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Taught or Research Masters - What's the Difference?

Choosing a Masters degree can sometimes feel a little overwhelming. You’ll be picking from a wide range of courses, with multiple specialisations per subject.

One of the most important choices you make may actually concern the type of Masters you study. Should you aim for a taught course? Or a more independent research programme?

Will a research course better prepare you for a PhD? Will a taught course be just the same as an undergraduate degree?

It’s good to ask yourself these questions. It’s also important for you understand a little bit about what a taught course or a research course might involve.

Though there are some differences between a taught and a research Masters, there are lots of similarities, too. The most important thing to bear in mind is that one is no better than the other. And, every individual’s experience of undertaking a Masters is different.

So, you need to choose your Masters sufficiently, on a personal level, taking into account your needs and aspirations. This blog will help you do so.

The key differences

Let’s first consider the main differences between the taught and research formats:

Taught Masters

Taught Masters degrees will usually take a very similar format to your undergraduate degree.

They will consist of a set of modules in each term – some core, some optional – taught via seminars, lectures or lab sessions.

You will be assisted by different staff members on each of your module’s assessments, and be responsible for independent learning in your own time.

Examples of taught Masters include the MA and MSc, as well as shorter Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas.

Research Masters

Research Masters degrees, on the other hand, are much more independent.

They have very little or no timetabled hours, instead involving one or more extended research projects which you yourself will bring to fruition.

You will be paired with a specialised supervisor who will guide you throughout your degree while you undertake your work.

Examples of research Masters include the MRes and MPhil.

The similarities

For a start, research Masters degrees are generally worth the same number of credits as taught Masters degrees. Both types can be 1-2 years long (depending on the qualification).

You may also be surprised to learn that both may actually include a taught and research element.

For example, a research Masters may involve undertaking an introductory taught module. This could be for the purpose of advancing your subject knowledge, or providing you with a set of research techniques to utilise throughout the rest of your programme.

A taught Masters, on the other hand, will still include a large research component. This is because all Masters degrees culminate in a final thesis, for which you will undertake an individual project of some variety.

Deciding which is best for you

Speaking of similarities, when considering a Masters, it’s useful to think about which aspects of your undergraduate studies you enjoyed the most.

It’s also a good idea to discuss your options with someone in your field, and think about where you want to undertake your studies.

Ask yourself some questions

Did you decide to do an undergraduate dissertation? If so, did you prefer the autonomy that this brought? Do you want your Masters to be a more extended (and advanced) opportunity to discover something new in your chosen field?

If the answer to all of the above is ‘yes’, a research course might be for you.

Or, are you more comfortable being led along a course of set modules which culminate in a smaller research project? Do you prefer opportunities for group work and discussion, alongside independent learning and preparation?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, you may prefer a taught Masters.

Get some help with the decision

While only you will truly know which kinds of study mode you prefer, your current tutor or lecturer will be able to explain how your Masters might work out for you.

For example, if you have an idea for a project you’d like to undertake, they’d probably have a good idea of whether or not you could sustain this throughout a whole research degree.

If not, your idea might be more suited to a Masters dissertation after you have acquired more subject knowledge on a taught course.

Consider where you’ll study, and how this might impact your options

You should also give consideration as to where you want to study and which options are actually available to you at different universities.

If you decide you want to study abroad for example, you need to make sure the type of Masters you want to do is available in that country.

If it isn’t, you then need to decide which is more valuable to you: gaining experience abroad during your Masters, or doing the specific kind of Masters you set out to do in the first place.

As a general rule, research Masters are more common in the UK than elsewhere. Other countries tend to save more advanced and independent work for PhD study.

Looking to the future

When choosing your Masters degree, you should also give consideration to the future career or goal that your Masters is helping you work towards.

Masters study shouldn’t be something you feel obliged to do, but something which you should feel invested in and enthused by.

Think about your potential career

If you want to pursue a PhD or academic career after your Masters, you may find a research course more suitable. It will prepare you for the levels of independent research that will be expected of you as a budding academic.

On the other hand, if you are working towards a specific profession, a taught course - particularly an accredited one - might be better for you.

This could include undertaking shorter, Masters-level programmes such as Postgraduate Certificates or Diplomas. These are designed to increase subject knowledge in a specific area and provide professional recognition.

Either way, don’t assume that the course you choose now must absolutely decide your career for the rest of your life.

See it more as a step towards either: becoming a professional in your current field; a means to gaining knowledge in a new field; or an opportunity to test your abilities in a safeguarded way.

Selecting a specific course – things to consider

Finally, don’t forget to think carefully about the course you’re interested in, regardless of how it’s structured.

Rankings can help, but choosing a course on the basis of its status or because you believe it seems more reputable isn’t always the most sensible decision.

Also, remember that all forms of postgraduate study are a significant investment of time (and money). Though Masters degrees are typically shorter than undergraduate programmes, they still require dedication and hard work.

Don’t be tempted to take one on for the sake of it – especially if you don’t really believe in it and think you won’t enjoy it.

A Masters degree should be something to be valued and appreciated. After all, it’s a step up from undergraduate to postgraduate, so you ought to make the most of it.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog was published on 17/05/17. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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