The Master of Science (MSc) Degree – A Guide |
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The Master of Science (MSc) Degree – A Guide

Written by Mark Bennett

The Master of Science (MSc) is the standard Masters qualification for taught courses in Science and Technology subjects. It's one of the most popular postgraduate degrees, awarded worldwide.

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

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

If you want to know more about the differences between the two, you can read our detailed guide comparing the MA and the MSc.

What is an MSc?

The MSc is is the most common qualification awarded for taught courses in Science, Technology and Mathematics subjects. It stands for Magister Scientiae, which means ‘Master of Science’ in Latin.

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 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.

The meaning of 'MSc'

What does 'MSc' actually mean? MSc stands for Magister Scientiae, which is Latin for 'Master of Science'.

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. In comparison, you'll usually study an MA in an Arts or Humanities subject.

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 degree. 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 qualification rather than an MA (and vice versa).

For example, MSc subjects could include:

What is the difference between an MSc and other degrees

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.

MSc vs MRes

The main distinction between an Msc and MRes is that an MSc is a taught qualification whereas an MRes is research-based degree.

A taught programme usually involves lectures, seminars and coursework and will end in a final dissertation submission. A research degree on the other hand relies more on your independent research.

There are still likely to be some mandatory teaching on an MRes, but for the bulk of the degree, you'll be working on your own independent research project.

MSc vs MPhil

An MPhil is another kind of research degree, however, unlike an MRes the MPhil is purely research based.

If you're studying an MSc, your course will be structured to include lectures, seminars and coursework and will end in a final dissertation project. An MPhil, on the other hand, only focuses on independent research.

Many students who are enrolled onto an Mphil can transfer to a PhD after a year (if their research meets a particular standard) which is not an option for MSc students. You'll have to finish your MSc degree and then apply for a PhD separately.

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 an MSc course as normal and then contact the university responsible.

Find out more about entry requirements for postgraduate courses.

Can I do an MSc without a BSc?

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

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.

What’s it like to study an MSc?

MSc study 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.

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 full dissertation guide to learn more. We’ve also put together some helpful dissertation tips for when the time comes for you to do yours.

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 qualification 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.

Search for a Master of Science (MSc) now

Does an MSc sound like the right option for you? Find your perfect course in our directory today.

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Last updated: 25 April 2023