How Do Masters Degrees Work?

Master’s Degree text quote on notepad, concept background

Originally this blog post was meant to be a very nuanced look at how Masters degrees work, and I planned to look at the main differences between them and undergraduates degrees and things like that. But I was talking to the editor of this blog because he’s done a Masters degree, and I very quickly realised that wasn’t going to work because I hadn’t known how many types of Masters there were. So I had to zoom out a little, so if you want to learn more about the types of Masters degrees then this is definitely the post for you!

Also there will be a mini-interview at the bottom with someone who has actually done a Masters (and done very well at it too) for some tips.

What Are The Different Types of Degrees?

As this is a slightly more general post we aren’t going to cover subject-specific Masters. For example, the specialised degrees from Law, Business, Art and other subjects. Instead we’re going to cover the more general Masters degrees which can be applied in a range of subjects.

For instance, the three most common Masters Degrees are Master of Arts, Master of Science and Master of Research. Which when grouped together I think sound like some strange military ranks, but these are the three I’ll give an overview of for you.

What Is A Master of Science?

This are the most common degrees available in my own subject-area, as these programmes make up the majority of the options available to the social sciences, hard sciences, maths, and engineering. A Master of Science will typically give focus to the scientific method, logic and research with these degrees tending to be taught (meaning there are lectures and exams and just generally more contact hours) over the course of one or two years depending on your subject.

I know from personal experience that clinical psychology degrees, which is what I want to do, is a Master of Science because it focuses on the scientific method, evidence and logic then applies it to mental health and related matters. There are also plenty of core modules that are taught to you to help you become more specialised in that area over the course of one year.

That’s just one practical example of how a Master of Science is structured and I expect that there might be great variation not only between courses, but between universities as well. Further, it is worth noting that the academic year for Masters students (regardless of the type) can be longer than undergraduate, with some Masters degree courses running for an entire academic year (late September to Mid-June) or up to twelve months.

Overall, if you’re studying a subject where scientific rigour and research is the focus then a Master of Science would be a very good idea to study. This is a good option for deepening your research skills, become more specialised in a specific area and helping you move on to the next stage of your career.

What Is A Master of Arts?

Like a Master of Science, a Master of Arts is a taught programme lasting one or two years and the arts, the humanities and some social sciences use this degree. That, however, is where the similarities ends.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines this type of degree as an advanced college or university degree in a subject such as literature, language, history, or social science,” so as you can see this focuses more on cultural and social aspects of the world that cannot be studied empirically in the same way and methods that would be applied in a Masters by science.

This makes it perfect for students who want to learn languages, deepen their understanding of areas of history and discuss the work of Shakespeare. While such topics are a little out of knowledge-area – being a psychology student – a Masters of Arts degree will often make more sense to undertake if you’re in a subject that lends itself towards the values prioritised by this degree.

The Differences Between A Master of Science And Art:

In addition to their different focuses, another critical difference between the two types is a Master of Art is what’s known as a terminal degree. This means this is the highest level of achievement in a subject, and then a very, very small number of people might choose to do a PhD in the subject. But the vast majority of people do finish higher education with a Master of Art.

For example, a Master of Art in the French language is relatively common in certain circles, but a PhD (and therefore Doctor) of the French Language is exceptionally rare.

On the other hand, Master of Science students tend to see a Masters as a stepping stone degree towards a PhD. I know that’s how things are seen in psychology and other sciences as many related jobs require a PhD.

What is A Master of Research?

This is basically the type of degree that shattered my ideas for this blog post because I only learnt about this type a few days ago at the time of writing. However, whilst I cannot say too much on this, the mini-interview at the bottom gives a bit more clarity on this type.

Therefore, a Master of Research applies to all subjects and the focus of the degree is researching an area you want to investigate. There are no deadlines for the course except the final deadlines where the project is due (at least in the research programme) and this type of Masters lasts for one to two years.

Moreover, this type can be divided into two further subtypes. Since a Master of Research can be strictly a research programme like the editor of the blog did, or it can be taught. This I’ve seen a little bit because there are degrees that focus completely on how to be a better researcher, probably in preparation for people who want to work in academia.


I know I’ve probably given you a lot to think about but I want to help you by mentioning this: at the end of the day, there are positives and negatives to all types of Masters. One is not necessarily better than the other and they require intense focus and study. But each type of degree is better for a certain career goal.

Now you have this information in mind, bear in mind the type of Masters degree that will help you in your future career. That is where the critical decision and factors lay, so make sure you choose a degree that is in the best interest for your future.

The Mini-Interview

To give you even more interesting information about Masters degrees, below is an interview I undertook with my supervisor, Oliver Herdson, for his experience of doing a Masters. I found it rather interesting to read, learn from and he gives some great tips.


  1. What was your Masters in?

My masters was a research programme (MSc-Research [MSc-R]). This means it is not a taught programme, so I had no lectures (other than stats). For my research, I elected to explore the role of sad music on emotion and depression.

  1. What surprised you about your Masters compared to undergraduate degree?

The independence definitely surprised me. I also took on 3 final year project students (undergraduates) to supervise, and so I found myself surprised by my ability to take on this role.

  1. How do you think a Masters compares to an Undergraduate?

My masters was very different, due to it being a research programme. You can think of it as a mini PhD. So, I had a lot more independence and a lot more responsibility. With no lectures or deadlines (apart from the final deadline), my organisation was my own responsibility. It’s basically like taking on the final year project (third year undergraduate dissertation) but on a much larger scale.

  1. What tips would you give students looking to do a Masters?

Definitely make the most of your time. Especially if you do a research programme, find some relevant volunteering or work experience to do on the side. For taught programmes, just keep on top of your own organisation and work load.

Quick Wrap-Up

The reason why I like this interview is because it really does highlight some important aspects to bear in mind when choosing a Masters degree, especially a Master of Research. As well as that, the interview helps with expectation setting and it highlights some of the skills you might need to start working on now so you’re a little more prepared for it.

Connor Whiteley
Connor Whiteley

Psychology Student, Author, Podcaster