Professional Master’s vs. Research Master’s: What You Need To Know | Top Universities

Get assisted by higher education experts

Our expert teams can help start your academic journey by guiding you through the application process.

Professional Master’s vs. Research Master’s: What You Need To Know

By Stephanie L

Updated March 10, 2021 Updated March 10, 2021

Sponsored by Clarkson University

When it comes to pursuing a postgraduate degree, you might find yourself wondering whether you should opt for a research master’s or a professional master’s. While they share some similarities, they also have key differences, ranging from course duration to mode of learning, course content, how you’re assessed, and even the application process.

We’ve teamed up with Clarkson University in the United States to find out what you need to know about both options.

What you learn and how you learn

It’s important to ask yourself what you want from your master’s experience and what your reasons are for studying one. Looking back at your undergraduate degree, did you like having a set timetable? Or did you enjoy the freedom that came with researching your capstone or thesis project? Are you looking for an academic challenge or do you want to enhance your career development? It’s these questions that can help you come to a final decision.

Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect:

Professional master’s

A professional master’s is perfect for a student who wants to move forward in a field or add new skills. Typically, they are more course-based and more structured with a timetable of lectures, seminars and lab sessions made up of a certain number of core modules and electives. Most professional master’s programs assess students throughout the year via set assignments, group projects, presentations and exams.

Many professional master’s conclude with a significant project, similar to a thesis, but of an applied nature, rather than theoretical. Other programs end with a comprehensive exam and some are entirely course based, where students graduate after completing all requirements.

If you’re wanting to work towards a particular profession and develop a more well-rounded skillset, a professional master’s is usually the best option. You may also wish to pursue a professional master’s if you want to expand your knowledge of a particular subject for your own personal development and interest. 

For Ryan Coleman, the MS in Engineering & Management Systems at Clarkson University was an “easy decision to make.”

“I wanted to absorb as much classroom education as possible for my degree, so when I was presented with the option to do research vs taking additional classes, it was an obvious choice,” said Ryan.

Research master’s

A research master’s is an advanced research-based degree with a heavy emphasis on self-directed work. You should be prepared to learn independently and have a good sense of self-discipline as there may be very few timetabled classes (or none at all!), as your time will instead be dedicated to completing a single large project. For the extended research project, you will be assigned a suitable supervisor who can offer guidance and support.

A research master’s is ideal if you have a keen interest in extensive academic research, want to develop your research skills and ultimately narrow your focus to a more specialized field of study.

This is something which Joshua Fontana realized after completing an internship at Naval Nuclear Laboratories in 2017.

“I had planned to pursue a master’s, but I didn't know when, or what focus area, until I came back from my internship. After learning more about the optimization of using computers to fine-tune and maximize the efficiency of design, I was fascinated,” said the mechanical engineering graduate from Clarkson University.

“I knew then that I wanted to pursue a master’s immediately after my bachelor’s and that I wanted to do research in optimization. The MS in Mechanical Engineering at Clarkson University gave me that opportunity,” he said.

Because a research master’s is far more research focused, it’s considered more suitable for those who want to pursue a career in academia or progress to a PhD.

After graduating from his research master’s, Joshua revisited the idea of pursuing a PhD – something which he hadn’t given much thought since his bachelor’s.

“I thought, ‘maybe I would like to earn a doctorate and become a professor’, but the idea of actually pursuing a PhD seemed distant, almost unattainable,” said Joshua. “I did consider the fact that the research master’s kept the door open to a PhD more so than a professional master’s, but I wasn’t planning on pursuing a PhD just then [during his bachelor’s].”

Fast forward to today, and Joshua is currently completing his PhD in mechanical engineering.

The application process

Similar to the course content and format, the application process for both types of master’s come with similarities and differences which you should pay close attention to. At Clarkson University for example, CVs are a requirement for all applications.  

“They [CVs] provide a great opportunity to get relevant information that doesn’t appear elsewhere in the application file in front of the admission committee,” said Colleen Thapalia, Senior Director of Graduate Recruitment & Enrollment Marketing at Clarkson University.

“If you are a research-oriented applicant, your resume should include publications you’ve had, even if they were in student journals,” she explained. “Similarly, mention any research presentations you’ve given. Do you have teaching experience? Put that on the resume so that you will be a good candidate for teaching assistantships.”

But what if you’re applying for a professional master’s?

“Include all work experience on the resume,” said Colleen. “This can include student internships, if they were significant, especially if you haven’t graduated from your bachelor’s degree or graduated only recently.

“Activities or achievements in professional organizations can help applicants distinguish themselves from the crowd,” she added.

Looking to the future

Earlier we mentioned how a professional master’s may be more suited to those who have a specific career path in mind, while a research master’s offers a strong foundation if you want to work in a research-based career.

Joshua is currently studying for his PhD, but is hoping to get involved in developing engineering software, more so with a company where he can “see the real benefit to society that the product brings.”

That’s not to say a career in academia isn’t an option either. “I think I would like teaching and research, but the competition is tough, and the work-week is long for that kind of occupation.

“I will have to see what kinds of opportunities are available when I graduate, but these are my thoughts right now."

After completing the MS in Engineering & Management Systems, Ryan plans to continue working as an engineer at Naval Nuclear Laboratories. However, there’s always the possibility of exploring other avenues where a master’s can be of a benefit.

It’s important to not be discouraged if you’re having difficulty choosing between one master’s program versus another. A professional master’s doesn’t mean you can’t pursue a PhD if that is what you’d like to do, and a research master’s doesn’t mean you can’t pursue a career that’s not in academia. To get a good idea of what you can go on to do after your master’s, visit the careers section on the university’s website to find out more, or contact the admissions office for additional advice and support.

Lead image credit: Becca Tapert on Unsplash

This article was originally published in November 2020 . It was last updated in March 2021

Want more content like this Register for free site membership to get regular updates and your own personal content feed.

Written by

As the Head of Sponsored Content for and (until September 2021), Stephanie created and published a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. She attended the University of Portsmouth where she earned a BA in English Language and an MA in Communication and Applied Linguistics.

+ 3 others
saved this article

+ 4 others saved this article

Related Articles Last year

Most Shared Last year

Most Read Last year