The Many Ms of Master’s

How Master’s programmes differ

If you are in the beginning of your Master’s programme search you might feel lost when typing “master programme” on the web to find all sorts of abbreviations emerging saying nothing to you. You should know that as there is no unified name for the different Master’s programmes offered by the hundreds of schools worldwide, names of the programmes vary from school to school. Still, as programmes are similar, there are some commonly used abbreviations.

The general description of the programme is that the Master’s is an academic degree obtained in higher postgraduate education. It is a specialised graduate programme focused on practical knowledge in a specific discipline. It usually takes one to two years to complete and a Bachelor’s degree is always a prerequisite for admission. Master’s courses cover the chosen field in depth, consolidating theoretical knowledge and dealing with practice-oriented tasks. They help students gain heightened expertise in an academic discipline or a professional field of study through intensive coursework and the preparation of a project, thesis, research paper or a comprehensive final examination.

Master of Arts (MA, M.A., AM, A.M.) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

Master of Arts can cover a broad range of graduate studies, usually general or humanitarian studies such as social sciences, education, communication, music, history, geography, philosophy, philology, theology, human resources, political sciences, etc. A Master’s degree in Fine Arts is closely related to the Master of Arts degree, but is focused on the fine arts such as creative writing, photography, graphic design, painting and other fields developing creative thinking and skills. The degree requires the completion of both research work and a thesis. It is more common in the US than in Europe.

Master of Science (MS, MSc, M.S., M.Sc., M. Sci, Sc. M.)

As its name suggests, the Master of Science degree focuses more on scientific learning. Master of Science degrees are earned in the natural sciences, mathematics, economics, space studies, aviation, accounting, finance, engineering, environmental studies, management, information sciences, telecommunication, computer system security, etc. Heavy emphasis is placed on research, though some courses may have a combination of class-based courses and research-based courses. The Master of Science degree requires the completion of at least 30 graduate hours of credit in the sciences and usually requires the completion of both research work and a thesis.

The general difference in the teaching methods between an MA and an MS programme is that whereas the MA uses a more balanced and liberal curriculum that combines desk research with class discussions, and essay writing with practical exercises in equal measure, the MS will focus heavily on theory, and put emphasis on doing lots of research and reading.

Many Master's programmes are offered in both MA and MSc formats. The most commonly met examples are of disciplines of humanitarian character, such as marketing or human resources, rather than scientific character.

Apart from the MA and MS programmes, there are other commonly used abbreviations of different Master’s programmes and their specific teaching methods.

MPM, M.P.M., M.S.P.M. – Master of Project Management – is a professional advanced degree in project management. Candidates of these programmes are required to have at least a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and significant work experience – 12 years on average. Most programmes require 36-42 graduate credits and a thesis or a final project. While programmes may vary, most curricula are designed to provide professionals with the knowledge, skills and abilities to lead and manage effectively. Students normally engage in the study of concepts, methodologies and analytic techniques necessary for successful leadership of programmes/projects within complex organisations. Curricula typically focus on problem solving and decision-making using case studies, teaming exercises, hands-on applications, active participation, research and integrative exercises.

MRes – Master of Research – is an advanced postgraduate research degree in a specific academic discipline. The programme ends with a research project. This type of course is useful if one is considering a career in the commercial world where research is a key focus but a PhD is not specifically required. In most cases the degree is designed to prepare students for doctoral research.

MPA, M.P.Adm., M.P.A. – Master of Public Administration – is a professional postgraduate degree in public administration, the public sector's equivalent to the private sector's Master of Business Administration. It prepares individuals to serve as managers in the executive arm of local, state/provincial and federal/national government, and increasingly in non-governmental organisations and the non-profit sector. It places a focus on the systematic investigation of executive organisation and management.

LLM, LL.M. – Master of Laws – is an academic degree, pursued by those holding an undergraduate academic law degree, a professional law degree, or an undergraduate degree in a related subject. In some jurisdictions it is the basic professional degree for admission into legal practice.

Master’s programmes' teaching methods

In fact, the following is true – the more schools, the more Master’s programmes. Each business school structures its Master’s programmes in its own way, aimed at optimising the experience. This is why programmes vary across business schools worldwide. However, there are certain components of each programme that every student would face during the study. These include core and elective courses in the programme's curriculum as well as similar teaching methods used by every school.

Courses are usually delivered in seminar-style lectures involving a professor who moderates class discussions rather than simply presenting the lecture. Master’s classes are seminar-oriented, meaning that students are encouraged and required to participate in class debates. During seminars, debates and lectures, the emphasis is on presenting case studies and solving real examples rather than on simply getting acquainted with the theoretical knowledge of the particular subject. Master’s students are also required to make presentations and defend their work in front of classmates or a wider audience.

One of the most important teaching methods used in every Master’s programme is students’ joint work on group projects. These projects involve a small group of students working on a joint task where collaboration and teamwork is essential. They help students to learn how they can effectively build and manage teams.

As gaining practical knowledge is a key advantage of every Master’s programme, schools apply various methods to obtain it. The most common are hands-on practice, in-company visits and placements. Hands-on exercises immerse students in real or simulated work environments where they are expected to find solutions to real problems, either by conducting fieldwork or by participation in simulations. During in-company visits students are required to do some fieldwork at a company, interacting with employees and senior management while researching the company or developing a project on a specific company issue. Student placements at companies give additional hands-on practice which also improves students’ chances of finding a job right after graduation. Graduate schools usually assist in finding a placement, making the contact between students and companies easier through various events.

Graduate schools also provide an opportunity for gaining international experience in their Master’s programmes by including study courses abroad lasting between a few weeks and a full semester. Study experience abroad, either optional or mandatory, is possible through study trips and exchange programmes. These allow students to apply the theory they have learned; to immerse themselves in the culture and the business and social environment of the place they are studying; or to conduct on-site research. Study periods abroad, particularly the longer ones, are usually coupled with intensive study of the local language.


This article has been produced by Advent Group and featured in the 2015-2016 Access Masters Guide

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