Types of master’s degrees by subject/coursework type
The following list describes the distinct types of master’s degrees based on the most common course names used in university listings. As there is no single standardized system, you may find variations between institutions in terms of both naming and course content.
Master of Arts (MA)
A Master of Arts (MA) is usually awarded in disciplines categorized as arts or social sciences, such as communications, education, languages, linguistics, literature, geography, history and music. Candidates are taught through a combination of lectures and seminars and assessed through an examination and/or a dissertation based on an independent research project.
Master of Science (MS, MSc)
A Master of Science (MS, MSc) is usually awarded in disciplines categorized as the sciences, such as biology, chemistry, engineering, health and statistics. Certain fields such as economics and the social sciences can fall under both arts and sciences, with the individual institution deciding on what to call their master’s degree program. In such subjects, it may be the case that the MS has a stronger research component and can be perceived to hold more weight than an MA in some industries.
Master of Research (MRes)
A Master of Research (MRes) degree is designed to provide training in how to become a researcher. Containing a significantly larger research element than MA or MSc programs, an MRes may give candidates an advantage if they wish to pursue a PhD or enter a career in research. Note that some institutions may refer to MRes-style degree programs as an MSc, so it’s worth checking the course content carefully before applying.
Master by Research (MPhil)
A Master by Research (MPhil) is an advanced research-based degree which allows the candidate to focus on a particular topic in-depth and independently, to complete a single large research project. An MPhil is often seen as a precursor to a PhD and is often used by institutions to allow students to ‘test the water’ before commencing a PhD degree program. This often takes longer to complete than other types of master’s degrees – though the length of time and the status awarded to an MPhil varies significantly depending on the country and institution.
Master of Studies (MSt)
Taught in only a few places (including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge), a Master of Studies (MSt) degree is comparable to the MA or MSc, requiring both classroom learning and the completion of a thesis and an examination. An MSt can serve as a provisional enrolment for a PhD in some cases. The need for this category of master’s degree partly stems from the fact that at Oxbridge universities students who have completed a Bachelor of Arts are automatically awarded an MA after a defined time-period has passed. In contrast, those with a MSt have completed postgraduate coursework to gain the title.
Specialized and professional master’s degrees
There are also more specialized types of master’s degrees, often focusing on a specific professional area. These are sometimes known as ‘tagged master’s degrees’, because they are ‘tagged’ to a certain field, or professional master’s degrees, because they focus on career development in a particular profession. Some professional master’s degrees start with the word Professional in the title, such as the Professional Science Master’s Degree (PSM), a hands-on degree with a heavy practical component giving students the skills and knowledge needed to work professionally in their chosen field.
As ever, classifications and course details will differ depending on the country and institution. Here are some of the most common examples of specialized and professional master’s degrees:
Master of Business Administration (MBA)
The Master of Business Administration(MBA) is designed to give students the skills and knowledge required for career progression in business and management roles. Candidates are given broad training in all aspects of business, allowing them to apply their learning to a variety of careers. Many MBA candidates are mid-career professionals, with most programs requiring at least three years’ professional experience. You can also choose to combine an MBA with a specialization such as accounting or finance, and tailor the degree to a specific field of interest. Related master’s degrees include the Master of Professional Accountancy (MPAcc) and Master of Science in Information Systems (MSIS).
Master of Library Science (MLS, MLIS, MSLS)
The Master of Library Science is designed to give students both academic and professional knowledge for entry into the workplace – in this case, libraries. Taught at an accredited library school, an MLS includes theoretical components along with a practicum (supervised practical teaching) or internship, ending with a research project or thesis. The MLS is often a requirement for professional librarian positions in the US and Canada.
Master of Public Administration (MPA)
The Master of Public Administration is a public policy degree similar to an MBA but focusing on the public sector rather than the private sector. Students can specialize in areas such as the environment, international administration and science and technology with an aim to work for the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), not-for-profit organizations and in consulting. The MPA combines academic and professional elements, with a focus on policy analysis and management. Other public policy master’s degrees include Master of Public Policy (MPP), Master of Public Affairs (MPA) Master of Urban Planning (MUP) and Master of International Affairs (MIA).
Master of Public Health (MPH)
The Master of Public Health has academic and professional elements, taking an interdisciplinary approach to areas related to public health. Students are taught how to monitor, diagnose and regulate the health concerns of communities through public policies. Many MPH degree programs are specialized in areas such as epidemiology, global health, occupational health, and nutritional sciences. While some countries accept students with accredited bachelor’s degrees for the MPH, others only accept medical graduates.
Master of Social Work (MSW)
The Master of Social Work degree prepares students for careers within the field of social work, focusing on improving the quality of life for individuals, groups and communities. The MSW is offered either as a clinical degree allowing students to work directly with clients, or as a macro-practice degree preparing students for work in political advocacy and community organizing.
Master of Laws (LLM)
The Master of Laws degree is usually taken after having graduated from a professional law degree and gives candidates the chance to combine their knowledge of the basic skills needed to become a lawyer with specialist knowledge gained through research in a particular area of law.
Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MA, MALS, MLA/ALM, MLS)
The Master of Arts in Liberal Studies is an interdisciplinary program designed to provide rigorous teaching in the liberal arts. Candidates graduate with both depth and breadth of postgraduate knowledge, with MALS programs drawing from courses and instructors from across the university’s postgraduate curriculum. Typically, liberal arts students choose the course for an opportunity to intellectually challenge themselves, explore ideas and pursue knowledge, rather than to pursue a specific career path.
Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
The Master of Fine Arts is a creative degree granted in disciplines such as the visual, performing and studio arts. This may include creative writing, graphic design, photography, filmmaking, theatre and painting. Assessment and study are both practical, culminating in a major work or performance.
Master of Music (MM/MMus)
Awarded by universities and music conservatories, the Master of Music degree combines advanced studies in a specialist applied area chosen by the student (such as music performance, composition or conducting) with advanced studies in musical theory. MM degrees could be preparation for teaching music or to become a professional in a chosen field.
Master of Education (MEd, MSEd, MIT, MAEd, MAT)
The Master of Educationdegree prepares students for careers in education. Some Master of Education degrees prepare student teachers to become certified, while others are more suited for experienced, already certified teachers to specialize in areas such as curriculum, instruction, special education, counselling and administration. The MIT and MAT degrees include coursework and a student teaching internship and lead to the teacher certification qualification needed to teach in public schools.
Master of Engineering (MEng)
The Master of Engineeringdegree can be either academic (with a focus on engineering theories and practice) or professional (with a focus on preparing students for work in the engineering field). While some MEng programs require students to become published in an industry journal, others involve training periods in industry or laboratories, or a combination of the two in order to graduate.
Master of Architecture (M.Arch)
The Master of Architectureis a master’s degree in architecture that assesses students through practical internships, final examinations and/or a thesis or final project in order to receive a license. As M.Arch degrees vary in kind, you may find different names for different types of programs. Students are required to produce coursework in subjects such as design, building science, structural engineering, architectural history and theory and professional practice.
Master’s degree requirements
Finally, master’s degrees also vary in terms of the entry requirements applicants need to meet. To meet the requirements of a master’s degrees it’s usually necessary to have graduated with a bachelor’s degree (though not always), and some programs require a certain amount of professional experience. See below for the most common requirements for different types of master’s degrees.
Postgraduate master’s degrees (MA, MSc, MLA, MSW, etc)
These master’s degrees are usually open to anyone who holds a bachelor’s degree.
Business or management master’s degrees (MBA, MSc, MIM, MSM, MA, MEM)
For these types of program, master’s degree requirements usually include a certain amount of professional experience, especially in the case of an MBA (Master of Business Administration). An MSc in Management (MSc, MIM, MSM) typically requires a bachelor’s degree in social sciences, while an MA in Management is more likely to accept candidates from all backgrounds. The Master’s in Engineering Management (MEM) is specially designed for engineering students.
Executive master’s degrees (EMBA, EMS)
Designed specifically for mid-career executive professionals, executive master’s degrees require candidates to have gained significant professional experience – even more than in the case of an MBA. The most common are Executive Master’s in Business Management (EMBA) or Executive MSc programs.
Postgraduate research master’s degrees (Master by Research)
Master by Research programs are designed for those who hold a bachelor’s degree with a significant research component and/or have several published research papers.
Integrated master’s degrees (MEng, MMath, MSci, etc)
These are master’s degrees that follow on directly from an undergraduate degree program, most commonly available in scientific and technology subjects. It’s possible to apply for an integrated master’s degree program directly after completion of secondary-level education. Integrated master’s degree programs usually last a year longer than it would take to earn an undergraduate degree, and students may have the option to skip the final year and just graduate at bachelor’s level instead.
There is also the option (particularly in countries such as the US) to earn a master’s degree alongside your undergraduate studies. This is called ‘en route’, ‘in passing’ or ‘in course’ and is awarded following the successful completion of coursework and certain examinations.