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Is there some quantifiable difference between those who seek master's degrees and those who seek doctorates? If there is, does the difference justify the current distinction between the two?

The distinction seems like a product of institutional culture rather than anything practical. But that's just my view as an outsider. Regardless, I'd love to get y'all's insight in this matter.

closed as unclear what you're asking by Peter Jansson, jakebeal, Anonymous Mathematician, JeffE, xLeitix Jan 9 '15 at 10:34

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  • I edited the title so as to avoid having this question closed as too "opinion based" (see the help center). Can you edit the post to explain what you mean by a "quantifiable difference"? Examples might help. Right now, this question is totally unclear to me. – ff524 Jan 8 '15 at 6:32
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    Your question is worded in terms of whether there are differences between "the people". But the body of your question seems more concerned with the nature of the degree or skills learnt or the work required. If you mean the latter, then perhaps reword the question. – Jeromy Anglim Jan 8 '15 at 7:00
  • By quantifiable difference I mean mostly intellectual and technical capability. But it can be any metric really. – Dharma Bum Jan 8 '15 at 7:03
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    You refer to students who "seek" a degree, suggesting that you are asking about the inherent qualities of such students before they begin their degree. I don't think this is what you actually mean. Please edit your question to clarify. – ff524 Jan 8 '15 at 12:33
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    Your question may become clearer if you specify what you mean with "the current distinction between the two": is it differences in pay, status, or something else? Are you talking about inside or outside academia? – Maarten Buis Jan 8 '15 at 15:04
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The distinction seems like a product of institutional culture rather than anything practical.

The distinction between masters and PhD is very practical: a PhD is in essence vocational training for future researchers, while a master is intended for those who want to know more than they learned in their bachelor but do not want to become a researcher.

So a meaningful dimension on which you could expect Master and PhD students to differ would be their intended future career. Notice that this is not a hierarchical dimension like intellectual and technical capability, it is just a difference in kind.

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    In some systems, it really is hierarchical, since a master's degree is a prerequisite for starting a PhD. – Tobias Kildetoft Jan 8 '15 at 12:21
  • I don't think you understood the question. What is the practical difference between the training someone receives in a PhD program verses a masters? And does the difference justify the distinction placed between the two? Asked another way, why should I be willing to rank a PhD higher given the same amount of time in field? – Dharma Bum Jan 8 '15 at 12:21
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    @DharmaBum What do you mean by "the same time in the field"? That seems to assume they are now both in industry (as continuing in academia is usually not an option without a PhD). – Tobias Kildetoft Jan 8 '15 at 13:02
  • If you want a researcher, you should rank a PhD higher as they received specific training to do that task. If you want other tasks performed, then you should rank someone specifically trained for those tasks higher. So the ranking of grades is not absolute but depends on the task that needs to be performed. – Maarten Buis Jan 8 '15 at 14:58
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What is the practical difference between the training someone receives in a PhD program verses a masters?

In one sentence, experience with planning and conducting scientific research in a particular subject domain.

A Master's degree may be viewed as an fast-track apprenticeship program. If done right, it allows the apprentice to get their feet wet in a knowledge domain, try out a relatively small-scale, "practice" project of independent research, and get oriented in the general space and culture of graduate-level academic (or "serious" professional, as in applied fields like business) life and work through a 1-2 year period of focused study.

In comparison, a PhD is a substantial, systematic program of study with a duration, structure, and checks and balances intended to make it difficult to cut corners, and instead to fully invest one's intellect in training of research in a particular knowledge domain.

This is a big area though, encompassing a fairly long laundry list of competencies, from subject matter knowledge (including past research, currest state the art, and future prospects), analytical thinking (both in the intricacies of the subject matter as well as practical issues of how to formulate, address, and communicate findings related to questions answering which is of value to the field and hopefully society at large).

At the end of the day, as has been pointed out, both are types of vocational training intended to provide a foundation upon which one might build themselves to become a professional in a particular area.

In some sense, both Masters and PhD are indicators of commitment to a particular occupation. It is relatively easy to try something out for a year or two, requiring some but not a very large amount of commitment, time, and effort.

It is relatively more difficult to do this for an extended period of time (typically 5-6 years) and invest oneself fully into a large, long-term research project where much time-on-task is expected and personal discipline, perseverance, and abilities to overcome challenges and make a recognized contribution to a field are put to the test.

The practical difference is that a person with a PhD would be expected, ideally, to be that much more effective in doing these kinds of things and exhibiting these types of qualifies as applied to a research-intensive occupation, all other things being equal. That is the working assumption, and the 'why' in 'why do a PhD'.

Why should I be willing to rank a PhD higher given the same amount of time in field?

Whether you are willing to rank a PhD above MA/MS depends on the value you attribute to the practical difference between the two (previous question). If these differences are relevant to your concerns, then you will probably interpret a PhD as carrying more 'weight' in terms of these relevant characteristics. So to some extent it is a matter of personal perspective. Also to some extent, you may want to defer to the "institutional culture" in ranking a PhD higher if your personal perspective aligns with that culture (stated differently, if you subscribe to the same premises).

One example of this is if you consider yourself sharing the cultural norms which exist in certain settings, of valuing greater ability in academic writing, experience conducting scholarly / scientific research (e.g. selecting appropriate methodology, planning/conducting the study, acknowledging methodological limitations, and clearly writing up the background/method/results/discussion).

What it boils down to, in my opinion, is the assumption that experience equals ability. The practical purpose for earning a PhD is formally engaging in a multi-year program of professional development with the assumption that it will yield greater skills/knowledge (ability) in a particular subject domain, as well as in some transferable skill areas such as research competency, as in the example above.

Some resources:

What's the difference between a masters and a doctoral degree? (see paragraphs "Purpose and uses of a doctorate" and "Purposes and uses of a masters degree".

More focused discussion in reference to computer science

A related question on Academia

Hope this helps. Good luck!

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