What is a Postgraduate Degree
What is the difference between a masters and a doctoral degree?
The most basic difference between an MSc and a PhD is that the PhD is the higher degree: it requires more effort and time to obtain. However, in practice the difference is more subtle than this. Indeed, by convention a Masters degree is normally awarded following the successful examination of a dissertation, which means a discourse or discussion. A PhD is awarded on the basis of a thesis (an assertion or tenet that has to be proved against critical argument). In practice, however, the two terms are commonly used interchangeably.
A Masters degree is frequently a student's first encounter with real research. Its primary function is training in research. It is a clearly circumscribed piece of work that the supervisor feels confident can be undertaken within, or close to, the minimum time period. The skills imparted, and which the candidate hones through the process, include posing a research question, undertaking a relevant literature review, engaging rigorously with research methods, drawing valid conclusions and communicating findings in a clear, logical and scholarly way. Importantly, the work does not have to contain original findings - it must simply demonstrate a mastery of the methods of research.
The degree of Doctor of Philosophy, on the other hand, demands that the candidate is able to conduct independent research on his/her own initiative. Through the thesis the candidate must be able to demonstrate in his/her thesis that he/she is at the academic forefront in the topic selected, that the work is original and that it advances knowledge.
Masters Degrees in Science
A candidate entering a Masters programme must generally have a BSc (Honours) degree or four year undergraduate equivalent. Departments in the Science Faculty offer three types of Masters degree; the differences are summarised below:
- Master of Science: This is a research-based degree in which a dissertation on a selected research topic is completed under the guidance of a supervisor. The majority of students in the Science Faculty complete their MSc degree in this manner. Entrance requirements are a BSc(Hons) degree or four year equivalent.
- Master of Science (by coursework and dissertation): In this degree a candidate completes 50% of the requirement through coursework, and 50% by way of a dissertation on a piece of supervised research. The dissertation is by definition smaller in scope than one completed where the dissertation counts for the full degree. Entrance requirements are a BSc(Hons) degree or four year equivalent.
- Master of Philosophy (MPhil): This is either a research degree, or a degree obtained by coursework and dissertation, for candidates engaged in cross-faculty research dissertations or where a candidate comes from a non-science academic background. Three departments offer this degree in the Faculty of Science - Environmental & Geographical Science, Computer Science and Archaeology. Entrance requirements are an Honours degree or four year equivalent.
A detailed listing of the fields in which higher degrees are offered in the Faculty is set out in the Faculty Handbook.
Doctoral Degrees in Science
There are two types of doctoral degrees offered in Science - a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) and DSc (Doctor of Science). The former is obtained via research submitted as a thesis and is in practice by far the most common mechanism for obtaining a Doctoral degree. The DSc degree has very rarely been awarded at UCT, and is normally based on a career of high quality publications focussed on some or other topic; in this regard it is more relevant to senior researchers late in their careers. The entrance requirement to the PhD is a Masters degree, but it is sometimes possible to upgrade to a PhD after completing the first year of Masters research.
Academic Location of the Degrees
Masters degrees are awarded by the Science Faculty. Masters degrees are discipline-specific and students are located within the appropriate department. The PhD is a University degree (the award of the degree is the responsibility of the Doctoral Degrees Board), but students are academically located in the department of the principal supervisor.