When considering theoretical vs. practical knowledge gained during Masters studies, it is important to remember that they are not mutually exclusive. Theory and practice are essential elements of most graduate programmes and they both contribute greatly to the cumulative knowledge and experience gained by students. So how do universities manage to find the sweet spot between the two? And what should you, as a prospective Master’s applicant, look for in a degree?
Practice and theory make perfect
If you find yourself getting bored with theory and leaning towards a more practical approach – or vice versa – take a step back and think through your learning goals. Most prospective students look for a well-established curriculum with interesting courses and diverse topics as well as strong career prospects after graduation. The trick is that theoretical knowledge and real-life practice are both primary pillars for having a truly valuable learning experience.
Theoretical studies such as reading academic papers, exploring academic research, and delving into research methods helps students learn the ins and outs of their field or specialisation. It shows them the best practices as well as the recurring challenges that other academics and professionals have experienced before them. Moreover, studying theory enables students to calibrate their moral compass. Many experts in academia claim it has a positive impact on the decision-making skills that students will need to apply later in life and at work. In an article on the topic, the provost at Georgetown University (US), Robert Groves, perfectly summed up the importance of theoretical knowledge: “[Alumni] think of their time in higher education as moments of intense self-discovery through exposure to these knowledge domains. The knowledge gained had lasting value to them (regardless of their career choice) because it centred them and offered permanent guideposts for decision-making.”
At the same time, the hands-on approach of practical learning enables programme participants to polish particular skills and techniques. While some fields such as Medicine and Engineering always feature a practice-oriented approach and “getting your hands dirty”, areas such as the Social Sciences and Humanities also benefit strongly from practical study approaches.
The combination of theory and practice in Master’s programmes means that students use several different learning methods and, therefore, have more avenues at their disposal to acquire and memorise new information. By mixing academic reading, interactive courses, learning through visualisation, and practical projects, students are able to explore a topic through many possible perspectives.
Research universities and universities of applied sciences
Although theory and practice usually go hand in hand in most Master’s programmes, some universities put distinct focus on one or the other. In some countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, prospective graduate students can choose to enrol in a research university or in a university of applied sciences.
As the name itself suggests, research universities are not dedicated solely to teaching but also invest in a significant amount of research. As such, their focus lies in studying abstract and theoretical questions and teaching analytical skills. Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes in research universities also tend to have a wide range of courses and specialisations enabling students to acquire knowledge in different areas. For example, a Master’s in Finance at a research university may feature courses in Financial Theory, World Economics and History, and Ethical Dilemmas in Finance. The programme curriculum at IE Business School (Spain) even includes a course on Historical Episodes in the Financial Markets.
While research universities deal with the “why”, universities of applied sciences focus on the “how”. The latter’s graduate programmes prepare students to go directly into the workforce by relying on more concrete and practical courses. Programme participants immediately learn how to apply their knowledge and how to work in a solution-oriented way. So, Master’s programmes in Finance offered at this type of higher education institution teach few courses on theory and history, but rather start directly with Corporate Finance and Financial Analysis.
How you can get both
No matter the type of university and programme format, at the end of the day they should be able to deliver theory and practice of equal quality. Since both learning methods are so important for the learning curve of graduate students, international Master’s programmes do their best to incorporate theoretical courses as well as practice-based learning in their curricula. The Master’s in Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Management at the University of Nottingham (UK) lists core modules in Entrepreneurial Finance and Accounting and in Marketing, but it also features an entrepreneurship project involving a problem-based learning experience where students work on a company challenge. The university’s web page highlights the importance of both theory and real-life work: “The outcome of the project work should demonstrate an understanding of applying entrepreneurship theories in a practical context and also provide tangible and actionable recommendations to the company.”
Although the study of entrepreneurship implies the need to take what you have learned and apply it in practice to learn even more, a healthy blend of theoretic and experiential learning can be integrated in any field. The Master in Management at ESCP Europe creates this mix by employing case studies, lectures, and instruction from visiting executives in its teaching, which “ensures the link between in-class theory and the reality of the business world.” Similarly, the Master’s in Hospitality and Tourism Management at the same school puts emphasis on its so-called Professional Development Activities which include a consultancy project, career workshops, and company visits.
Some programmes can be very explicit in the importance they give to professionally relevant curricula. The Digital Marketing and Communication course at CREA Geneva in Switzerland goes forward with its practical approach under the slogan “Learn from Experience”. The programme structure and curriculum is designed to reflect the idea that students should acquire “competencies and know-how through practice and workshops, rather than only listening.” Nevertheless, you can find innovative experiential approaches in many international Master’s programmes, even when this ideology is not directly indicated in their programme description.
No doubt it will take some time to settle on the perfect mix of practice and theory to satisfy your academic aspirations. However, all it takes is a little soul-searching and fact-finding to embark on your graduate study adventure – one that will ultimately bring value to your work and personal life. “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2018-2019 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Actions Speak Louder than Words”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.