Do I Need a Masters (MSc) To Do a PhD?

Will a Masters degree help you to achieve your PhD dreams?

Do I Need a Masters (MSc) To Do a PhD?
Is a Masters degree key to unlocking a PhD?

If you're thinking about doing a PhD, you may be wondering whether the skills and qualifications you have will be enough. At the very least you will need a relevant undergraduate degree, or if you're older relevant experience may be enough. But do you need a masters degree?

Despite more PhDs being offered than ever before, the competition to get a funded PhD place can be pretty intense. Having a relevant MSc can substantially boost your likelihood of being successful but it's not the only thing you can have or do to evidence your suitability for a PhD program.

You'd probably be right in thinking that most people who enter a PhD program will have done a Masters first. I reckon about 70-80% of my cohort have an MSc, but some do not. So don't lose hope if you don't have one. Let's consider what an MSc is and whether you could circumnavigate getting one.

An MSc can provide specialist skills to help get a funded PhD place

I'm going to split MScs into two groups; taught and research.

Taught MScs are designed to provide you with a more tailored subject experience than your PhD or they might be used to develop skills in a new area. They are quite often more applied and may (or may not) build on your specialist subject you developed at undergraduate. These types of MSc improve both your subject-based knowledge and critical thinking skills. They come with some kind of testing e.g. reports and exams either at the end or along the way. This type of MSc helps you get a PhD because the additional specialist skills you have developed will help you tackle the subject area of your PhD better, because you are more familiar with a certain aspect of it e.g. statistics, fieldwork, or soil science... rather than a general understanding of many aspects of biological sciences for example.

If you're applying for a PhD in ecology and your undergraduate is in maths, then you will need a relevant MSc in a closely-related field to evidence that you are capable of understanding approaches and have the relevant knowledge etc.

An MSc by research (which is what I did) is basically somewhere between a one year long honours project and a one year PhD. Here you develop your research skills and write a thesis which is examined in the same way as a PhD; with a viva. My thesis was about 200 pages and the viva was about 1h 30mins long. It is one of the best ways to evidence your suitability for a PhD program, along with actual research experience.

There are qualifications that are not an MSc but can help you get ahead

There is a wealth of advanced and accredited qualifications out there that can also count towards a PhD application. These include things like leadership, health and safety, project management and many others. PhD interview panels are often looking for evidence of leadership and entrepreneurship; are you going to lead the way with a novel PhD or are you just going to accept the status quo? Being able to evidence your passion towards driving change and creativity tend to be much less apparent in people who go down the subject-based qualifications route described above. These types of qualifications can give you a really unique set of skills that can set you apart from the other candidates.

These qualifications, although expensive are often much more flexible and comparatively a lot cheaper. As an extra bonus, if they are done alongside a job, they show initiative and enthusiasm for learning and progressing yourself, even if the job you're in, isn't directly relevant to your PhD e.g. sales or hospitality.

Relevant work experience can also help be successful with funding

OK, so if you don't have an MSc, or can't afford to do one or an advanced course, don't fret; you may not need to. If you have some relevant work experience this will stand you in very good stead. And by relevant, I mean, generally involved research, or some part of the research process. If you worked as a research assistant, this is perfect or carried out data analysis for a business, this also looks really good.

Having a career break can actually improve your chances of succeeding at a PhD (Vassil and Solvak , 2012).

If you don't have either an MSc or relevant work experience, rely on your passion and enthusiasm

Ultimately, you could have all the qualifications in the world, but if you're boring and don't care about the subject you wish to pursue a PhD in, then you will not get into a PhD program. Passion and enthusiasm for the subject and research, come above all else (apart from probably an undergraduate degree, unless you have like 20 years of relevant experience). It is absolutely possible to get into a PhD program straight from an undergraduate but you will need to make yourself shine! Plenty of people do it, but you will have an uphill battle against those that have more qualifications and experience than you.

Remember that a PhD is a training program, so coming qualified is not the be all and end all. If you produce a highly professional application, give a super polished presentation and answer questions confidently and enthusiastically, then you will be in with a great chance. Chat to your potential supervisor beforehand, speak to others in the research group, maybe even shadowing for a day. The sooner they know that you will be an incredible asset to the team, the sooner you'll be on your way to a PhD.

People working together as part of a bigger puzzle
Get to know the research team you will be working with

Try and try again if you fail.

If you're worried about not having an MSc, here's the deal; try anyway. And if you fail, try again. You might not be successful, but you won't know if you don't try. I tried on four separate years to get into a PhD program; twice without an MSc and twice with. I got in the fourth time. The fourth time, I had 10 years of experience, a relevant undergraduate and a research masters both in areas I'm currently studying. It's tough, but the first three I did without a strategy.

I've worked with many undergraduates who are incredible and I would have no hesitation taking straight onto a PhD program (once I get to be a PI!!). On the other hand I've worked with PhD students who are ... well probably shouldn't be PhD students ... So lay out a strategy for yourself, then tweak it as you go.

I'll talk about strategy in another post, but for now, don't let not having an MSc get in the way of your dreams of doing a PhD. You will get there, just be prepared for a longer and more strategic battle.