When you start researching Masters degrees, you will certainly come across different types of programmes such as Master of Science, Master of Arts, Master of Philosophy, and many others. How do they differ and where can each take you professionally?

The Masters degree is an academic qualification granted at the postgraduate level to individuals who have successfully undergone studies demonstrating a high level of expertise in a specific field of study or area of professional practice. A huge range of subjects, including those offered at undergraduate level, can be studied in Masters degree programmes and many specialisations are available as well. This reflects the real value of Masters degree studies – the opportunity to dive deeper into a particular area of your professional interests.

Masters programmes are arguably the most diverse type of degree you can find, with different specialisations as well as different teaching approaches. For that reason there is no unified name for the various Masters programmes offered by universities and graduate schools worldwide.

Read: The Different Types of Masters Formats​

If you are beginning your Masters search, you need to be well informed about the different types of programmes. The Master of Science and the Master of Arts are by far the most popular options, but there are others on the market. They include LLM (Master of Laws), MArch (Master of Architecture), MEd (Master of Education), MEng (Master of Engineering), MLitt (Master of Letters), MMus (Master of Music), MPhil (Master of Philosophy), MSt (Master of Studies), MRes (Master of Research), MC (Master of Communication), MBA (Master of Business Administration), etc. Their names give an indication about what a student can expect from the curriculum and the teaching style of the programme, but additional research always helps understand the details for your final choice.

Research-based and taught Masters programmes

Masters degrees can be either research-based or taught. A research Masters generally involves far more self-directed and independent study and is narrower in focus. Students are expected to learn actively and independently by producing a thesis on a particular topic, which takes up around 60% of their overall time. Programmes involve little to no in-class teaching, but guidance is provided by an appointed supervisor. This type of programme best suits students who are interested in a specific topic or are planning to undertake further academic research in a PhD programme.

Although any Master of Science programme can be research-based, the most research-focused type of Masters is the Master of Philosophy (MPhil, M.Phil., Ph.M.). Its prerequisites make it the most advanced research degree before the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D. or D.Phil.). An MPhil is in most cases thesis-only, and is regarded as a senior or second Masters degree, standing between a taught Masters and a PhD. An MPhil may be awarded to graduate students after completing several years of original research but before the defence of a dissertation, and can serve as a provisional enrolment for a PhD.

A taught Masters is similar to an undergraduate degree in the way it is delivered. It involves core and optional modules delivered via lectures, seminars, and practical work. Students’ work is assessed through exams, essays, dissertations, and group projects. Students are encouraged to work independently, while receiving close tutor support. This type of Masters best suits students who are looking to change career paths, boost their job prospects or expand the range of their skill set.

Master of Science and Master of Arts

The two most common taught Masters degrees are Master of Science (MSc, M.Sc., M.S., MS, M.Sci., Sc.M.), and Master of Arts (M.A., MA, A.M. or AM). Teaching methods include seminars, lectures, tutorials, project work, oral work, some research, a thesis or a dissertation, and exams, but the balance between them varies.

Although most Masters programmes are open to fresh university graduates, some universities and business schools require applicants to have prior professional experience in the related field in order to be eligible for admission. For example, Cambridge University Judge Business School (UK) states for its Master in Finance programme: “We require all students to have a minimum of two years’ graduate work experience in a finance-related role. If you have only one year of finance-related work experience you may still be eligible to apply if you have at least one additional year of professional experience relevant to a future career in finance.

Master of Science

As its name suggests, the Master of Science (MSc) degree is focused more on scientific learning. Programmes are commonly offered in the sciences, mathematics, economics, accounting, finance, engineering, environment studies, management, information sciences, etc. Heavy emphasis is placed on research, although some programmes may combine class-based and research-based courses. The MSc degree usually requires the completion of academic coursework, research, and a thesis.

Master of Arts

The Master of Arts (MA) degree can cover a broad range of graduate studies, usually the humanities or social sciences, education, communication, music, history, geography, philosophy, philology, theology, human resources, political sciences, etc. A Master of 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 disciplines developing creative thinking and skills. The degree requires the completion of graduate coursework and ends with both research work and a thesis. It is more common in the US than in Europe.

How do MA and MSc programmes differ?

The general difference in the teaching methods used in MA and MSc programmes is that where the MA uses a more balanced and liberal curriculum that combines desk research, class discussions, essay writing, and practical exercises in equal measure, the MSc is theory-heavy and puts emphasis on research and reading. Although programmes may be similar, the MSc typically has higher academic standards and requires more research than the MA. Usually, the MSc is for students with a background in the field, and the MA is for those without.

As regards how the MSc and MA differ, many think that the MSc has more to do with exact studies and hard science and the MA deals mostly with humanities studies. This is true to some extent but in fact many schools offer subjects in both MSc and MA formats – for example some political science, business, finance, marketing, economics, consulting, and management courses can be delivered as either an MSc or an MA course. Anna Martinez said that she chose an MSc rather than an MA in Human Resources, because she wanted a thorough overview of the subject matter, the major theoretical concepts in the field, and some research work. “I already have a year of hands-on experience in HR, so I opted for a post-experience programme where I will be in a class of experienced students, not fresh university graduates,” explains Anna, who plans to start her MSc studies in Canada in 2017.

There is another difference between the two formats – the MSc usually tackles the entire field of study, while the MA is more focused on a subfield. So, if you want to focus more on a specific topic, choose an MA. And if you want a thorough and more knowledgeable understanding of an entire field, go for an MSc.

Read: Applying for a Masters Degree Abroad

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that universities and business schools have their own policies on naming their programmes, so do not judge a programme’s focus just on its name. If you compare programmes in the same faculty at a single university, e.g. MA in Sociology vs. MSc in Sociology, then clearly there is a distinction. However, it is better to take a thorough look at the curriculum and graduation requirements when comparing programmes from different universities or in different countries.

Your ultimate goal is to choose a programme that suits your personal and career goals. In-depth research of the different types of Masters programmes that fall within your particular scientific or professional sphere will further your professional development and give you a competitive edge on the job market.

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2017-2018 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title "A Brief Glossary of Master's Degrees" The latest online version of the Guide is available here.