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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:

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.

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