An Idiot’s Guide to Postgraduate Degree Types

MSc? MA? MBA? If you’re thinking of pursuing a master’s degree but are confused about the types of degrees available and which one would suit you more, don’t worry about it. We’ve assembled some basic information about master’s degrees that will help you in your plans of pursuing your postgraduate studies.

image-1Image source: Goldsmith

On the whole, Master’s degrees are either:

Postgraduate/ Graduate Master’s Degrees

Are the more traditional and common form of master’s degrees where the student already holds an undergraduate degree upon entry. Postgraduate master’s degrees can be either taught-based or research-based.

Examples of postgraduate/graduate master’s degrees are:

• MA (Master of Arts)

• MSc (Master of Science)

• MSt (Master of Studies)

• MBA (Master of Business Administration)

• LLM (Master of Laws)

• MPhil (Master of Philosophy). This is an advanced research programme that is often linked to a PhD.


Integrated Master’s Degrees

Integrated master’s degrees are common in science, mathematics and engineering but are also used in other subjects. It is delivered through a programme that combines a bachelor’s degree with honours and study at master’s level during the latter stages of the programme. As such, a student usually graduates with a master’s degree after a continuous four-year (or five-year in Scotland) programme of study. If a work placement is included, the time taken to complete the programme may be extended.

Examples include:

• MChem (Master of Chemistry)

• MEng/ MTech (Master of Engineering/ Master of Technology)

• MMath (Master of Mathematics)

• MPharm (Master of Sciences of Pharmacy)

• MPhys (Master of Physics)

• MPsych (Master of Psychology)

• MSc (Master of Science)


Non-Master’s Level Master’s Degrees

This gets a little confusing, but basically, some ancient universities of the UK and Ireland have traditionally awarded MAs in a different manner to that usual today. The Scottish MA is a bachelor’s-level qualification offered by the ancient universities of Scotland. The Oxbridge MA is not an academic qualification. It is granted without further examination/ study to those who have gained a BA from Oxford or Cambridge Universities in England, and the MA of Trinity College Dublin in Ireland is granted to its graduates in a similar manner.

Remember that it’s not your normal master’s degree, and is not recognised in the same way. It’s just a fancy title you get when you complete your bachelor’s degree in an ancient university.

The UK Quality Assurance Agency defines three categories of Master’s degrees:

1. Specialised/ Advanced Study Master’s Degrees (MA, MSc, MRes and some integrated master’s)

• Specialised or advanced study master’s degrees usually aim to prepare students for the next stage in their careers, whether that is further academic or professional study, or entering or progressing within employment of different kinds.

• Programmes in this category often attract entrants who have acquired a background in the subject or a related subject area through previous study (a bachelor’s degree with honours or equivalent)

• In the case of integrated master’s degrees, students may enrol directly onto the integrated master’s programme or enrol on the associated bachelor’s programme in the first instance and transfer to the master’s programme after demonstrating satisfactory academic progress.


2. Research Master’s Degrees  (MPhil, MLitt (not always, but usually) and the M by Res)

• Research master’s degrees usually aim to prepare students for the next stage in a research career, whether pursuing a further research programme or entering research-based employment; or to enable those undertaking the programme to contribute towards research in the subject.

• Programmes in this category often attract entrants with a bachelor’s degree with honours in a closely related subject, or entrants who have acquired experience through work

• Assessment is specific to the individual and usually requires a dissertation or thesis, or other output, such as an artefact, performance or musical composition. The thesis is usually defended in an oral examination.

• Research master’s degrees are mostly research based but may involve teaching elements, particularly on research methods. Please do not to confuse the Master by Research (M by Res), which is a research degree in a specific subject, with the Master of Research (MRes), which is a taught degree concentrating on research methods.

• Research degrees usually take longer to complete than taught degrees.


3. Professional/Practice Master’s Degrees (MBA, MDiv, LLM and MSW, and some integrated master’s)

• Professional or practice master’s degrees usually aim to enable graduates to qualify for entry into a profession; or to provide development opportunities related to particular professions or employment settings.

• Programmes in this category (which are not integrated programmes) often attract entrants with a bachelor’s degree with honours or equivalent experience that may or may not be directly relevant to the particular profession. Some professional/practice master’s will require entrants to be engaged in particular professions as a condition of entry to the programme.

• In the case of integrated master’s degrees that fall within this type, master’s level study is integrated with study at honours degree level within a single programme.

• Learning tends to be structured, and may include practical elements, such as fieldwork, placements or other opportunities for work-based learning, as well as a project undertaken through independent study.

There are also courses called Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas which are not full Master’s degrees. They may be part of an academic master’s program, or they may be in the form of separate vocational and CPD (Continuing Professional Development) courses. You will not be accredited with a master’s degree, but it may benefit you in your career.

Hopefully we have provided enough information for you to narrow down which master’s degree you want to pursue in the future. If you would like assistance with applying to a UK university for your master’s degree, just let us know! We would love to hear from you and help with your university application or any queries you might have!

Remember all students who apply for a postgraduate degree via Application UK are entitled to a bursary worth £300!

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