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The Master of Arts (MA) Degree – A Guide

Looking to study a Masters in the Arts and Humanities? You’ll normally gain an MA (Master of Arts). (The equivalent degree in Science and Technology subjects is the MSc).

Here we’ve put together a simple overview of the MA qualification. This includes information on its format and length as well as the countries and subjects that award Master of Arts degrees.

For information on other types of Masters degree, check our guide to postgraduate qualifications.

And don't forget that you can start your search for an MA degree right now on FindAMasters.com.

What is an MA?

The MA is a taught postgraduate Masters. It is offered in most Arts and Humanities subjects and in some areas of the Social Sciences. It stands for Magister Artium, which is Latin for ‘Master of Arts’.


Master of Arts (MA)
Type Taught
Subjects Arts, Humanities & some Social Sciences.
Level 7 (NQF) / Second Cycle (Bologna)
Length 1-2 years
Credits 180 CATS / 90-120 ECTS
Availability Worldwide

The MA is actually one of the oldest types of postgraduate qualification. In most education systems MA degrees originated as academic teaching qualifications. Reaching the level of MA would, as the name suggests, make you a ‘Master’ of your subject, with the expertise necessary to teach it.

These days, a PhD is the entry level qualification for the academic profession. But an MA is still an impressive achievement, demonstrating considerable additional expertise and training over and above an undergraduate degree.

What are the entry requirements for an MA?

The modern MA is a postgraduate qualification. It represents the next level of academic study after a Bachelors degree. As such, many students study an MA after a BA (Bachelor of Arts). You'll normally need to have earned a 2.1 or higher, but universities may make exceptions.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have a BA to study for an MA. Any undergraduate degree in an appropriate subject will be sufficient. Some students even continue to an MA after a BSc (Bachelor of Science).

The 'Oxbridge MA'

England’s Ancient Universities (Oxford and Cambridge) still confer an MA without further examination to Bachelor of Arts (BA) graduates who have held their qualifications for a certain period of time. These are not equivalent to an ‘earned’ Masters degree. To avoid confusion, postgraduate Masters courses at Oxford and Cambridge often award other degrees such as the MLitt or MPhil in place of the MA.

Which countries award MA degrees?

MA degrees are part of most modern higher education systems and are awarded by universities around the world.

In the UK, a Master of Arts is a level 7 qualification, equivalent to MSc, MBA, MRes and other postgraduate Masters degrees within the National Qualifications Framework.

Within Europe the Master of Arts is a second cycle qualification, awarded to standards set by the Bologna Process. In many countries the modern MA (along with the MSc) has actually replaced older ‘Masters’ qualifications. These used to combine undergraduate and postgraduate work on ‘long cycle’ programs. They still exist in some countries, but aren’t very common anymore.

In the USA and Canada, the MA is also a postgraduate (or ‘graduate’) level degree. It can be studied as a standalone qualification, or form the first part of a longer graduate program that eventually awards a PhD.

MAs are also available in other parts of the world, such as Asia and Australasia. Many of these countries model their higher education systems on those of Europe and North America, in which the Master of Arts is a staple qualification.

Which subjects award MA degrees?

As its name suggests, the MA is a Masters in Arts subjects. This includes all Arts and Humanities disciplines as well as several branches of the Social Sciences.

It doesn’t mean that all Arts or Humanities Masters are MA programs. Some award specialised degrees such as the MLitt or MFA. Technical Humanities specialisms (such as Applied Linguistics or Archaeology) can even award an MSc.

Sometimes subjects outside the traditional Arts and Humanities also award Masters of Arts degrees. These are usually programs that reflect upon (or theorise about) technical topics. Examples could include Computer Science courses studying digital artwork or Medicine programs focussing on ethics and medical history.

Search for a Master of Arts (MA) now

The simplest way to find a Master of Arts in your subject is to search our course database. Why not start looking now?

Who should study an MA?

An MA is an ideal choice for anyone interested in postgraduate study in Arts and Humanities subjects.

You’ll have the chance to explore your subject in great depth and be encouraged to think critically and independently.

Many programs will also allow you to specialise much more than an equivalent BA. Did a particular area of your subject interest you as an undergraduate? Chances are you’ll be able to find an MA that focusses on it.

Though the MA is a taught degree, you’ll also have the chance to complete a serious research project with your dissertation. This can be a great way to prepare yourself for more advanced postgraduate research such as a PhD – or simply to investigate a topic that interests you.

If you’d prefer to study at postgraduate level without completing a dissertation, you might be better off considering a Postgraduate Certificate or Postgraduate Diploma. Many MA programs include the option to study for these shorter qualifications.

MAs vs Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas

It is possible to study part of a Masters degree without doing a dissertation. This will award a Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) or Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) depending on the number of modules you complete.

These shorter courses don’t have the same academic value as a ‘full’ MA degree. But they do offer an excellent way to access the taught content on a Masters without needing to complete an extended research project.

Interested in a PGCert or PGDip?

Shorter postgraduate courses can give you access to Masters-level training without committing to a full degree (or needing to complete a dissertation). Find out more in our guide to the PGDip and PGCert.

What’s it like to study an MA?

An MA is always a taught Masters degree, rather than an independent research program.

You will normally complete a series of separately assessed units, or ‘modules’. Each will focus on a different topic within your course and will be delivered through lectures, seminars and practical workshops as appropriate.

In most countries the MA degree concludes with an independent dissertation project.

How long is an MA degree?

The length of an MA degree varies slightly between countries.

In the UK, most programs require one year of full-time study. However, unlike Bachelors degrees, a UK Masters runs for 12 months. Your program will include a ‘summer holiday’, but this is normally when you’ll complete your dissertation. (An example of the extra demands made by postgraduate study!).

In Europe, most MA degrees last from one a half to two years. Unlike the UK these programs do include designated holiday periods. In practice students often use these to complete placements of internships.

Courses elsewhere in the world also tend to be between one and two years long.

Part-time MA courses are normally double the length of full-time programs, with students expected to progress at 50% of the full-time rate. So, a part-time MA in the UK will take two years.

How many credits is an MA worth?

Most countries use academic credit systems to organise MA programs. This allows the value of individual course components to be weighted individually. Your dissertation will usually be worth more than a normal module, for example.

  • In the UK an MA is worth 180 credits. This normally breaks down into four 30 credit modules, plus a 60 credit dissertation.
  • Masters programs elsewhere in Europe use the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). Each year of academic study is worth 60 ECTS credits. As such, a typical MA degree is worth 90 to 120 credits, depending on its length.

Comparing credit systems

Most countries have systems in place for recognising the credit value of international degrees. For example, a UK credit is worth two ECTS credits. This helps students move between the two systems when studying abroad.

What’s involved in an MA dissertation?

A Master of Arts degree ends with a final dissertation project.

You’ll choose a sufficiently original topic and be assigned a supervisor with appropriate expertise. After that, it’s up to you to conduct research, assess your findings and write them up into an effective thesis.

Unsurprisingly, the dissertation is a very important part of your degree (this is usually reflected in its credit weighting). But it’s also the culmination of everything you’ll have learned and all the skills you’ll have developed during your MA.

Want to know more about the Masters dissertation?

The dissertation is a big part of what makes a Masters degree a Masters. Check out our guide to learn more. We’ve also put together some helpful dissertation tips for when the time comes for you to do yours.

Last updated - 23/02/2016

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