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STUDY ABROAD : Subject Guides - Must read

MA vs MSc: What is the best choice?

With the number of postgraduate degrees on offer, it’s not unusual to be a little confused about what each is and what they all mean. We take a closer look at MA and MSc degrees and decode them for you.

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We’ve all come across what can appear to be a dizzying amount of degree and qualification acronyms. Sometimes you can feel you need a degree just to understand what they all are. However, two of the most common are an MSc degree and an MA degree, both of which are postgraduate master’s degree qualifications. In this article, we explore the difference between an MA and MSc degree, what they mean and some of the characteristics of both. 


What is an MA?


Let’s start by exploring what an MA degree is. A Master of Arts (MA) is a postgraduate qualification with a focus on subjects in the humanities and social sciences discipline. Often the focus of the degree is very specific and deals with a niche area of a subject. Some of the more common MA subject areas that are studied include:


  • History
  • Sociology
  • Anthropology
  • English literature 
  • Languages 
  • Philosophy 
  • Fine art
  • Performing art
  • Journalism 
  • Architecture


Very often you would have studied one of the subjects at undergraduate or honour’s degree level and wish to continue pursuing your area of interest. If you’re worried about how you’ll be evaluated there is no need to be. If you choose an MA degree you will, depending on the nature of your course, usually be assessed through a combination of exams, assignments and a mini-thesis. 


However, for a research-based MA degree, you will need to conduct independent research with the help of a supervisor and submit a dissertation for examination. This is sometimes called an MRes degree or MA by research.


What is an MSc?


An MSc or Master of Science degree has a clear focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related subjects. In some cases, this does extend to certain social science subjects as well. For an MSc, you will be extending and developing your knowledge and expertise in a specialised area. This is often to enhance your professional profile, fine-tuning technical skills, and preparing you for more advanced work in a particular field. Some of the more common subjects that students pursue an MSc include:



MSc degrees are predominantly taught master’s degrees and will take you two years to complete part-time and a year full-time. There may also be elements of practical or laboratory work and work placements as part of your course. 



What are the major differences between an MA and MSc degree?


While there are very clear similarities between an MA and MSc degree, there are small details that set the two apart:


  • Subject focus – An MA is humanities and social science-focused, while an MSc is a STEM-focused degree. 
  • An MA degree may represent the highest level of study one can achieve in a particular subject, while with an MSc this is not the case. 
  • An MSc course may have a degree apprenticeship as part of the study programme.
  • An MA offers a broader subject focus that may for example allow for a transfer to a PhD in a related subject, while MSc degrees tend to be much more focused. 
  • Teaching and learning between the two degrees can be different, with a differing emphasis on the amount of research and lectures, with MSc degrees usually involving more face-to-face interaction with lecturers. 
  • MSc degrees are generally classed as professional degrees, while an MA qualification is usually an academic degree
  • An MSc degree will lead to different graduate outcomes than an MA. It’s important to evaluate your goals and objectives. Remember an MSc degree has a more technical and scientific approach, while a master’s degree is subject-focused so there is a subtle distinction between a master’s degree in accounting and an MSc degree in the same subject.


What are the admission requirements for an MA degree?


If you’re leaning towards studying for a Master of Arts degree you will need to meet a few of the prerequisites for acceptance. These can differ between universities and countries so be sure to check with your prospective university. A general guideline of entry requirements are:


  • An undergraduate degree in a related subject with a minimum of a B grade average or 2:1 equivalent. 
  • An IELTS score or equivalent of 6.5 with no band lower than 6.0.
  • If you’re studying in the U.S. a GPA of 3.0 to 3.33 is usually required. 
  • You may also need to provide evidence of previous undergraduate work such as a dissertation or project. 


What are the admission requirements for an MSc degree?


For an MSc degree, the entry requirements can differ depending on your choice of degree. This is also true of the competition for places in certain popular subjects, where admission criteria may be stricter. In general, you will need:


  • An honour’s degree (2:1 / B-average or higher) in a related subject.
  • In some cases, a postgraduate diploma in a related subject. 
  • An IELTS or equivalent score of 6.5 and no band lower than 6.0.
  • For some subjects demonstration of technical and specialist knowledge (for example a programming language). 
  • Studying in the USA you’ll need a GPA higher than 3.0 for acceptance onto a degree.
  • You may require a portfolio of work submission. 
  • Some programmes will also require you to interview for a place on the course.
  • For some MSc degrees work experience in the related field is needed.


Always check with a university as to the specific requirement before lodging your application. You may find speaking to an education counsellor helpful?


What about the graduate prospects?


What is essential is that you are clear about your priorities before applying for an MA or MSc degree. Some degrees are designed specifically towards developing your skills and CV for employment, while others are more theoretical and academic without much of a direct effect on your employment prospects. But, remember no academic study is ever wasted and that new roles and jobs are constantly being created


Much will also depend on your area of interest, your abilities and the field you are studying in as to what the graduate prospects are. Remember to try and match what you study with your career aspirations. You may hear people say that an MSc is superior to an MA, but this is not the case as each carries academic prestige and serves as an indicator of your dedication to pursuing your goals. 


Now that you’re up to speed with MSc and MA degrees you probably want to explore some of the top universities and countries in which to study. Have a look at our take on the top law schools in Canada, the top universities in Australia and the best institutions in New Zealand

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