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Master of Arts (MA) - The Complete Guide

A Master of Arts (MA) is a type of masters degree completed after undergraduate study. An MA degree is a Master of Arts degree, meaning the course specialises in an art, humanities or social science based subject, such as history, sociology or philosophy.

MA degrees are offered by most universities worldwide. The science-based equivalent of the MA degree is the Master of Science (MSc) degree.

This article covers everything you need to know about an MA qualification, from how long it takes to complete an MA, to where you can study an MA, as well as  what kind of subjects an MA degree includes.

Explore the full overview of other types of masters courses in our postgraduate degree guide.

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What is an MA degree?

An MA degree is a postgraduate masters qualification. Master of Arts degrees are common across most universities and are the equivalent of a Master of Science (MSc) degree for arts, humanities and social science subjects. An MA can also cover business, consulting and management subjects. 

Like many other degrees, the term ‘MA’ is an abbreviation for the Latin term Magister Artium, which translates to ‘Master of Arts’.

A Master of Arts is one of the most long-established masters degrees in the education system, making it widely recognised worldwide. MA progams will typically involve research, essay writing, taught lectures, practical exercises and dissertation work. 

An MA is studied following an undergraduate degree, usually a Bachelor of Arts in the same or similar subject. Studying an MA gives you the opportunity to develop expertise in your chosen subject area and further develop your research skills. It can also help you develop valuable skills used to advance your career and expand your job opportunities. 

MA degree overview

Here is an overview of the Master of Arts at a glance:

Teaching style

Taught degree

Level of qualification (NQF)

7

Subject areas

Humanities, arts and social sciences

Length of study (full-time)

1-2 years

Credits (CAT)

180

Master of Arts subjects

MA degrees most typically encompass arts, social science and humanities subjects, but can include a whole range of disciplines outside of these areas.

Be careful when looking into these subjects, as some courses, like Geography for example, can be classed under both arts and science based degrees. As a result, studying a particular subject at one university may get you an MA, but another might get you an MSc.

Courses that tend to be on the borderline, or counted as one of the social sciences, are the most likely to vary. It’s worth checking which they are, as it will affect the teaching style. 

For instance, an MA in Religious Studies will be very much engaging with the concepts and texts, but an MSc is likely to be an anthropology-style course.

Master of Arts entry requirements

In order to be eligible for a Master of Arts, you’ll need to have completed an undergraduate degree – usually with a grade of 2.1 and above. The MA qualification is the next step up from undergraduate study, which is why a relevant undergraduate qualification is usually required. 

Universities may offer exceptions for students who have not achieved a 2.1 in their BA (Bachelor of Arts degree), particularly if they have relevant work experience, so it is always worth getting in touch with the university to check this. 

Most students who study an MA will have studied a BA at undergraduate level, although this is not always a requirement. It is possible to study an MA if you have previously studied a BSc, depending on the university and course. Some students study an MA in order to change their subject entirely.

You should always check the specific course requirements when deciding which Master of Arts degree you’d like to pursue.

What’s involved in a Master of Arts?

In the UK, an MA will typically be a  taught masters, rather than a research masters – research masters are usually referred to as an  MRes

This means that the masters program will involve taught elements of study, such as lectures, seminars and workshops. You will also be expected to conduct independent research throughout the course for your assignments and dissertation project, although the research-based aspects won’t be as prevalent as they are with an MRes degree. 

Like with an undergraduate degree, these are not all compulsory (no-one takes attendance at lectures) but attendance is still highly recommended. 

Not only will taught aspects of an MA degree help you learn, but they’re also a useful chance to get to know tutors, which is a definite advantage if you plan to do further study after your MA degree! You will be tested on these taught elements throughout your time on the MA program, though it may not necessarily be an exam. On some courses, you’ll be assigned coursework or short essays to assess your progress, whereas others will use  exams.

Choice of modules

As an MA degree is designed to advance your undergraduate knowledge, but still be broad enough to give you a decent coverage of the subject, it’s worth checking specific course details. 

In many cases, the courses will include many options, with a choice of broader and more specific topics to accommodate different student needs. Some students will have a clear ideal of the area they wish to specialise in, whereas some may only be starting out in the subject. 

Many students will study a Master of Arts in a subject that is different to their undergraduate degree. For example, progress from a philosophy undergraduate degree to a theology MA degree, or similar.

Generally, when choosing an arts subject for your masters, you’ll find you apply to a general course (MA History, perhaps), but then you’ll apply for particular modules or units offered within the course, such as Contemporary History or Medieval History. You’ll therefore be studying one area of the topic in a lot more detail than you will have done at the undergraduate level.

How long is an MA degree?

Typically, a UK-based MA degree is completed over the space of one year with full-time study. However an MA program may sometimes take two years to complete, depending on the course and university. 

The length of an MA degree can also differ between countries and whether you decide to study full time or part time. 

A UK Master of Arts is completed across a full 12-month period, unlike Bachelors degrees, which are completed over a 9-month academic period. The MA dissertation is usually completed in the summer months. 

By this time, your other modules will have likely ended, giving full time and attention to the completion of your dissertation in the final portion of your MA course.

A part-time MA course in the UK will usually take two years to complete, since they progress at half the rate of the usual one-year full-time degree.

Europe-based Master of Arts degrees typically take one and a half, to two years to complete. European MA degrees are slightly longer than UK MA degrees since courses will include holiday periods. Many students use this as an opportunity to complete placements and internships.

How many credits is a Masters of Arts worth?

A Master of Arts degree is worth 180 credits, you’ll find that the number of credits are broken up in different ways depending on where you apply. 

Usually, the MA dissertation (or thesis, as it may be known) makes up 60 credits of the total course and will typically be around 15,000 to 20,000 words. 

The remaining 120 credits are decided on by the university. There are core modules that you will be required to take – often modules such as research methods. 

Depending on your course, you may be required to take a more introductory styled module that covers the basics of a certain subject area. Once your core modules are out of the way, you can move on to optional course modules. 

Optional modules can include lots of smaller topics, worth 20 or so credits each, and others may be larger, more in-depth modules worth around 40. It’s worth looking at this when applying for your chosen MA program, and getting an idea of what sort of things you can study, and how they add up.

How is a Master of Arts degree formatted?

Every academic MA course and every student’s individual work schedule will be different, however, there are a number of aspects of postgraduate work that will almost certainly be part of your Master of Arts program.

Lectures

Almost every MA degree course will involve lectures. You will be familiar with the idea of lectures from undergraduate study. This involves a dedicated lecturer providing instruction on a specific theme within the course. Lectures vary in the number of students present, from 10 to 200 or more. 

Individual student participation is not always easy, but there will usually be an opportunity for questions. As well, some lecturers may ask students to undertake brief discussion activities with those around them, or may ask questions to students in the room.

Seminars

Seminars involve smaller groups of students alongside a tutor. Either the tutor or one or more of the students will talk about a topic, which will then be discussed by the seminar group. 

Every student in the seminar group will be expected to participate in the discussion and to take their turn in leading discussion or presenting a paper. 

This is a common teaching style in MA degrees, since many topics can involve subjective areas and different theoretical approaches, whereby students are expected to discuss from different perspectives.

Workshops

Many MAs will also include workshops. Workshops are essentially seminars focused on practical activities. For example, engineering students may work as a group on a practical problem, drama students may work on a performance, or education students may work on a role-play activity about teaching. 

As with seminars, all students will be expected to participate and to take their turn in leading.

Practical classes

Practical classes are an important part of Master of Arts programs, and focus on the development of skills. For example, an MA in Textiles, will include a considerable number of ‘hands-on’ classes using knitting machines and looms.

Fieldwork

Fieldwork is important within environmental or geography MA programs, but also as part of the data collection part of preparing for dissertations in many social sciences. 

Fieldwork will give MA students the chance to develop practical research skills, by applying theoretical knowledge in a real-life setting. 

Tutorials

Tutorials are meetings with a tutor, either individually or in very small groups. In some MA programs you may have an individual tutor (or personal tutor) who has responsibility for you for the whole of your program, and may talk with you about both academic and personal or pastoral issues. 

You will also have tutorials as part of some taught courses, where the course tutor will meet with you to discuss assignments or practical work. 

You will also have a tutor to support you in your project or dissertation, and this will usually be a member of the academic staff who has specialist knowledge in the field which you are researching.

Reading

For all masters programs, reading will be one of the most important parts of your learning. A Master of Arts provides you with the opportunity to read widely and in depth around your specialist field to bring your own knowledge to the cutting edge of that field. 

You should expect to spend considerable amounts of time reading course materials for your MA, as well as completing wider reading around your subject. Your university will provide you with access to the library, and will likely provide access to online academic resources to help you progress in your MA discipline.

Assignments

Unfortunately, all of these stimulating MA courses and units will be assessed in some way, and it is increasingly common for MA assessment to be completed through written assignments rather than an examination. 

Assignments vary greatly in size and scope, from research essays to small practical projects to seminar presentations, but all will require considerable individual preparation and work.

Exams

You will be very used to examinations, and many masters programs are still assessed using traditional two- or three-hour written examinations. 

These may occur at the end of the taught MA program, or spread throughout the course; with some at the end of Semester 1 and some at the end of Semester 2.

MA dissertation

The dissertation will be a major part of your MA program, worth one-third of the assessment total. Typically, it will be a project of between 15,000 and 25,000 words in length that you plan and undertake on your own. 

Although you will have a nominated supervisor, you will be expected to show considerable independence when choosing, planning and writing up the project. 

Writing a thesis demonstrates that you are able to independently plan, manage and carry out a project. This is a great opportunity to enhance your CV with an example of a time you conducted an independent project. 

Master of Arts (MA) vs Master of Science (MSc)

The main difference between an MA and an MSc is that MA degrees focus on arts, humanities and social science subjects, whereas MSc degrees focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) subjects. 

The two types may also differ in teaching style. Since many Master of Arts subjects involve the discussion of different theoretical perspectives, it is likely that you’ll have to do a lot of reading, research and engage in taught course materials. 

MScs often involve more objective stances on subject matters, as well as some practical work. This means that an MSc can sometimes involve more taught content than an MA.

MA vs Postgraduate Certificates (PGCert) and Diplomas (PGDip)

MAs, PGCerts and PGDips are all types of postgraduate degrees. The main difference is that a PGCert and PGDip do not require students to complete a dissertation. 

This means that you would be able to study the same subject as in an MA course, although without having to do a dissertation.

This makes PGCerts and PGDips much shorter in comparison to a Master of Arts degree and other types of postgraduate study. You may also be able to graduate from your course with a PGCert or PGDip qualification if you decide that a Master of Arts is not for you part way through your program. Although, this will depend on your university.

Where can I study an MA degree?

MA degrees are recognised globally and offered across a range of universities worldwide. This makes studying a Master of Arts ideal, since you can choose to complete a course close to home, in another city, or even abroad. 

There are a whole range of MA degrees offered by UK universities, as well as universities in Europe, the USA and Australia.

What can you do with a Master of Arts?

A Master of Arts can help open up a range of career and further study opportunities. By studying a chosen topic in your MA degree, you’ll develop specialist skills in that area. 

This will allow you to specialise in your chosen career path with the right knowledge and experience to succeed in your desired role. No matter what career path you choose, having a masters degree will give you a competitive edge in the job market.

Specialising your skills in a niche area will provide you with a much higher chance of getting a job in your chosen career path. For example, having an MA degree in politics and governance will provide a highly valuable requisite for a career in a political field.

Transferable skills

A Master of Arts will also prepare you for your career with a range of transferable skills. As an MA graduate, you’ll have gained several key skills including:

  • Analytical skills

  • Research skills

  • Writing skills

  • Presenting skills

  • Communication skills

  • Networking skills

Studying a PhD

Qualifying an MA degree will also allow you to proceed with further studies. The next level beyond a Master of Arts degree is a PhD. Most PhD courses will require students to have a masters degree in order to gain a place on the course, making a Master of Arts highly valuable if you intend to study a PhD.

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At Postgrad, we help match students with the perfect postgraduate course. Our course directory includes a huge range of MA degrees, across a whole variety of subjects. Find your perfect MA course today.

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