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Taught vs Research Masters - Which is Right for Me?

Whereas most undergraduate courses are usually delivered through taught classes, Masters degrees can be either postgraduate taught programmes (PGT) or research programmes (PGR).

There’s a big contrast between these two kinds of Masters, and one type may be more suitable for your goals than the other. This page will explain the key differences between taught Masters and research Masters, and hopefully help you decide which one is right for you.

Taught vs research Masters – what’s the difference?

The difference between postgraduate taught programmes and research programmes largely comes down to the level of independence you have during your studies.

  • Taught Masters degrees are a lot like undergraduate programmes. You’ll complete a series of modules following a set timetable of seminars, lectures and other activities. You’ll be much more responsible for studying independently in your free time, but the academics in charge of your course will lead you through it.
  • Research Masters degrees are more independent in nature. You won’t have as many timetabled units (in fact, you may not have any). Instead, you’ll focus on one or more extended projects. You’ll still receive support and guidance from an expert supervisor, but the focus of your programme will be on your own research work.

The majority of Masters-level programmes are taught courses. They include popular degrees like the Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc), as well as shorter Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) and Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) courses.

You can study these courses to acquire more advanced skills and training for a profession, or as a preparation for postgraduate research at PhD level.

Postgraduate research programmes are also available at Masters level. These include the Master of Research (MRes) and Master of Philosophy (MPhil). Some Masters qualifications, such as the Master of Letters (MLitt), can actually be taught or research degrees.

Writing a dissertation

Taught Masters do involve a substantial piece of research in its own right: the dissertation. This will be your chance to undertake an extended individual project, pursuing your own specific academic interests in a way that forms a significant part of your postgraduate course.

Should I study a taught or research Masters?

Your choice of postgraduate programme should depend on your career goals, academic interests and the way in which you prefer to study:

  • If you want to acquire more advanced subject knowledge and gain an additional qualification before entering the employment market, a taught postgraduate course such as an MA or MSc may be best for you.
  • If you have a specific profession in mind, you could be better served by an accredited taught programme. This will usually be a Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma, but may also take the form of a full taught course, such as the Masters in Social Work or a Legal Practice Course.
  • If you are interested in academic research – or a profession in which research skills are valuable – you may wish to think about an MRes. This will allow you to focus on an independent project in order to gain associated research skills, or evaluate whether a longer research degree (such as a PhD) is likely to appeal to you.
  • If you are considering an academic career, you might be able to register for an MPhil after your undergraduate degree and upgrade to a PhD upon making sufficient progress.

Can I do a PhD after taking a taught Masters?

Most PhD programmes ask that applicants have any kind of Masters in an appropriate subject. So, even if you study a taught Masters degree, you’ll be eligible to take a PhD if you satisfy the various entry requirements.

Of course, if you already know that you want to study at PhD level, then it’s worth considering a research Masters if there’s one available in your subject. An MRes would be ideal preparation for PhD study, allowing you to undertake more extensive research and receive specific training in appropriate methods. Another option would be to register for an MPhil and then upgrade to a PhD.

Is there a difference in fees for taught and research Masters?

In some cases, you can expect a research Masters to be cheaper than its taught equivalent. This is normally the case in the Humanities, where an MRes could cost less than an MA. Similarly, the yearly tuition fees for a PhD are often cheaper than a taught Masters.

Things are different in the Sciences, however: an MRes in a scientific subject usually has the same fees as an MSc degree. Both kinds of Masters typically involve extensive laboratory work, which explains the similar tuition fee levels.

The table below shows a summary of this data, reflecting the tendency for some research programmes to be cheaper than their taught counterparts.

UK Postgraduate Fees
Type E.g. UK / EU Overseas
Taught (classroom) MA (Arts / Social Sciences) £6,482 £14,096
Taught (laboratory) MSc (Science / Engineering) £7,555 £16,222
Research MRes / MPhil £4,000+ £10,000+

Is funding the same for taught and research Masters?

Essentially, the funding situation for taught and research Masters is the same. Check out our guide to Masters funding for more information on financing your course.

It’s worth noting that the UK government’s postgraduate loans are available for all Masters (including the MPhil). Interestingly, standalone MPhils are not eligible for the new PhD loans, but these loans are available for MPhils that are intended to become a PhD.

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Last updated 30/04/2018

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