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MA vs MSc - What’s The Difference?

When researching postgraduate degree courses, you're likely to have come across numerous acronyms for the different qualifications on offer, for example MA, MSc, MPhil, MRes and MBA. 

This article looks at the main differences between the MA and the MSc. We explore each term, what the two programs entail, and what kind of graduate prospects you can expect following graduation. 

What is an MA?

MA vs MSc studentThe term MA stands for Master of Arts and this is a postgraduate masters qualification for subjects within the arts, humanities and social sciences. 

An MA can also cover business, consulting and management subjects, although these often come under the term MSc – the science-based equivalent of the MA – so the postgraduate qualification you gain will depend on the institution and the content of the individual courses. 

Common MA subjects include:

MA programs are offered at most universities. In the UK, MA degrees usually take one year to study full time and two years to study part time. In mainland Europe and the United States, MA degrees often take two years to complete full time.

Often, students will have studied one of the subjects at undergraduate level and want to pursue the subject as an area of interest in further detail – an MA is the ideal way to do this.

Assessments throughout the MA program will take place through a combination of exams, assignments and a dissertation.

Research MA degrees are called Masters by Research, MRes degrees or MA by research. For these, students conduct independent research and submit a dissertation, with less emphasis on taught-based teaching styles. 

What is an MSc?

MA vs MSc studentThe term ‘MSc degree’ stands for Masters of Science.  

MSc degrees focus more on scientific, curriculum-based STEM subjects such as mathematics, engineering, medicine or technology, although they can include some social sciences

Postgraduate students choose to study an MSc degree to expand their knowledge in a specialised area which can help prepare students for work in a particular field and fine-tune their knowledge and skills as well as raise their professional profile.

MSc degree subjects are typically theory-heavy with an emphasis on reading, research and lab work. Common subjects to study in an MSc degree include: 

MScs are taught masters and usually take one year to complete when studied full time at a UK university and two years to study in the UK as a part-time program. If an MSc is studied at a European or American university the course may take two years of full-time study to complete and longer if studied part time. 

To be eligible to study an MSc degree, students usually need to have a bachelors degree, ideally in a similar science-based or related subject. 

MScs are assessed in a similar way as MAs, although there may be more emphasis on examinations and a shorter word count for the dissertation. MAs and MScs are graded in the same way. 

MA vs MSc

MA vs MSc – the main differences 

The main difference between an MA and an MSc is the subject focus. An MA has a humanities and social sciences focus, whereas an MSc usually have a STEM focus, although some social sciences can be studied as either an MA or an MSc. 

For example, the University of Oxford offers an MSc in Sociology while the University at Manchester has an MA in Sociology – this demonstrates that is important to check the content of the individual masters courses on offer at the various institutions to make sure you choose the one with the right balance of research, lectures, topics and examinations for you.

MSc degrees are generally classed as professional degrees, while an MA qualification is usually an academic degree. 

However, there are a few other differences that set MAs and MSCs apart, these are: 

Subject areas

When considering an MA vs MSc, the subjects covered in each type of masters degree can be broken down into arts-based topics (for the MA) versus science-based topics (for the MSc).

An MA degree will be studied in subjects from the arts, humanities and social sciences. While an MSc degree will be in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and other more industry-led areas such as medicine and business. Some social science subjects are also offered as MSc degrees as well as MA degrees, for example anthropology and sociology.

 An MA usually offers a broader subject focus while an MSc is typically more focused on a specific area. 

For example, an MA English Language course might typically offer a broader subject focus, with several optional modules available for students to specialise in. Whereas, an MSc in Biomedical Engineering may be more restricted to the core subject, since the course itself is already highly specialised. 

Assessment methods

When it comes to assessing the MA vs MSc, both involve similar aspects, such as exams, coursework, essays and dissertation projects –  although these assessment methods can differ slightly between the MA and Msc.

An MA is typically assessed through regular coursework and essays, as well as a final dissertation. While some MAs might include exams, they are generally less exam heavy than their science-based MSc counterpart.

MSc programs are usually assessed by coursework, lab work, exams and a final dissertation. An MSc is likely to be more exam heavy than an MA degree and in many cases, the required dissertation will be shorter in length than in an MA, as it will usually be more data-driven.

Another reason for shorter dissertation lengths in MSc programs is because of the heavier exam focus - where students demonstrate practical and theoretical skills in the subject area

MA vs MSc – Exams

Teaching methods 

The teaching styles between MA and MSc courses will often differ, with varying levels of independent research and taught elements depending on the subject being studied.

An MA combines taught elements with theoretical and research aspects, which often means it will be more research-heavy compared to an MSc. An MA student will take part in taught-based study in the form of lectures, seminars and workshops, but will be expected to conduct much of their own independent research to supplement this. Although, academic staff will always be on hand to provide guidance and advice.

An MSc focuses more on taught-based learning, which includes lectures, seminars, workshops, laboratory work and experiments. However, an MSc degree will still require some independent research and theoretical study alongside this.

An MSc can sometimes involve practical aspects, for example some MSc programs will include degree apprenticeships or paid internships as part of the course. This can provide excellent opportunities to those with a good idea of what their industry-based professional goal is. MAs typically don’t offer internships or apprenticeships, as they are more theoretical in their approach.

Graduate outcomes 

The graduate outcomes of an MSc degree will differ from those of an MA degree. The most important thing you can do when choosing between an MSc or MA degree is to evaluate your goals and objectives. Remember that a masters degree is subject-focused, whereas an MSc degree has a more technical and scientific approach in your chosen professional area – this means it is important to think about your ultimate career goals to make sure you study the right postgraduate degree for your needs.

An MSc could be considered to be suitable for more direct career paths, eg studying an MSc in Geology could make the graduate focus specifically on careers in geology, whereas an MA in English Language could lend itself to broader career paths in fields such as media, advertising, PR, teaching or even HR or banking.  

The MA is more likely to be a terminal degree

The phrase ‘terminal degree’ is mainly used in the United States and refers to the highest degree that can be awarded in a specific academic subject. In most cases a doctorate or a PhD will be the terminal degree, particularly with MSc degrees which in many cases prepare students to work on a doctoral degree (PhD) and can often lead to a career in academia.

Many MAs are terminal degrees, although MA students can also continue to study their subjects at PhD level. Equally, many MSc students go on to pursue careers in their studied field after graduating, as their MSc is well respected in their chosen field of work. 

MA vs MSc entry requirements

The entry requirements for MA and MSc programs differ between institutions, so make sure you check with your prospective university to avoid disappointment. 

Both MA and MSc programs require an undergraduate degree in a related subject with a minimum of a 2:1 equivalent or B grade average.

Evidence of previous undergraduate work, such as a dissertation or project, may also be required to demonstrate that you are able to successfully participate in masters level study.

For some subjects demonstration of technical and specialist knowledge may be required, this is particularly likely to be the case with a science-based MSc degree, such as chemistry, where you might require previous lab experience. Although, for MA subjects, this is much less likely. 

Whilst it is not common, some MSc degrees might require relevant work experience in order to gain a place on the course. Additionally, some MSc and MA programs may require you to interview as part of the application process.

All of these possible entry requirements depend on the MA or MSc course and university so always check details before applying to the program. 

So which is better, an MA or an MSc?

MA vs MSc studentThere is no correct answer to whether an MA or an MSc is better. Both degrees carry academic prestige and are extremely well respected by employers. They both equally serve as an indication of your dedication to pursuing your career goals. 

It is important to pick a postgraduate program based on how well the subject aligns with your personal interests and goals, and not to focus on the title of the qualification.

Consider whether an MA or MSc is better suited for your career goals. If you are interested in pursuing a practical industry-based career then an MSc might be the right choice for you, however if your passion lies with the arts and a career in media awaits, an MA degree is likely to be the right choice. 

Discover more about MA degrees and MSc degrees at Postgrad.

Ready to start searching for your ideal MA or MSc program? Search for a range of courses today. Don’t forget to check out our advice pages for help with every aspect of your postgraduate search and study! 


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