find your perfect postgrad program
Search our Database of 30,000 Courses

Postgraduate taught vs research masters

Postgraduate taught vs research mastersThere are two main types of postgraduate degree: taught and research. Both allow students to gain postgraduate qualifications in a subject area of their choice, although there are differences in teaching and assessment styles between the two.

Postgraduate taught degrees are assessed by a combination of coursework, exams and a final research project of around 20,000-30,000 words long, known as a dissertation.

Postgraduate research degrees are much more research focussed than taught degrees and involve the completion of more extensive original academic research. By studying a research masters degree, the student will gain research skills training that will equip them to become an independent researcher.

Both types of masters degree are graded with a distinction, merit or pass.


What is a taught masters degree?

A taught masters degree is based around taught aspects of study, including lectures, seminars and tutorials. Unlike studying at undergraduate level, it’s common for masters students to be expected to present and lead group seminars, which may sound horrifying but is a skill that improves with each time you do it, trust us!

In terms of assessments, you’re likely to have exams during, or at the end of the year. Also, you may have to complete work during the year that is not assessed, to show you’re on top of things (ie not spending too much time partying or sleeping!).

The majority of taught masters programs include a research element as well, for example a dissertation or extended essay, although this will be shorter than the research project required by the research masters degree.

Some universities also offer a ‘Research Methods’ course – which is sometimes compulsory – that can be taken alongside the taught masters. It is advisable to check if this is the case for the courses you are applying to, as it is an extra workload consideration. However, it can be a positive addition to your masters experience; for example if you plump for a taught masters and then decide you want to go on to study a PhD, you will already have the necessary research skills from this course.

The advantage of studying a taught masters is that it can be a useful transition period if you are thinking about a career in academia but haven’t yet decided on an area of research. And for those with less experience of self-study, a taught masters is a way to ease in to a more independent way of learning.

If you intend to end your academic career with your masters, the structured timetable of a taught masters is more reminiscent of undergrad studies, and so is arguably less of a gear change if you only have a year or two to spare on your postgrad degree.

Taught vs research masters

Why do a taught masters degree?

There are many reasons to choose to study a taught masters degree.

A taught masters is a great way to get a postgraduate qualification with supervised support, via lectures, tutorials and workshops.

In fact, a main advantage to studying a taught masters is that it involves a similar method of study to your undergraduate degree, so you will already have proven success in the relevant study skills.

A taught masters degree will enable you to gain advanced knowledge on a specific subject and build upon a topic of interest that you started learning about in your bachelors degree.

Masters degrees are a great way to network and meet with like-minded people, this is particularly true of taught masters degrees which involve plenty of classroom time spent with peers.

Many people choose to undertake postgraduate study to advance their career. A taught masters can be a great way to gain a professional qualification for career progression, or even to change career direction altogether by studying a whole new subject.

What is a research masters degree?

When studying a research masters degree, assessment takes the form of a dissertation and marked essays throughout the year. With a research masters degree, the number of end-of-year exams is usually much less than with a taught masters.

Research masters degrees are continuously evaluated, so this type of masters degree is suitable for those who prefer to get their grades as they go along, rather than having to wait until the end of the year.

If opting for a research masters, there is the principal consideration of whether you are self-motivated enough to drive your own work; although research masters often have some seminars and lectures, they do not form the structure of assessment in the same way as they do in taught masters degrees.

If you already have a research proposal in mind and are champing at the bit to develop original ideas of your own, a research masters could be for you. The discipline of time management and digging up sources will also provide an excellent training for those hoping to progress to the next stage of academia: the PhD.

Why do a research masters?

Research masters studentThere are various reasons to study a research masters – these include:

A research masters provides the perfect opportunity to undertake a piece of extensive research on a topic that interests you.

Students often choose to build upon their undergraduate dissertation with their research masters degree. This is a great idea as they already have plenty of knowledge in that area and can be confident that it is a topic that interests them.

For those considering a doctorate, a research masters is the ideal way to develop the research skills and confidence to progress onto PhD study.

Want to be an expert in a specific field? A research masters provides the ideal opportunity to gain specialist knowledge in the area you choose to focus your research on.

If you are considering a career in academia, a research masters is a stepping stone to PhD study and a great way to progress into an academic career.

Because research masters degrees are more about independent study there are often no lectures or seminars to attend. This makes them a much more flexible study option, as the research can be worked around personal, family and work commitments – it’s a great option for those who are able to manage their time effectively.

What about the other types of masters degree?

The exhaustive array of different masters programs can make you yearn for the blissful simplicity of undergraduate life, where you picked a subject and that was generally that. At first glance there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason as to why one university’s MA is another’s MSc, and what the hell is an MIM? (A Masters in International Management, incidentally!).

The most common masters abbreviations that you are likely to come across are MA and MSc, but here is a list of some of the other ones:

  • Master of Arts – MA
  • Master of Science – MSc
  • Masters of Education – MEd
  • Masters of Engineering – MEng
  • Masters of Business Administration – MBA
  • Masters of Music – MMus
  • Master of Research – MRes
  • Master of Research – MPhil
  • Masters in International Management – MIM

However incomprehensible the letters themselves seem, they can, for the most part, be disregarded, as they are all masters degrees. What is much more important is the course content and structure, and this should be the key factor to consider when making your choice. Given the time you will devote to your postgraduate program and the money you will spend on this decision, it is worth getting it right!

The main thing you need to know is that pretty much all masters degrees can be divided into two general camps: taught and research. Although these distinctions are not absolute and many courses will involve both, the course description for any masters program at any university will make it clear which method of study is dominant. Once you’re armed with this information, and a healthy amount of self-knowledge, you should be able to make the call about which one you want to do.

Is an MSc taught or research?

A Master of Science can be studied as either a taught or research masters depending on what the university department Is offering, and in fact some universities may give students both options.

Is an MA taught or research?

A Master of Arts can also be either depending on what the university department Is offering.

Our article about MA vs MSc has more information on the differences between an MA and an MSc.

Which is better postgraduate taught or research masters?

Taught vs research masters studentWhen considering studying a postgraduate taught vs research degree, your final choice should depend on what you want to do after your studies.

Do you want to pursue an academic career? Or move onto a PhD? If this is the case a research masters could be the right choice for you.

Do you want to study a masters that will advance an industry-based career? In this instance a taught MA or MSc is a good option.

Do you want advanced subject knowledge? A taught masters might be a better choice, although a research masters could also be a good option if you’re more suited to independent study.

Is there a difference in tuition fees between taught vs research masters?

The tuition fees will depend on the duration of the course – a longer course will generally cost more money to study.

In some cases, the tuition fees of a research masters will be lower than those of a taught masters because there is less day-to-day involvement from academic staff. This is most likely to be the case for MA degrees, where a research masters is often cheaper than a taught masters.

A science-based masters program is likely to cost the same whether it’s a taught or research MSc, this is because both versions usually include extensive laboratory work and the need to use specialised equipment.

Tuition fees will be different for international and EU students to UK students. According to UCAS, the average tuition fees per year of study in the UK for international students on a postgraduate program is around £11,000. However, tuition fees can be £8,000 or range up to £30,000 a year.

Funding a taught vs research masters

The funding options for a taught masters and a research masters in the UK are similar, with the UK government offering UK masters students loans of around £11,500 for the academic year, whatever type of masters degree they choose to study – as long as it’s their first masters course.

Scholarships and bursaries are also available for both taught and research masters with many universities offering funding for specific courses, so it’s worth checking on the financial aid pages of the relevant universities and PG courses.

Finally, students starting on any masters degree (or any other postgraduate course) are eligible to apply for one of our Postgrad Solutions Study Bursaries worth £500 each towards tuition fees or living costs.

Taught or research masters – what’s your choice?

Deciding which kind of masters program you want to pursue – taught or research – is half the battle; once you’ve made this decision you’ll need to start whittling down the potential field of courses on the road to finding "The One".


Related articles

What Is A Postgraduate Degree? A Definition

What Is The Difference Between A Dissertation And A Thesis?

MA vs MSc – What’s The Difference?

MRes Degree – The Complete Guide

Postgrad Solutions Study Bursaries