In the US, except for professional master's degrees like MSW, one can get a master's for free, in less time (and even get paid a stipend) by starting a PhD then dropping out.

(In my PhD, you could do this with nothing but one year of ordinary coursework and a single modern language test.)

And starting a PhD program gives you the option of continuing.

So, why does anyone pay for a master's degree in cases where they could instead pursue the above plan?

  • 22
    Because the entry requirements are (much) lower?
    – Peter K.
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 11:41
  • 31
    Because it's unehtical? Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 19:23
  • 4
    Because they have the money!
    – Wakem
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 23:50
  • 1
    Many course-based master's degrees can be completed in one year. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 4:36
  • @BrianBorchers But they are much more expensive than a PhD, which is typically funded. Also, starting a PhD program gives you the option of continuing.
    – Joshua Fox
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 5:15

10 Answers 10


One possibility is that if you did want to do a PhD later on, you'll find it much harder to get back into a one if you dropped out of one already.

Also, I've found there are usually many more positions available for master's students than PhD students at a University. For a Masters's, space is usually limited by space in lecture halls, while PhD's are hard limited by the number of supervisors available. For master's projects, each supervisor can usually have several at the same time (in the same year), while for PhD's (depending on the field) supervisors may only take one (or a small number) students per year. Thus it would be easier to get into a (paid) master's as opposed to a PhD.

Finally its a bit of impolite move on the students behalf. Depending on how the funding is structured (for the supervisor) they may not be able to get a another student after you drop out, to "take over" the project. Thus they have wasted time on their project. Its also pretty impolite to the other students who could have taken your place and seen the PhD through to the end.

  • I studied at an R1 that had about 150 doctoral students and around 50 faculty. I don't actually remember anyone who was there for just a masters. So, I worry about the first sentence in the second paragraph: "... many more positions available...".
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 13:35
  • 3
    Sure this assumes that a master program exists.
    – Rob
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 13:56
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    Perhaps one could consider it impolite if done with full intention. But in practice, dropping it is emotionally laden and is often recognized by all as the best choice. Unless the student brags about it, I don't think that impoliteness usually the most salient aspect.
    – Joshua Fox
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 14:07
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    @JoshuaFox This answer's suggestion of impoliteness is based on the premise of your question which is that it is done with full intention. I think the answer was being generous with the word impolite. Unethical / immoral would also be suitable words.
    – JBentley
    Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 20:55
  • 2
    I don't care about the university it's the supervisor it's impolite to. It's alot of work to get funding, then to find that it is wasted because your student had no intention of finishing (it's different if they have to drop out for other reasons), is impolite.
    – Rob
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 13:37

I suspect that there are a lot of factors.

One is that there are a lot of universities in the US that have masters programs, but no doctoral program. Some of their masters students just continue on from a bachelors at the same place.

A second factor is that there are more needs out there for education and "mad skilz" than you might expect. Programs in management, for example, are often taken by employed (night school masters) for advancement in their current job. Employers used to pay for this, but I think that is rare now. But an advance will come with better salary and more opportunities. I've seen the same to be true among software developers. They want to modernize their skills, but not do research. The masters may be tailored for these needs where doctoral study is not.

A third factor involves what a student's advisor will support. Some will recognize that a student isn't really suitable for a career in academia and will only write letters for masters level applications.

A fourth (probably minor) factor is that not all students understand that you don't need to get a masters first to join a doctoral program in the US and, perhaps surprisingly, no one tells them otherwise.

A fifth factor is that some people just have different goals than others and, while they want to learn more, don't really consider doctoral study and/or don't want to game the system in the way you suggest they can.

A sixth factor, of course, is that the standards and requirements for admission to doctoral study are pretty high and the competition is pretty fierce. Someone faking it will probably give of "tells" that can be caught during the process. If you don't express true commitment in you SoP then you are probably less likely get in.

  • 1
    "student isn't really suitable for a career in academia" That's not relevant to PhD admissions as most PhDs don't have a career in academia. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/17431/… Commented Dec 29, 2021 at 23:00
  • 1
    I think the second factor deserves special emphasis: Most masters degrees aren't research degrees and do not have a comparable structure nor substance to "mastering out" of a PhD.
    – user137975
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 20:47
  • @Anonymous M a master's degree is still a master's degree, and helps you get a job.
    – Joshua Fox
    Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 18:47
  • @JoshuaFox I can't disagree more strongly with this: A research masters is very different professionally from a focused professional masters. But feel free to ping me in chat if you'd like to discuss further.
    – user137975
    Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 21:47

I just retired and started an MS program. Why didn't I apply to the Ph.D. program?

  1. Admission to the local Ph.D. program is highly competitive. The MS program, not so much.

  2. The requirements for the MS degree are not onerous, no prelims, no qualifiers, I only have to find one other referee besides my final project advisor, i.e. no putting together a thesis committee that may end up having to sit for 4-6 years.

  3. I have enough savings that I can take care of tuition and living expenses without a strain. I've been a TA before. No thank you. I have other things I want to do with my time.

  4. Because I'm funding myself, I can study whatever I can convince some faculty member to advise me on.

  5. The program can be part time, so I can adjust my MS work load to accommodate my other post-retirement activities.

  6. I'm not seeking to start a new career. I'm just exercising my curiosity in a more rigorous way than a self directed reading program.

There are a few other retirees in the program. I accept that we're a bit of an edge case. Most of the other students are already working at jobs they like and that are quite remunerative, mostly in engineering or software development. Taking a position as a funded Ph.D. student would require them to give up their well-paid job for a not so well paid TA or RA. If they really wanted a Ph.D. they could try to convince their companies to given them time and funding to work on their research project at the Ph.D. level. Certainly possible, but a much higher bar.


Consider the example of Stanford. It is significantly easier to get into the MS program there than the Ph.D. program. So, if you can only get admitted to the MS program, and think it will help your career enough to be worth the money, then you might choose that route. I think companies will sometimes pay for all or part of a master's degree.

Other universities simply offer stipends and research positions based on qualifications, independently of whether the student intends to leave with a master's or stay for a Ph.D. And some universities will admit students to the Ph.D. program without promising funding. So it's not always a matter of "pay for a master's, get paid for a Ph.D."


In addition to the other answers:

  • People pay for expensive masters degrees because they have been tricked by clever university marketing. This is the same as other expensive unnecessary purchases, like oversized, inefficient vehicles.
  • Many people think you have to pay for a PhD.

Many masters programs exist only to generate revenue.

  • 1
    This is really the answer. Paying to study in a graduate-level program is a scam, and whatever extent to which is is "unethical" to do apply-as-PhD-and-drop-out, it's 1000x more unethical for an institution to accept non-fully-funded students into a graduate program (masters or PhD) to begin with. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 5:08
  • 3
    This can further be expanded: Some countries require a masters for a PhD (most European countries), these people may not be aware that they could immediately continue with a PhD. There is also sometimes a certain suspicion towards some other countries and their education systems (lack of trust in grading, risk of corruption etc.), so a Masters buys a "locally" accepted degree. - All these play into the university's hands of selling expensive Masters degrees.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 6:06
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    @DetlevCM The question specifies United States. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 16:06
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    Some expensive professional graduate degrees are not scams. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 16:07
  • 1
    Many expensive professional graduate degrees are not scams.
    – Bill Nace
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 2:34

Just going to add another perspective here for people pursuing a masters degree while working. It may be more financially advantageous to pay for a Masters instead of quitting for a year to work on a PhD.

Just to give an example, let's say I'm offered a $33k/yr stipend to pursue a PhD. One option would be to quit my job to get a PhD, but drop out after a year and get a new job with a 21.4% pay increase. Then let's say the cost of getting a Masters is $66,340. I would need to make more than $124,175/yr to be profitable staying with my company and doing a 2-year Masters program compared to taking your approach. There may not be many people this applies to, but there probably are some, especially if they can get lower tuition and/or can't get a good stipend for their PhD.

I will say that as an alternative approach, you may get the opportunity to do a PhD while you work as well, possibly as a collaboration project between your company and the collaborating university. If you do this though, I don't see a good reason to drop out early with your Masters.

  • While yours is a completely valid reason for getting a Masters, I think the question is asking why an individual would pay for a Masters. Perhaps you could adjust your financial argument to show that even if you paid for a Masters, you wouldn’t be that disadvantaged in the long run. This would then supplement other claims in this thread that Masters are easier to get into than PhDs.
    – cole
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 20:03
  • @cole good point, I've updated the question although it's not a very good argument any more. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 21:09

For smarter peoples, getting into a PhD program with the intention to leave with a Master's degree (MPhil maybe?) is, simple put, not profitable. We're not even considering the fact that PhD positions are scarce and require significant devotion and perseverance to.

PhD programs usually spans across 5 years or more, and it's rare that you can "quit as Master" in the first two years. More likely, the options are "quit with nothing" and "struggle for another year". On the contrary, one can normally finish their courses and receive a Master's degree in less than two years, and you can start a good-paying job right away. The one-year difference can be much larger than you'd imagine. You can earn more than 3 years' worth of PhD stipend plus your Master's tuition. It's even worse if you failed to "quit as Master" in year 3 and have to struggle for longer, which further amplifies the difference from job-after-Master.

Not to mention that it's easier to hunt down a decent job right before you graduate as Master than when you're quitting a PhD program, and all the efforts to enroll in PhD when a Master is much simpler.

  • Why do you say it's rare to quite with a master's in the first two years? I ask this because I know things aren't the same in every field, but in my program, everyone receives a master's after passing prelims at the end of your second year. So yes, you could quit with nothing early (as in a master's), but there's no "struggling for another year." Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 0:36
  • @AzorAhai-him- That certainly depends on the specific fields and programs one's enrolled in, and maybe more on your advisor - typically advisor wouldn't want you to quit PhD right after the first two years, especially when your research projects are still ongoing, which is not a case for Masters.
    – iBug
    Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 5:43
  • Well, yeah, no advisor would want you to quit, but you can, so I'm curious why you say its rare to be able to quit with a master's. Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 18:11
  • @AzorAhai-him- Technically nobody can detain you and force you to complete the PhD, but practically there are much more to be taken into account when quitting early. For example, you're most likely burning bridges with your advisor (and sometimes worse, a good lot of your reputation around the field), or may have a hard time answering about your PhD life to interviewers, or need extra time to find your first job. None of these are normally issues when you complete your PhD where all of them can be smoothed over in the last year.
    – iBug
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 6:23
  • What? Being a bad idea is different from being able to quit in the first two years Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 16:28

why does anyone pay for it - because human behavior is rarely optimal. The question is posed as a fantasy about a global optimum that barely amounts to a local one. There are differences between programs, and what you see as "of course everyone should" is just an indication of limited experience, nothing more. There's no question here really. It's a ruse :)

One program I'm familiar with expects you to take the PhD qualifier in the first 2-3 semesters if you are on a funded PhD track. For an MSc student, it's basically unnecessary stress, unless they enjoy redundant examinations (how would that jive with the "let's optimize everything" worldview begged by the question?). 2nd failure and you're out, BTW, and you're then nominally barred from the same field of graduate study in that department - no matter whether it's masters, doctoral or post-doc.

Another program I'm familiar with has much more funding available for Master's students than for PhD students, and all good MSc students there are funded just fine.


In India, PhD programs are extremely scarce, while Masters are offered at almost all universities of repute. Given that about 1/5th of all graduates in the world are in India, that might be a substantial influence.

  • 1
    Just a note that the question text and tag specify United States. But maybe I have misunderstood your point.
    – J W
    Commented Dec 31, 2021 at 11:45
  • 1
    @j-w you're right, I missed that tag, apologies. my answer is irrelevant :) Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 20:43

In many places you are not even allowed to start a PhD before you have finished a MSc.

There also are places where no one would actually pay to get either degree but where stipends or employment at the university would pay for the studies.

Well... unless you count "opportunity cost" as an actual cost.

  • 3
    The question specified the United States, which is not one of those places. Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 16:08

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