Sep 9, 2022

What is the difference between a MS and PhD in engineering?

Overview: Every term, students wander into my office asking about the difference between an MS and PhD degree.  Below are the highlights I try to convey. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy 


Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash
As an undergraduate, you learn the knowledge (ideas, concepts, mechanisms, relationships) that practitioners in your field already possess. Your instructors seek to help you understand that sea of new ideas and if you listen closely, they sometimes let it drop that there are still a lot of unknowns or gaps in your field’s knowledge.  As a thesis-masters student, you get training on how to identify such gaps, design an experimental method to produce that new knowledge, and practice the research process.  You complete this work parallel to taking a series of courses more challenging work than you took as an undergraduate (or at least they should be) and then you write a thesis.  This thesis is presented to a committee of faculty members to ensure the research quality.  The process typically takes 1.5-2 years for most people, but can be as short as one year.  A doctoral degree, on the other hand, takes longer.  It can take between 4-6 years to complete.  The difference in length is because a PhD must have produced new knowledge for their field. 


Depending on your desired career path and interests, one of the two will be a better investment.  Many people who want to pursue technical sales or design jobs will not gain any advantage from obtaining a PhD. However, those who want to lead a team of researchers at a company, national lab, or academic institution typically need to complete a doctoral degree. 


If you want to more information, I found the following articles insightful.  


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at