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What is a Masters Degree?

Written by Mark Bennett

A Masters is an advanced academic degree that takes place at postgraduate, or 'second-cycle', level. It is designed to build on existing undergraduate qualifications or professional experience.

This page presents an introduction to postgraduate study at Masters level. You can read answers to basic questions and learn where to look for more detailed information elsewhere in our guides.

Understanding a Masters degree

Unlike a Bachelor's course, postgraduate study is much more varied. A Masters can be either taught or research based and students have more opportunity to study part-time or distance learn.

There are also a wider range of Masters degrees compared to Bachelors. Aside from the MA or MSc, some subjects or specific institutions have their own specialist degree.

This is all part of what makes studying a Master such a valuable opportunity.

You’ll have the chance to select from a variety of different degree types and pick the right qualification for you. As part of this, you’ll be able to specialise with subject-specific degrees, or other highly focussed courses.

Masters degrees – a summary
Type Taught and research
Length 1-2 years full-time
Credits value 180 CATS / 90 ECTS
Qualification level 7 (NQF)
Availability Worldwide

Which Masters qualification is right for you?

The range of options on offer at Masters-level doesn't have to be confusing. Our guide to postgraduate study covers all the common types of Masters degree (from the MA and MSc to the MFA and MLitt) as well as PGDip and PGCert courses.

'Masters' vs 'postgraduate'

(Almost) all Masters degrees are postgraduate qualifications. But, not all postgraduate qualifications are Masters degrees.

In fact, a wide range of other courses are available. These include shorter 'Masters-level' courses such as Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas as well as more advanced degrees such as PhDs and other doctorates.

Here's a quick summary of the different 'levels of postgraduate study':

Levels of postgraduate study
Qualification Type UK level Bologna level Length
Masters Taught or research 7 Second-cycle 1-2 years
Postgraduate Diploma Taught 7 Second-cycle 2 semesters
Postgraduate Certificate Taught 7 Second-cycle 1 semester
PhD Research 8 Third-cycle 3-4 years
* This information is a general guideline and is based on full-time courses. See our guides to postgraduate qualification types for more information.

Taught vs research

Unlike undergraduate degrees, Masters courses can be ‘taught’ or ‘research’ based:

  • Taught Masters are a lot like undergraduate degrees. You’ll study a series of modules before going on to complete an extended dissertation.
  • Research Masters involve much more independent study. They can still include taught units, but you’ll spend more time on your own supervised research work.

As a general rule, taught degrees are best for students who wish to expand upon their subject knowledge. Research programmes are designed for postgraduates who wish to spend more time on their own independent scholarship or project work.

How are Masters degrees graded?

Masters programmes in the UK are usually graded as a Distinction, Merit or Pass. This system works different to Bachelors degrees, which receive a 1st, 2.1, 2.2. or 3rd. You can find out more about how it works in our guide to Masters degree grades.

Masters vs PhD

You may also be wandering about the difference between a Masters and a PhD.

Put simply, the PhD is a fully independent research degree. A Masters still involves acquiring existing subject knowledge through teaching and mentoring. But a PhD consists entirely of original scholarship.

The core requirement for a PhD is that a student makes an ‘original contribution to knowledge’.

You might say that a Masters gives you a ‘Mastery’ of your subject as it’s currently understood. A PhD, on the other hand, is your chance to expand that understanding.

Some students use a Masters to prepare for a PhD by gaining additional knowledge, expertise and research skills.

But a Masters isn’t always a prerequisite for a PhD. In some subjects (such as Science and Engineering) students may go straight to doctoral study after an undergraduate degree.

Should I do a second Masters degree?

The answer to this (unsurprisingly) depends on your own circumstances and motivations. Doing a second Masters is a complementary subject can be an excellent way of broadening your skillset, but the financial and time commitments of a Masters mean that it isn't a decision to be taken lightly. We've written a guide for anyone considering whether they should do a second Masters degree.

Not sure where to take your postgraduate studies?

You can read more about using a Masters as a pathway to PhD study in our look at reasons for studying a Masters. Or, if you’re more interested in a PhD, check out the detailed advice over at FindAPhD.com.

Preparing for postgraduate study

In most cases you'll already have completed an undergraduate degree before starting a Masters. Entry requirements usually require a 2.1 or higher in a related subject. However, sometimes lower class degrees are accepted.

Do I need an undergraduate degree for Masters study?

Not all postgraduate programmes need an undergraduate degree. If you already have relevant skills and experience you may be admitted without a bachelors. However, this is more likely for professional courses. Make sure to check your situation with the admissions department before applying.

Do I have to begin my postgraduate course as soon as I graduate?

Even if your course requires a Bachelors degree, you don’t need to continue to postgraduate study immediately.

Many students return to university after a period in work as a Masters degree can help you advance an existing career or qualify for a new one.

Some also choose to study a postgraduate course part-time, whilst maintaining their existing employment. Many universities offer flexible study options to help students do this.

Applying for postgraduate study

Masters degrees don't normally use UCAS (or a similar centralised application system). Instead students apply directly to universities.

You can find out more in our guide to applying for a Masters, or check out specific advice on postgraduate interviews and personal statements.

Are Masters degrees the same in different countries?

Until relatively recently, higher education systems around the world took different approaches to postgraduate study.

In Europe this has been addressed as part of a system known as the Bologna Process. This organises degrees into three ‘cycles’ (Bachelors, Masters and PhD). Qualifications at each level have the same recognised academic value.

As a result, ‘long cycle’ Masters programmes (which often began at undergraduate level) have been phased out. Their replacements are modern postgraduate degrees.

There are still some differences between different countries though.

A full-time Masters degree in the UK tends to run for a full calendar year. Most European countries offer two-year programmes (with a summer break).

Research Masters are also more common in the UK. European (and US) universities are more likely to restrict independent research to PhD level work.

'Postgraduate vs 'graduate'

You may have noticed that some countries refer to postgraduate study differently. In the UK, 'postgraduate' refers to training that takes place 'post' (after) graduation from a Bachelors degree(or equivalent). Other countries, such as the US, use 'graduate' to refer to the training level appropriate for someone who has graduated from a previous degree. As far as students are concerned, the two terms mean the same thing.

You can read all about Masters degrees in different higher education systems in our international study guides.

Interested in studying a Masters abroad?

You can find out more in our series of detailed country guides. These cover popular postgraduate destinations in Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and Africa.

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Last updated: 25 October 2022