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The Master of Science (MSc) Degree – A Guide

Considering postgraduate study in a Science, Technology or Mathematics subject? If you’re looking for a taught Masters programme, you’ll most likely graduate with an MSc (Master of Science).

The equivalent degree in Arts and Humanities subjects is the MA. Engineering degrees can be MSc programmes, but many award specialised Master of Engineering degrees.

This page offers a quick overview of the MSc qualification. You can read what studying an MSc degree involves, how long it’s likely to be and how many credits it’s worth.

If you’d like to read about other Masters degrees, start with our guide to postgraduate qualifications.

And, of course, if you just want to get started searching for an MSc, you can do so right now.

What is an MSc?

The MSc is the standard Masters qualification for taught courses in Science and Technology subjects. It stands for Magister Scientiae, which is Latin for ‘Master of Science’.

Master of Science (MSc)
Type Taught
Subjects Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics & some Social Sciences
Qualification Level 7 (NQF)
Length 1-2 years
Credits Value 180 CATS / 90 ECTS
Availability Worldwide

These types of taught Masters have been studied for centuries. Originally, the Masters degree was the highest level of academic qualification achievable. The degree entitled (and in some cases obliged!) graduates to teach as a university ‘Master’.

The MSc still represents a considerable level of achievement and expertise. But the qualification is a now a ‘second cycle’ degree. This means you’ll usually study an MSc after a related undergraduate Bachelors, but before a higher research degree such as the PhD.

What are the entry requirements for an MSc?

To study an MSc you’ll normally need an appropriate undergraduate degree. This doesn’t have to be a Bachelor of Science (BSc) but it should be in an appropriate subject. Most programmes will expect you to have earned the equivalent of a 2.1 or higher.

You may be able to study an MSc without an undergraduate degree or with a lower degree result. This is more likely if you have other relevant experience. If in doubt, find a course as normal and then contact the university responsible.

Find out more about entry requirements for postgraduate courses.

The MSci

Don’t confuse the MSc with the MSci. The latter is actually a longer undergraduate programme that eventually awards a Masters-level degree (as an integrated Masters). It stands for ‘Master in Science’ (as opposed to ‘Master of Science’). MSci degrees are more popular in professional subjects, where a highly structured approach to training is required.

Which countries award MSc degrees?

The MSc is a widely recognised postgraduate degree, awarded by universities around the world. Most follow a similar format.

In the UK, the Master of Science is a postgraduate qualification, at level 7 of the National Qualifications Framework.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Master of Science is a second cycle degree. As part of the Bologna Process, many countries have actually replaced older ‘magister’ programmes with standardised MSc and MA degrees.

In North America the MSc is also a postgraduate (or ‘graduate’) level qualification and often referred to as an MS degree. Some graduate programmes offer the MSc within a longer course of study that can potentially lead to higher degrees such as the PhD.

Other education systems also award MSc degrees in appropriate subjects. The exact distinction between MSc and MA subjects may vary between countries.

International degree names

Don’t worry too much about the distinction between MA and MSc degrees when studying abroad. The use of degree titles will vary internationally. Some countries may also favour one type of Masters over another, particularly if their universities tend to focus on scientific and technical training. If in doubt, focus on the course content.

Which subjects award MSc degrees?

Unsurprisingly, the MSc tends to be awarded on Science Masters. As a general rule this includes most ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects.

It’s not quite so simple though. These disciplines tend to award more of their own specialised degrees than the Arts and Humanities.

This is particularly likely to be the case in subjects that relate to chartered professions. Such qualifications often need to be specific degree types that meet accreditation standards.

In Engineering, for example, many students study a four year integrated Masters known as the MEng (Master of Engineering). This is an undergraduate, rather than postgraduate, qualification, but is equivalent to a Bachelors plus a Masters. Some MSc programmes in Engineering are labelled as MSc (Eng) degrees to show that they meet the same accredited standard as an MEng.

Masters-level degrees in Medicine may also form part of a professional qualification pathway, with their own qualifications. Others will be more self-contained ‘academic’ programmes, providing specialist expertise and awarding an MSc.

MSc degrees outside ‘the sciences’

Don’t make the mistake of thinking an MSc is always a ‘hard science’ degree. Universities are free to organise their own qualifications and will often award a Master of Science in other subjects.

If an Arts or Humanities programme includes lots of quantitative analysis and technical expertise, it may award an MSc instead of an MA. Linguistics is a good example. Programmes focussing on the ‘science’ of language systems will usually award MSc degrees.

Other subjects award MA or MSc degrees depending on the focus of a given course. A good example would be an Archaeology. A programme focussing on carbon data and excavation techniques would probably award an MSc. One focussing on historical and cultural contexts would probably award an MA.

The same applies across the Social Sciences. Courses that favour quantitative over qualitative analysis are likely to award an MSc rather than an MA (and vice versa).

MSc vs MA

The distinction between MSc and MA (Master of Arts) qualifications is relatively recent – in academic terms, at least! As scientific subjects became a staple of university curricula, degrees were named according to their discipline.

Masters degrees in technical subjects, with a basis in mathematical logic and analysis, were labelled as MSc qualifications. Degrees in more qualitative subjects, with a basis in creative practice and / or philosophical analysis, continued to be labelled as MAs.

The difference isn’t absolute and universities are generally free to label their programmes as they see fit.

Both degrees are also completely ‘equal’. Whether you study for an MSc or MA, your qualification has exactly the same academic standing.

Students can also move between the ‘Arts’ and ‘Science’ branches as they complete successive degrees. Provided your degree is relevant, there’s nothing to stop you studying an MSc after a BA or an MA after a BSc.

Search for a Master of Science (MSc) now

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

Who should study an MSc?

The MSc is a good choice for anyone considering further study in a subject that focusses on quantitative analysis and technical methods.

You’ll have the chance to conduct your own independent scholarship and research. But you’ll also benefit from the structure of a taught course.

An MSc also offers a much greater opportunity to specialise. Whereas your BSc will probably have provided an overall ‘survey’ of your subject, you may be able to find an MSc that focusses on a much more specific area of interest.

When it comes to outcomes and employability, your postgraduate degree will leave you with several options.

Completing an MSc will prepare you for further study at PhD level. You’ll have the opportunity to acquire advanced subject knowledge and try your hand at extended independent research during your dissertation.

Many professional jobs also recognise and recruit for postgraduate science degrees. Some employers may even recruit specifically for candidates with MSc-level training.

Don’t forget that a BSc isn’t specifically required for an MSc. You can apply with a BA, provided your undergraduate degree was in an appropriate subject.

MScs vs Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas

If you want to study a postgraduate science degree without a research component, you can still do so.

The taught component of an MSc programme can often be studied separately. This will lead to the award of a Postgraduate Diploma or Postgraduate Certificate, depending on how many modules you complete.

These aren’t ‘full Masters’ degrees, but they are still an excellent way to acquire expert skills and training at the postgraduate level.

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 MSc?

An MSc typically consists of a series of individual modules, followed by an independent dissertation project.

As such, it is a taught Masters, rather than a research degree. An MSc will still include plenty of opportunity for you to explore your own ideas and work independently (particularly at the dissertation stage). But it will also ensure that you receive solid grounding in your subject at an expert level.

Teaching methods will vary, but will be similar to those for a BSc. You’ll attend seminars along with practical laboratory exercises and demonstrations (as appropriate). Some courses may also deliver core concepts and background knowledge through large group lectures.

How long is an MSc?

The exact length of a Master of Science programme varies across countries. But most courses are between one and two years long.

In the UK, an MSc is usually a one-year full-time course. Unlike an undergraduate degree, the teaching and assessment period for a British Masters runs for a full 12 months. You will have a summer holiday during your degree, but this is when you’ll be expected to complete your dissertation (no one said postgraduate study would be easy!).

In Europe, the MSc is often slightly longer. Programmes typically last for one and a half to two years. Students often complete placements or internships during the summer between their first and second years.

Most universities offer a part-time study option for their MScs. This will usually double the length of your course, but only require you to progress at 50% intensity. So, a part-time MSc in the UK will normally last for two years.

How many credits is an MSc worth?

In the UK, an MSc is usually worth 180 credits (the equivalent of 90 ECTS points).

An MSc uses the same credit system (and has the same credit value) as an MA. Each part of your course will have a credit weighting, according to its importance. A dissertation, for example, will normally be worth more than a single teaching module.

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 MSc dissertation?

In order to qualify as a full Masters programme, an MSc will conclude with an extended project and written dissertation. You’ll be assigned a supervisor, but will be independently responsible for researching your topic, assembling data and analysing your findings.

This will be your chance to apply the expertise you’ve acquired on your Masters whilst pursuing your own specialist interests. The experience will be a great preparation for professional research work, or even for a PhD.

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 - 16/05/2019

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