I was browsing through Academia SE and found this question.

To save you from reading the whole thing, here is what confused me: the person who asked a question is in Master program at university, but the top answering person (with high reputation) asked them "By the way, do you mind my asking, why aren't you in a PhD program? In physics it seems a bit unusual to be in a Master's only program."

Maybe I got something wrong, but does this person mean that you could be in the Master AND in PhD program at the same time? How is it possible? I am going to apply to a Master program next year (in Europe: Finland, Switzerland, Russia, etc.) and all universities without exception require finished Master degree in order to apply for PhD program. I always thought that the process is the same worldwide, i.e. Bachelor -> Master -> PhD


4 Answers 4


In the US, in many fields, it's common to enter a PhD program with just a bachelor's (and typically, someone who does that can earn a masters along the way to a PhD.)

I did this myself - I am an electrical engineering PhD student with only a bachelor's degree.

  • 1
    Why is it so? I mean it basically gives US students PhD in much less time than students in Europe and Asia. Seems a bit unfair to the rest of the world, if there is no good reason. Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 3:09
  • 2
    @Science not really, see Why is there such variation in PhD length internationally?
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 3:10
  • oh, so most USA PhD programs are 5-7 years after Bachelor? hm, it makes sense.... Sorry, I was not learning much about USA system since it is not an option for me. Turns out its quite different from part of the globe I live on :) Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 3:19
  • @ScienceSamovar But actually, following your logic, the UK PhD students are at a disadvantage (check out my answer too). You can start a PhD programme straight after your BSc, and that would still last 3 to 4 years (3 of which research focused), or at least the funding would.
    – penelope
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 14:07

In addition to the other noted answers, sometimes it's possible to actually be in multiple graduate programs simultaneously if you obtain admission to one while in the other.

For example, I did not get into my Ph.D. program when I first applied, but did manage to get into the M.Eng. program, which had a separate and much easier application process. While in the M.Eng. program, I applied to the Ph.D. program again and was admitted. My second year of M.Eng. was thus also my first year of Ph.D. All of the human administrators dealt with this as fairly routine, but I had some difficulties with the computerized systems from time to time.


It can depend on whether the masters is a research masters or a course work masters. In my field of psychology in Australia it is common to do a combined Masters/PhD where the masters involves coursework and placements required for registration as a psychologist and the PhD involves doing a large thesis.

More generally, it would occasionally make sense to combine some more ad hoc course work masters with a PhD. For example, you might do a course work masters in statistics in parallel with some quantitatively focused PhD. Doing such courses in combination might violate some university rules about additional study or it might require the student to do a PhD part-time while they are doing units in the course work masters.

If you are talking about research masters degrees, then it doesn't make sense to do both a masters and a PhD by research at the same time. The exact relation between these two degrees can vary a lot between institutions, but here are some possible scenarios:

  • Students may be required to enrol in a masters and if they do good work, they may be allowed to upgrade to a PhD. This can be the case where the student failed to get adequate grades to get direct entry into a PhD.
  • Students may be required to do a masters by research in order to do a PhD. In other cases, students may simply be required to have completed a previous research thesis. So for example if they haven't completed an honours thesis, then the masters thesis is an alternative way of satisfying this requirement.
  • hm, It seems Australia is also not quite the same as Europe in that sense. I haven't seen any mention of research and course work masters, here it is just master and that's it. Like I learned in the other answer, the rules are not so similar to EU/Asia as I thought. Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 3:21
  • @ScienceSamovar Actually the UK (I know they don't really consider themselves European but ha) has both the Masters by research and ... coursework one (forgot the name). France also has something similar, two distinct types of Masters (tho I forgot their names too.. I am bad with names), one better suited for people with aspirations to research.
    – penelope
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 14:05

Since nobody mentioned it yet, the situation in the UK is similar to that of the US - a Bachelor's degree is enough to get you into a PhD programme.

The "classical" PhD here is a 3 year position, the students enrol into a Masters (by research) programme and turn in a transfer request after a year, entering the PhD programme proper. A newer format comes in the form of CDT ("Centre for Doctoral Training") positions, formally 4 years long, where the first year includes (fairly heavy) coursework and the rest focuses on research.

Still, a large portion of PhD students in the UK actually have their Masters when starting a PhD position. I attribute this to the fact that there is actually relatively low amounts of UK students vs. EU and international (non-EU) students, and they typically start applying for a PhD when it is common in their countries (having the UK as just one of the options for a PhD).

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