors, fellow panelists, and conference hotel roommates for a long time to come. They’ll come to your talk even if it’s scheduled at a terrible time in the conference program. They’ll commiserate with you when your proposal gets rejected or you get harsh feedback. And they’ll invite you to give talks at their school when you both get jobs.  Only 2% of the population in the U.S. has a Ph.D., so for better or for worse, relationships with your colleagues and cohort are important because they represent a small portion of the population who actually knows what you are going through and are experiencing it with you. So whereas cultivating good relationships with your colleagues is an added bonus in an M.A. program, I see it as an essential part of a Ph.D. program.

The last category of relationship in many ways supersedes the other two: your personal relationships.  Given the amount of time and energy that goes into a Ph.D. program, your personal relationships will be affected both positively and negatively. A flexible schedule may allow you to follow a partner to a new city while you research and write; but research needs may also dictate that you leave a partner for long periods of time to conduct research in a foreign country. Some people meet the loves of their lives in a graduate seminar, others may find it hard to meet someone precisely because of their academic lifestyle. Then there are all the issues that women face disproportionately more than men like whether to hide their marital status or delay having a family.  Your graduate student salary can also affect friendships, as income inequality among millennials is higher than any other generation in the U.S.. And then there are the family members who may have tolerated your M.A. degree but, try as they might, cannot understand why you would want to get a Ph.D. (hi Grandpa! love you! (he isn’t online)). There are people on the other end of the spectrum who are getting a Ph.D. because it was expected of them by their families. Of course, while all of these personal relationships exist regardless of degree program, the large chunk of your life and duration of time that the Ph.D. program demands of you will have unique effects on your personal relationships.  But with any luck and some hard work, you’ll be surrounded by loved ones at commencement who supported you through it all.

Final thoughts

When I was an M.A. student, one of the main reasons I wanted to get a Ph.D. was because I was having so much fun as an M.A. and I knew I wasn’t done with academia. Like an enthusiastic supporter of a political incumbent, I wanted “four more years!” I naïvely assumed that the Ph.D. would just be an extension of the M.A.. I have since learned that they differ in several crucial ways.  Are you still writing, researching, learning, and teaching? Yes. But the goals, expectations, and scale of all of those things change in ways you may not expect.  For those of you thinking about continuing on to a Ph.D. from an M.A., I hope this article shed new light on some of the ways in which they differ so that you are better equipped to make the right decision for you.


About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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