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What is the Difference Between an MA and an MSc Degree?

Not all degrees are the same. Here are some of the major differences, advantages, and similarities between an MA and an MSc.

Aug 22, 2019
  • Education
  • Student Tips
What is the Difference Between an MA and an MSc Degree?

What is an MSc degree?

MSc degrees focus on logic, science, and numbers. If this sounds appealing, then an MSc, also known as a Masters in Science, could be the best fit for you. The MSc degree focuses on advancing some aspect of scientific research. Interested in how climate change affects the northward spread of tick diseases on the East Coast in the United States? Or maybe you’re more interested in tagging and tracking manta rays along the coast of California? What about understanding the migratory patterns, and their changes, of a rare bird species? All of this, and much more, could be at your fingertips with two or more years of study in an MSc program.

What is an MA degree?

Is discussing the major works of Shakespeare your thing? Dreaming about developing research projects to test the usage of language in an obscure country? Interested in medieval Russian literature? Then an MA, or Masters of Arts, is likely for you! The degree is defined as “an advanced college or university degree in a subject such as literature, language, history, or social science,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary. Generally, the typical MA student will have studied one or more of these subjects at the undergraduate level and now wants to advance and deepen his or her knowledge about the subject through (usually) one to two more years of study.

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An MA is a terminal degree

It’s important to take note of this major difference. “The MA is a terminal degree while an MSc isn’t. A terminal degree is usually the highest type of degree that an individual can receive in his or her field. While an MSc is usually a degree that prepares students for working on doctoral degrees,” writes Nikita Das for

Since the MA is a terminal degree -- recognized as the highest level of achievement in that field of study -- most students in MA programs are committed and carefully select their program to best fit their needs and research areas.

On the other hand, MSc students might only see their degree as a stepping stone towards a larger project in a PhD program. However, not all MSc students end up continuing onto doctoral programs, and their MSc is still well-respected in their fields. Meanwhile, some MA students also go on to do PhDs.

“[A]nother defining difference,” writes Anton Zhelev for, is that, “an MA tends to be more focused on a subfield, whereas an MSc will mostly tackle the entire field. Think what you want to achieve with your Master programme – a slightly more focused overview of a specific topic (MA) or a broader, more knowledgeable understanding of an entire field (MSc).”

MS vs MSc: teaching styles

The differences between the two degrees (MA and MSc) shows in the pedagogy of the faculty, professors, and advisors in any given program. “An MA has a more liberal approach and it combines desk classes with research. While an MSc focuses more on theory and puts more emphasis on research and reading,” adds Nikita Das for These generalizations are helpful to make an informed decision, especially if you know what type of learning environment works best for you.

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MA vs MSc: career paths

Degrees in engineering and economics benefit from a solid background in mathematics and science, which can be further studied in an MSc degree program. Pay attention to distinctions between Masters of Engineering vs. Masters of Science in Engineering. You’ll want to make sure you understand the different options in the course of study available in each track.

Similarly, in the field of economics you can pursue either an MA in Economics or an MSc. Obviously both require commitment to the work and intense study, but their focuses are different; one more arts and discipline-based, one more scientific. These nuances are important to keep in mind when you are doing your research to apply for programs.

Nursing and psychology are other examples of fields where both an MA or an MSc are available. Having two different distinct tracks to choose from means you’ve got more options. But, make sure you pay attention to the faculty, available advisors, and choose the track that is best fit for your skills, analytical mind or research mind, and most of all, make sure the course work will light you up. You’ll be spending two years on it, so it better be fascinating to you!

The Guardian reports, “more than 144,000 people were enrolled on postgraduate master's degrees in 2006-07, up nearly a fifth from five years ago.” It is no doubt there are many degree programs to choose from. But MA or MSc? Know the differences and pick the program that best suits you, your interests, and your career goals.

S.M. Audsley


S. M. Audsley is a freelance writer and poet who lives and works in Vermont, a small but mighty state in the United States. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast and a lover of potlucks.

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