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Types of Master’s Degrees

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Generally speaking, there are two main types of master’s degrees: course-based (taught) and research-based. Course-based master’s degrees are based on structured course modules taught through lectures, seminars, laboratory work or distance learning, while research-based master’s degrees require the student to carry out their own research project(s) in a specialized field of study. Research master’s degrees normally take a little longer than taught master’s degrees to complete. 

It is also possible to categorize master’s degrees in terms of subject matter, level of specialization, type of coursework and entry requirements; see the lists below. (Keep in mind that naming conventions vary and some universities – such as Harvard University, University of Chicago and MIT – use Latin degree names. For example, the MA is known as magister artium or artium magister and the MSc is known as magister scientiae or scientiae magister.)

Types of master’s degrees by subject/coursework type

The following list describes in greater detail the distinct types of master’s degrees based on the most common course names used in university listings. As there is no single standardized system, you may find variations between institutions in terms of both naming and course content.

Master of Arts (MA)

Master of Arts (MA) is usually awarded in disciplines categorized as arts or social sciences, such as communications, education, languages, linguistics, literature, geography, history and music. Candidates are taught through a combination of lectures and seminars, and assessed through an examination and/or a dissertation based on an independent research project.

Master of Science (MS, MSc)

A Master of Science (MS, MSc) is usually awarded in disciplines categorized as the sciences, such as biology, chemistry, engineering, health and statistics. Certain fields such as economics and the social sciences can fall under both arts and sciences, with the individual institution deciding on what to call their master’s degree program. In such subjects, it may be the case that the MS has a stronger research component and can be perceived to hold more weight than an MA in some industries.

Master of Research (MRes)

A Master of Research (MRes) degree is designed to provide training in how to become a researcher. Containing a significantly larger research element than MA or MSc programs, an MRes may give candidates an advantage if they wish to pursue a PhD or enter a career in research. Note that some institutions may refer to MRes-style degree programs as an MSc, so it’s worth checking the course content carefully before applying.

Master by Research (MPhil)

A Master by Research (MPhil) is an advanced research-based degree which allows the candidate to focus on a particular topic in-depth and independently, to complete a single large research project. An MPhil is often seen as a precursor to a PhD, and is often used by institutions to allow students to ‘test the water’ before commencing a PhD degree program. This often takes longer to complete than other types of master’s degrees – though the length of time and the status awarded to an MPhil varies significantly depending on the country and institution.

Master of Studies (MSt)

Taught in only a few places (including Oxford, Cambridge, Canberra and Dublin), a Master of Studies (MSt) degree is comparable to the MA or MSc, requiring both classroom learning and the completion of a thesis and an examination. An MSt can serve as a provisional enrolment for a PhD in some cases. The need for this category of master’s degree partly stems from the fact that at the ‘Oxbridge’ universities and in Dublin, students who have completed a Bachelor of Arts are automatically awarded an MA after a defined time-period has passed. In contrast, those with an would MSt have completed postgraduate coursework to gain the title.

Specialized and professional master’s degrees

There are also more specialized types of master’s degrees, often focusing on a specific professional area. These are sometimes known as “tagged master’s degrees”, because they are ‘tagged’ to a certain field, or professional master’s degrees, because they focus on career development in a particular profession. Some professional master’s degrees start with the word Professional in the title, such as the Professional Science Master’s Degree (PSM), a hands-on degree with a heavy practical component giving students the skills and knowledge needed to work professionally in their chosen field.

As ever, classifications and course details will differ depending on the country and institution. Here are some of the most common examples of specialized and professional master’s degrees:

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is designed to give students the skills and knowledge required for career progression in business and management roles. Candidates are given broad training in all aspects of business, allowing them to apply their learning to a variety of careers. Many MBA candidates are mid-career professionals, with many programs requiring at least three years’ professional experience. You can also choose to combine an MBA with a specialization such as accounting or finance, and tailor the degree to a specific field of interest. Related master’s degrees include the Master of Professional Accountancy (MPAcc) and Master of Science in Information Systems (MSIS).

Master of Library Science (MLS, MLIS, MSLS)

The Master of Library Science is designed to give students both academic and professional knowledge for entry into the workplace – in this case, libraries. Taught at an accredited library school, an MLS includes theoretical components along with a practicum (supervised practical teaching) or internship, ending with a research project or thesis. The MLS is often a requirement for professional librarian positions in the US and Canada.

Master of Public Administration (MPA)

The Master of Public Administration is a public policy degree similar to an MBA, but focusing on the public sector rather than the private sector. Students can specialize in areas such as the environment, international administration and science and technology with an aim to work for the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), not-for-profit organizations and in consulting. The MPA combines academic and professional elements, with a focus on policy analysis and management. Other public policy master’s degrees include Master of Public Policy (MPP), Master of Public Affairs (MPA) Master of Urban Planning (MUP) and Master of International Affairs (MIA).

Master of Public Health (MPH)

The Master of Public Health has academic and professional elements, taking an interdisciplinary approach to areas related to public health. Students are taught how to monitor, diagnose and regulate the health concerns of communities through public policies. Many MPH degree programs are specialized in areas such as epidemiology, global health, occupational health, and nutritional sciences. While some countries accept students with accredited bachelor’s degrees for the MPH, others only accept medical graduates.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The Master of Social Work degree prepares students for careers within the field of social work, focusing on improving the quality of life for individuals, groups and communities. The MSW is offered either as a clinical degree allowing students to work directly with clients, or as a macro-practice degree preparing students for work in political advocacy and community organizing.

Master of Laws (LLM)

The Master of Laws degree is usually taken after having graduated from a professional law degree and gives candidates the chance to combine their knowledge of the basic skills needed to become a lawyer with specialist knowledge gained through research in a particular area of law.

Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MA, MALS, MLA/ALM, MLS)

The Master of Arts in Liberal Studies is an interdisciplinary program designed to provide rigorous teaching in the liberal arts. Candidates graduate with both depth and breadth of postgraduate knowledge, with MALS programs drawing from courses and instructors from across the university’s postgraduate curriculum. Typically liberal arts students choose the course for an opportunity to intellectually challenge themselves, explore ideas and pursue knowledge, rather than to pursue a specific career path.   

Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

The Master of Fine Arts is a creative degree granted in disciplines such as the visual, performing and studio arts. This may include creative writing, graphic design, photography, filmmaking, theatre and painting. Assessment and study are both practical, culminating in a major work or performance.

Master of Music (MM/MMus)

Awarded by universities and music conservatories, the Master of Music degree combines advanced studies in a specialist applied area chosen by the student (such as music performance, composition or conducting) with advanced studies in musical theory. MM degrees could be preparation for teaching music or to become a professional in a chosen field.

Master of Education (MEd, MSEd, MIT, MAEd, MAT)

The Master of Education degree prepares students for careers in education. Some Master of Education degrees prepare student teachers to become certified, while others are more suited for experienced, already certified teachers to specialize in areas such as curriculum, instruction, special education, counseling and administration. The MIT and MAT degrees include coursework and a student teaching internship and lead to the teacher certification qualification needed to teach in public schools.

Master of Engineering (MEng)

The Master of Engineering degree can be either academic (with a focus on engineering theories and practice) or professional (with a focus on preparing students for work in the engineering field). While some MEng programs require students to become published in an industry journal, others involve training periods in industry or laboratories, or a combination of the two in order to graduate.

Master of Architecture (MArch)

The Master of Architecture is a master’s degree in architecture that assesses students through practical internships, final examinations and/or a thesis or final project in order to receive a license. As MArch degrees vary in kind, you may find different names for different types of programs. Students are required to produce coursework in subjects such as design, building science, structural engineering, architectural history and theory and professional practice.

Master's degree requirements

Finally, master’s degrees also vary in terms of the entry requirements applicants need to meet. To meet master’s degree requirements it’s usually necessary to have graduated with a bachelor’s degree (though not always), and some programs require a certain amount of professional experience. See below for the most common requirements for different types of master’s degrees.

Postgraduate master’s degrees (MA, MSc, MLA, MSW, etc)

These master’s degrees are usually open to anyone who holds a bachelor’s degree. (See above for more information about the different types of postgraduate master’s degrees.)

Business or management master’s degrees (MBA, MSc, MIM, MSM, MA, MEM)

For these types of program, master’s degree requirements usually include a certain amount of professional experience, especially in the case of an MBA (Master of Business Administration). An MSc in Management (MSc, MIM, MSM) typically requires a bachelor’s degree in social sciences, while an MA in Management is more likely to accept candidates from all backgrounds. The Masters in Engineering Management (MEM) is specially designed for engineering students.

Executive master’s degrees (EMBA, EMS)

Designed specifically for mid-career executive professionals, executive master’s degrees require candidates to have gained significant professional experience – even more than in the case of an MBA. The most common are Executive Master in Business Management (EMBA) or Executive MSc programs.

Postgraduate research master’s degrees (Master by Research)

Master by Research programs are designed for those who hold a bachelor’s degree with a significant research component and/or have several published research papers.

Integrated master’s degrees (MEng, MMath, MSci, etc)

These are master’s degrees that follow on directly from an undergraduate degree program, most commonly available in scientific and technology subjects. So it’s possible to apply for an integrated master’s degree program directly after completion of secondary-level education. Integrated master’s degree programs usually last a year longer than it would take to earn an undergraduate degree, and students may have the option to skip the final year and just graduate at bachelor’s level instead.

There is also the option (particularly in countries such as the US) to earn a master’s degree alongside your undergraduate studies. This is called “en route”, “in passing” or “in course” and is awarded following the successful completion of coursework and certain examinations.

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Written by Hasna Haidar

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13 Comments

you forgot MID which is Master in Interior Design, hehe

hi, please can I have information on universities that have courses in social work

Thanks so much for nice blog.

You missed my Master of Economics :P

Hi, I had a question about a master's degree title I saw the other day on a university website, I would like to know the difference between Master of Engineering Science (MESc) and Master of Science(MSc)?

Hello, altough its still a little early for me, i am very interested in Master's degree, and i have always had a dream of living in japan. But as of now, i am living in norway, and wondering if you have any advice towards what occupation i should deepen my knowlegde for? It is supposed to be pretty tough for foreigners to get a good system going for themeselves in japan, and most end up as english teachers. Honestly, i wouldn't mind becoming a teacher there, but isn't there a safer route to success? Or a better way of getting steady income, without overworking?

I'm sorry for throwing this on you all of the sudden, so if you find it to troublesome, i wouldn't hold a grudge if you don't bother sending advice, because this is really something i am supposed to research myself... But since i lack experience, i come asking for help. So it is alright if you don't respond. :D

this was really a helpful blog. Thank you.
I have query which is
I have completed my Bachelors in Accounting & Finance and also Masters in Accounts from Mumbai (India).
I want to do Masters in USA.so can you help me out in selecting an appropriate course.
Thank You.

Hi Sameer,

Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you found the blog useful. The Politics and International Studies rankings are definitely a good starting point. You can also use the filters at the top to prioritise factors such as research citations and academic reputation, as both can be a reflection of the quality of postgraduate courses/teaching. Once you've found some potential institutions, I would suggest taking a closer look by reading up on their available courses. You might find the perfect 'International Development and Public Policy' course offered by some of the top universities for Politics and International Studies, or they may even offer a way to tailor your course to fit your interests. Ultimately this means going through the courses offered by each of the universities and matching them to your specific interests. You might also find our University Finder helpful, which offers university profiles and the ability to filter your results by location and course type. It should help you to narrow down your choices, while giving you some useful information about each university.

I hope this information has helped you. Best of luck in your search!

Hasna.

Hi, I want to ask you that bachelors degree which you has mentioned as a requirement for M.Sc., is 2 years bachelors degree (14 years of education)? Or 4 years bachelors degree (16 years of education)? Please specify

Hello,
I have questions about these master programs that are really making me confused.
first of all i live in Iran, and i have bachelor's degree in physics engineering.
Can I enroll in Master of Science in Engineering Or Technology Management OR General Business or .... (courses like that) and getting my master's degree ?
How can i know what major is the best for me, because im pretty sure that i wont continue my bachelor degree in master again.
Can you PLEASE help me with it and tell me differences about for example : master of science in operation and technology management, General Business, MS accounting, MS analytic , MSc accounting ....
Parameters:

1. Course-content
2. Prerequisites
3. Career opportunities
which of these majors are available for me with Unrelated bachelor degree ? and what master program do you suggest for me?
Thanks for your help :)

Hi Samaneh, this question will depend on your chosen university as all schools have different requirements. In many cases you can enrol on a master's degree with a unrelated bachelor's degree, but sometimes leading schools will ask for a related degree. To find out whether you fit the entry requirements you should check under 'program details' and 'entry requirements for international students' on the official university website. See our subject rankings to find the world's top schools in your subject. 

For more information on the differences between programs see our range of engineering & technology and social sciences course guides.

Good luck! L

Hi Hasna - I found this blog quite informative and I have been trying to find the difference between MSc and MA. Thanks for writing this. On a separate note, could you help me with the better ranked and accepted Masters courses in the field of international development and public policy. I tried searching the QS rankings through the available filters but it has a broad filter called Politics and International Relations, which does not help me reach the target list. Any inputs on either courses or institutions will help. My preference is for a one year course. Thank you.

really this is very informative post..