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What is a masters degree?
If you’ve just finished your undergraduate degree, you’ve probably heard a lot of people discussing the possibility of continuing on to study a masters degree. But what is a masters degree and why should you look into doing one?
A masters degree is a postgraduate qualification that lets students explore an area of interest in greater detail than an undergraduate degree, and it can also improve employability in certain fields.
It’s possible to study a masters degree full time or part time, and it can be studied on-site, via distance learning, or even as a blended learning option, where the program is taught both online and with some on-campus teaching. And whatever the mode of study chosen, there are two main types of masters degree – research and taught.
In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about masters degrees and examine the main differences between masters degree types.
Masters degrees summary
- 1-2 years full-time study; 2-4 years part-time study; 1-5 years studying via distance learning
- Taught and research masters degrees available
- Require more independent study than undergraduate study
- Postgraduate loans available to help funding
- Level 7 qualification in the UK
How long is a masters degree?
A masters degree typically takes one year to complete full time in the UK and two to four years part time. In Europe and the United States a full-time masters program can often take two years to complete, so check how long the masters degree is with your university of interest before applying to the course as this will need to be taken into consideration when budgeting for your course.
Distance and blended learning options can take anything between one to five years of studying and are a good option for people who need to fit their studies around career or family commitments. The length of a masters degree can also depend on the subject, so always check with the university to make sure you know how long your course will take to complete.
What is involved with a masters degree?
Masters degrees are typically broken down into core modules and optional modules. The core modules will be key areas of the subject that every student on the course will need to study. The optional modules will be a variety of relevant topics that the student can choose from.
As well as completing study modules, a masters student will usually have to write a dissertation of around 15,000-20,000 on a topic agreed with their supervisor.
How is a masters degree taught?
You can expect the amount of contact time with lecturers and supervisors as a masters student to be considerably less than that of an undergraduate student – it is usually under 10 hours per week.
Contact time will take the form of seminars, lectures, workshops, and if relevant – for example with science or medical masters degrees – lab work. In addition to the time spent with supervisors, masters students are expected to do their own independent study of around 30 hours per week.
Students are assessed throughout their masters programs in a number of ways including assignments, exams, essays, practicals, portfolios and presentations. At the end of the masters program students will usually have to write a 15,000-20,000-word dissertation on an agreed area of interest.
Work placements and internships
Some masters degrees will also require the student to undertake a work placement or internship – this is more likely to be the case with vocational areas of study such as business- or medical-related masters courses. If a work placement is part of the masters program the university will usually have good links with relevant companies and will help secure the placement.
When does a masters degree start?
In the UK – and universities in the Northern Hemisphere – most university term times for masters degrees align with the traditional academic year, starting in September or October. However, there has been an increased interest and provision in January start dates and this is now an option for some masters courses at many UK universities.
Types of masters degrees
Masters degrees can be taught or research based – and you should make sure you choose the type that best suits your way of studying.
A Masters of Research (MRes) is a one-year research masters that focuses on independent study and is a good preparation for those considering doctoral study in the future. An MRes student may not have any timetabled study units as the course is based around their own research work and extended projects, however, they will still receive support and guidance from a supervisor.
Taught masters operate more like undergraduate degrees, with regular contact time and timetabled seminars, lectures, workshops and other university-based activities. Taught masters students will also be expected to undertake plenty of independent study.
MA and MSc
The two main types of masters degrees are MA (Master of Arts) and MSc (Master of Science). MAs are usually awarded in art and design courses, socials sciences, humanities, and business and management courses. An MSc qualification is mainly the domain of the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
However, some subjects – for example business and finance programs – can be studied as an MA or as an MSc. In this instance, you will find that the MA version will be more essay driven and discussion focused, whereas the MSc option will be more research and theory based – so make sure you choose the type of masters that suits your preferred learning techniques.
Another popular type of masters degree is an MBA (Masters of Business Administration) which is a professional postgraduate qualification, usually undertaken by those who have already experienced a few years working in industry and are looking to take their career to the next level.
MBAs are great for career progression – and a good investment into future earnings – and this can be reflected in their often high tuition fees. MBAs are in areas of business, finance and management and MBA students will be interested in advancing their careers in these areas.
Other types of masters degrees
As well as the main types of masters programs, there are other types of masters degrees, these include:
- LLM (Master of Laws)
- MEng (Master of Engineering)
- MArch (Master of Architecture)
- MLitt (Master of Letters)
- MEd (Master of Education)
- MFA (Master of Fine Arts)
- MMus (Master of Music)
- MPhil (Master of Philosophy)
- MSt (Master of Studies).
A taught masters is more similar to an undergraduate bachelors degree, as students are taught via lectures, seminars, and tutorials. Taught masters are assessed through:
- Group projects
However, it is a more advanced learning experience, and you’ll likely be expected to present as much as listen!
Whilst called a taught masters, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t exclude research. Although it isn’t entirely research, you’ll still be expected to do a dissertation or a similar research-heavy piece of work, as part of your masters degree.
A research masters is exactly what it sounds like – the course is based solely around research and you’ll be assessed throughout the year, rather than on a set of exams. This is well suited for those who already have an idea of what they want to study in mind, or those who want to progress to a PhD, but be warned – you’ll have to ensure you’re capable of keeping yourself motivated, as it’s all self-driven.
There is also the slightly different, third type – an integrated masters. This is where you continue straight on from your undergraduate, doing four years total, and is most common with the sciences. This is something you can’t apply for separately though as it must be done during the initial undergraduate applications.
So, now we know what a masters degree is, why should you study one?
How are masters graded?
Masters degree grades are awarded in a similar way to undergraduate or bachelors degrees – where bachelor degrees are graded with a first, second or third class honours, masters degrees are graded with a distinction, merit or pass.
For the majority of taught masters you will need:
- 50% or above for a pass
- 60% or above for a merit
- 70% or above for a distinction
Variations can occur, though, for example, some institutions may grant a pass at 40%, or a distinction at 80%.
Why study a masters degree?
The main reasons to study a masters degree are:
- Career options and employability
- Earning capacity
- Becoming a specialist
- Personal fulfilment
- Change career direction
- Necessary for current career path
Gaining a masters degree – particularly in a vocational subject – is a great way to boost your employability and career prospects. Many professions – particularly those related to business, law, medicine and education – require masters degrees to reach the higher stages of their career ladder.
For example, MBA and LLM programs can be a particularly good way to reach the top tiers of such careers. Even if your chosen career path doesn’t demand additional postgraduate qualifications, a masters program can be a good way to stand out from other candidates when applying for that perfect job.
By successfully completing a masters degree, students will demonstrate a proven knowledge in a specific field as well as increased confidence and professional skills, making them an invaluable addition to future employers.
Higher earning capacity
Once you finish your masters degree you’ll almost certainly start subsequent jobs on a higher pay-grade than you would without one, so in the long-term, studying a masters degree is a sound financial option even if the tuition fees can initially seem rather overwhelming.
Whilst undergraduate degrees are great for covering a subject, you may find you want to specialise in a particular area further within that subject – either to make a career out of it, or simply out of interest. Either way, a masters course is designed to allow you to specialise, so would well suit your needs.
So, you really love your subject? What better reason than to spend another year studying it then? If you lack this keen interest, a masters course probably isn’t for you, but if you have it, it’s perfect. You’ll need to be self-driven and motivated, but the joy of being able to further study something you’re passionate about is a great reason to do a masters degree.
Change in direction
If you want to lead your career in a completely different direction, you can choose to study a different subject for your masters course than you did in your undergraduate degree. If you are interested in a change of direction, check course details to see entry requirements first.
In many instances, applicants will need a good undergraduate degree and a keen interest or experience in their new masters subject to be eligible, but if you are able to study a new area of interest a masters degree can provide the necessary qualifications for a career change.
Postgraduate conversion courses are also a great way to change direction once you’ve got the proven grades but realise that you’re no longer interested in the subject you studied at undergraduate level. Undergraduate degrees are usually started when students are just 18 years old, so it’s no wonder that three years later students can realise that their degree isn’t in quite the right subject area.
There are different types of conversion courses available, some will give you another undergraduate degree at the end, others will result in a Postgraduate Diploma (PDip) or Postgraduate Certificate (PCert), and some will be a masters course.
Required by some industries
Many jobs – particularly in the sciences, but in many other industries too – will require a masters degree to even get a foot in the door, so by having one you open up your range of career choices significantly!
Preparing for a masters degree
Students choosing to study a masters degree will often already have completed undergraduate degrees and therefore have a proven record of academic success. In some ways masters courses – particularly taught masters programs – follow a similar learning pattern to bachelors degrees, however one big difference is that, if studied full time they are a much more intense and condensed learning experience. To be properly prepared, students must ensure they have time to dedicate to their studies.
How much does a masters degree cost?
Masters degrees can be more expensive than undergraduate courses, so make sure you prepare for the financial commitment before applying for the course so you get the most out of your masters studies.
Unlike undergraduate degree tuition fees – that are currently capped at £9,250 per year in the UK – masters degree tuition fees are not fixed and their costs vary between universities and according to subjects. Masters degree tuition fees average at around £11,000 for the duration of the course – whether taken full time over one year or part time over a longer period of time. Arts and humanities are generally cheaper than STEM and medicine subjects – often because the STEM and medicine pathways demand more tutor contact time and the use of specialist facilities such as laboratories.
Fees are more expensive for international students – often around twice the amount that home students pay – and in the UK international tuition fees now usually apply to EU students too. It’s important that you don’t let the tuition fees put you off postgraduate study as funding for masters degrees is available through student loans, scholarships and bursaries. However, as part of your masters degrees preparations it’s essential that you have the correct funding in place before embarking on the program.
Check entry requirements
To be eligible for postgraduate study, most masters degree programs require an undergraduate degree in a first or second class honours. However, not all masters degrees require an undergrad degree, for example, with some professional courses relevant work experience is often key to a successful application.
Check course details and contact the university admissions department if you are unsure what the entry requirements are for your chosen masters degree, and whether there is any flexibility.
Calculate living costs
As well as covering your masters tuition fees, you will also have to fund your living costs. It’ll be hard to earn whilst studying – even if your masters is part time or online – and anything you make from a part-time job will need to go towards your living expenses.
If you opt to study a masters degree away from home you will need to budget for essentials such as food, rent, bills and travel. You will also need to have money set aside for leisure pursuits, as it’s important to maintain a good study and life balance to be successful in your postgraduate course. Some cities are more expensive to live and study in than others, for example in the UK cities like Sheffield and Nottingham are popular student destinations that are considerably cheaper than London in terms of rent and travel costs.
When choosing where to study your masters degree, research the cost of living and rent in the city where your university is based and factor this into your masters degree costs. Try and investigate potential part-time jobs in the area too if you think you will need additional help funding your course.
Calculate tuition costs
As well as living fees, there’s the not-at-all small issue of paying for the course itself. There are postgraduate loans available from the government for UK students, and these are currently worth up to £11,570 depending on where in the UK you are studying and the start date of the course. There are also bursaries – such as our Postgrad Solutions Study Bursaries worth £500 each. However you are planning to fund your masters, you need to be prepared to spend a lot of money on postgraduate study.
Before you start your masters degree, calculate your tuition costs and work out when you need to pay the fees. In some cases, the university will demand an upfront payment for the entire amount at the start of the course. Other universities may allow payment to be made on a termly or even monthly basis.
Within your calculations make a note of when you will receive any funding that you have applied for or any part-time salary so you can save and budget accordingly.
Going back to university
This one is particularly relevant for mature students. Going back to university or starting anew at one you haven’t been to before may seem weird, and you’ll have to adapt all over again.
Plus, as a postgraduate student, you’ll not have the same sort of experiences as undergraduate students, and remember – you’ve already been through Fresher’s Week three times, reckon you’re up for it again?
Different to undergraduate studies
Be prepared for it to be very different from what you remember – not only are you older, but the style of course will be different. There’ll be less deadlines, but the same amount – or even more – work.
You'll have to be responsible for yourself, and, especially on the research elements, you need to be confident about your own work, rather than just discussing other peoples’ work. For some, this is the start of an academic career, so be prepared to start finding your own voice and not just studying others!
If you still have burning questions about what is a masters degree, take a look in our advice section on masters programs.
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Master of Science: What is an MSc?