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Types of Masters degree and other postgraduate courses

Postgraduate study can be far more varied than undergraduate study, with a wide variety of courses and qualifications available.

These include different types of Masters degree as well as Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas. Other programs are designed to help qualify students for specific career paths.

This page introduces the various types of Masters-level degree available to you.

It explains the differences between taught postgraduate (PGT) courses and postgraduate research (PGR) programs. It also provides a handy comparison of different postgraduate degrees, as well as links to our in-depth Masters degree guides.

If you’re more interested in learning about doctoral research, you can read specific guides to PhD study at FindAPhD.com.

Taught vs Research Masters – What’s the difference?

Undergraduate degrees are usually delivered through taught classes. But postgraduate degrees may be taught programs (PGT) or research programs (PGR).

  • Taught Masters degrees are a lot like undergraduate programs. 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 responsible for your course will lead you through it.
  • Research Masters degrees are much more independent. 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 program will be on your own research work.

The majority of Masters-level programs 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.

Some research programs 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.

Note that PhDs aren’t Masters level degrees. We’ve covered them briefly, further down this page, but you should head to FindAPhD.com for more in-depth information on doctoral study.

Should I study a taught or research Masters?

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

  • If you wish 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 program. This will usually be a Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma, but may also take the form of a full taught Masters course.
  • If you are interested in academic research – or a profession in which research skills are valuable – you may wish to consider an MRes. This will allow you to focus on independent work 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 may be able to register for an MPhil after your undergraduate degree and upgrade to a PhD upon making sufficient progress.

You can read more about these degrees (and other postgraduate programs) below.

Types of taught Masters degree

Much like undergraduate degrees, Masters programs are given specific titles depending on their subject area.

The two most common are the MA (‘Masters of Arts’) and MSc (‘Master of Science’), but there are also others in some specific subject areas.

Unless otherwise noted, different types of taught Masters degree are usually equivalent to each other and carry the same academic value.

International degree titles

Most higher education systems give Masters degrees similar titles. This is particularly true in Europe, where academic degrees have been gradually standardised as part of a system known as the 'Bologna Process'. See our guides to Masters study abroad for more information on postgraduate degrees in different countries.

Master of Arts (MA) degrees

The MA is the most common taught Masters degree in Arts, Humanities and related subjects. It normally involves studying a series of modules before completing a dissertation on a topic of your choosing.

Master of Science (MSc) degrees

The equivalent of the MA in Science and Technology subjects is the Master of Science, or MSc. This is also a taught degree, made up of a series of units followed by an independent dissertation.

Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees

Not to be confused with the academic Master of Arts, the Master of Fine Art (MFA) is a practical creative degree.

Instead of focussing on the scholarly study of an arts discipline, you’ll become an expert practitioner in it. These programs are ideal for budding writers, artists or designers.

  • Interested in an MFA? - A Master of Fine Arts could be ideal if you’re nterested in pursuing a creative career with a postgraduate degree. Take a look at our detailed guide to MFA degrees. You can also search for MFAs and related programs in our database.

Master of Letters (MLitt) degrees

The MLitt is a less common Masters degree, awarded by some UK universities in place of more familiar degrees.

In Scotland, the Master of Letters sometimes takes the place of a Master of Arts. Some English universities offer the MLitt in place of research degrees such as the MPhil. This means that the MLitt can be sometimes be a taught or research program.

  • Interested in an MLitt? - The Master of Letters may be a less familiar course, but it doesn’t have to be confusing. Our guide to the MLitt can help you make sense of this degree. You can also search for MLitt programs in our database.

Master of Laws (LLM) degrees

The Master of Laws is a postgraduate degree in law. It isn’t a professional training program, but it can offer you the opportunity to specialise in a specific branch of law (and enhance your CV in the process!).

  • Interested in an LLM? - The LLM is perfect if you’re looking for advanced legal training as a student, or practising professional. Find out more in our detailed guide to the Master of Laws, or start your search for an LLM in our course listings.

Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees

The MBA is a coveted degree in leadership and management, designed for business professionals. It’s a taught qualification, at Masters level, but focusses on practical work as well as study and training.

  • Interested in an MBA? - An MBA is an impressive addition to any CV in business and management, but these courses are competitive and intensive. Our guide to the MBA can help you decide if this is the degree for you. Or you can start your search for MBA now.

Master of Engineering (MEng) degrees

The MEng is a professional training program in Engineering. In countries like the UK it is a requirement for qualification as a chartered engineer.

Unlike most other Masters degrees, the MEng isn’t actually a postgraduate qualification. Instead it is an integrated Masters degree that begins at undergraduate level. Other postgraduate engineering Masters are also available, however.

  • Interested in an Engineering Masters? - If you want to fully qualify as an engineer, a Masters degree may be necessary. Our guide to the MEng and other degrees will help you make sense of the options available to you. You can also search for Engineering Masters in our database.

Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) and Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) courses

Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas are shorter postgraduate courses that don’t award a full Masters degree.

They may be part of an academic Masters program (with the option to upgrade) or they may be separate vocational and continuing professional development (CPD) courses.

Integrated Masters degrees

Not all Masters degrees are postgraduate qualifications. Some actually begin at the undergraduate level and run for four years instead of three.

  • Interested in integrated Masters? - Here at FindAMasters we specialise in postgraduate courses, but we’ve also put together a quick guide to integrated Masters degrees to help you understand all the options available to you.

Types of research Masters degree

Research Masters programs are less common than taught courses. Instead, postgraduate research tends to occur at PhD level.

There are some Masters degrees that focus on independent project work though. The two most common are the Master of Research (MRes) and the Master of Philosophy (MPhil).

We’ve included some notes on them here, as well as a very quick introduction to advanced research qualifications such as the PhD.

Master of Research (MRes) degrees

The MRes is a Masters degree that focusses more on independent project work. Whereas an MA or MSc will normally end with one final dissertation task, an MRes may include several research projects or require you to write a much longer thesis.

However, most MRes programs still include some taught units. This distinguishes them from ‘full’ research programs such as the MPhil (or PhD).

  • Interested in an MRes? - The Master of Research can be a great option if you’re interested in training for advanced research – or if you’re planning on a professional research career that doesn’t require a PhD. Find out more with our guide to the MRes, or start your search for MRes programs in our database.

Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degrees

The MPhil is a pure research degree, akin to a PhD. Indeed, many students initially register on an MPhil with the intention of upgrading to a PhD.

When studied as a standalone degree, the MPhil is a Masters-level qualification. You’ll complete a shorter thesis than a PhD student, but your project will still be extensive and expected to hold scholarly significance.

  • Interested in an MPhil? - A Master of Philosophy can be an ideal degree if you want to carry out postgraduate research without committing to a full PhD. You can find out more in our guide to MPhil degrees, or begin your search for an MPhil in our database. For information on the MPhil as a route to PhD study, see our sister-site, FindAPhD.com.

PhDs and Professional Doctorates

The PhD, or ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, is normally the highest level of qualification you can achieve in an academic subject. It isn’t a Masters-level degree, but for many students, a Masters is a step towards PhD study.

Professional Doctorates are equivalent to a PhD, but focusses on professional and vocational subjects. Whereas a PhD is a training in academic research, a Professional Doctorate is a way for experienced professionals, (most studying part-time) to carry out research relating to their real world professional practice.

Unlike most PhDs, Professional Doctorates contain a large taught element running throughout the course.

  • Interested in a PhD or Professional Doctorate? - We don’t cover doctoral-level degrees here on FindAMasters (it’s in our name, after all!). But you can find out more about advanced postgraduate research programs and search for PhD opportunities using our sister-sites, FindAPhD and FindAProfessionalDoctorate.com.

Compare Postgraduate degree types

Looking for a quick way to compare different types of Masters degree, side by side? We’ve got just the thing.

Our handy table includes all the degrees covered in this section. We’ve provided information on subject areas, credit value and length for typical programs.


Degree Type Length
MA Taught 1-2 years
MSc Taught 1-2 years
MRes

Taught

-

Research

1-2 years
MPhil Research 2 years
MFA

Practical

-

Professional

1-2 years
MLitt

Taught

-

Research

1-2 years
LLM

Taught

-

Research

1-2 years
MBA Professional 1-2 years
MEng

Taught

-

Professional

4 years
PGCert

Taught

-

Professional

1 term
PGDip

Taught

-

Professional

2 terms

Please note that individual degree programs can vary and it’s possible that a specific course at a given university might be slightly different to the typical guidelines above.

Did you know we currently list 24,704 Masters programs worldwide?


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Last updated - 23/02/2016

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