What Is an MA Degree?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn more about the Master of Arts (MA) degree, what you can study, and how it differs from other types of master's degrees.

[Featured Image] Two graduates wearing caps and gowns celebrate after receiving their MA degrees.

The Master of Arts (MA) degree is a graduate degree focused on the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts. Because it covers a number of subjects, the MA degree tends to be an incredibly popular master's degree, along with the Master of Science (MS).

By earning your MA degree, you may be able to gain specialized knowledge, further develop your skills, advance in your career, and qualify for higher salaries. It's also a growing requirement in the workforce. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that careers requiring a master's degree will increase by over 13 percent in the next decade, compared to eight percent for jobs requiring a bachelor's degree [1].

In this article, we'll go over the subjects you can study if you're interested in earning an MA degree, how long it takes to earn this degree, and how it compares to other types of master's.  

What is an MA degree?

A Master of Arts—or MA degree—is a type of master's degree that can help you deepen your knowledge of a subject in the humanities, social sciences, and arts.

Programs typically take around two years to complete when you're able to attend full-time, and in-person MA degrees usually cost between $30,000 and $120,000 in total [2]. However, you may find that online master's degrees are more affordable because each program's overhead tends to be lower. On top of that, you don't have to relocate to attend.

Learn more: Is a Master's Degree Worth It?

MA degree subjects

You can earn your MA degree in a number of subjects, including American literature, creative writing, art history, political science, and more. You don't have to earn your MA degree in the same subject as your bachelor's degree.

In a Master of Arts program, you can choose to study:

  • Anthropology

  • Applied linguistics

  • Communication

  • Economics

  • History

  • International relations

  • Legal studies

  • Literature

  • Philosophy

  • Political science

  • Psychology

  • Sociology

  • Studio art

  • Theology

  • Theatre

What does earning an MA degree involve?

The MA degree program generally begins with coursework and ends with a master's thesis or capstone project that allows you to showcase your research skills on a topic of your choice.

While each program differs, you can expect to take graduate courses for the majority of your program, and spend the final semester or year working on your project. Your classes will likely include lectures and seminars that allow you to interact with your professors on niched topics and subtopics. You can expect to spend time listening to lectures, participating in discussions, researching topics, and presenting information.  

Learn more: How to Get a Master's Degree

How does an MA degree differ from other types of master’s degrees?

The biggest difference between an MA degree and other master's degrees has to do with what you study. That's because at all college levels, the type of degree you earn typically reflects the subject you majored in (or, in the case of master's programs, specialized in).

The other difference is that there isn't as much of a set outcome as there can be with other kinds of master's degrees. For instance, earning your master's degree in philosophy can prepare you for a number of roles, whereas earning your Master of Education (MEd) prepares you to advance your career in education.

Other master's degrees, like the Master of Fine Arts (MFA), are considered terminal degrees in their fields, meaning it's the highest degree you can earn in that subject. Once you graduate, you may be able to apply to teach at the university level if you hold that degree. 

Here's how master's degrees compare:

  • A Master of Science (MS) usually applies to science fields, including nursing, engineering, biology, and statistics, but some schools offer this degree in certain social sciences subjects, like psychology. MS degree coursework may include more of an emphasis on technical skills development.

  • A Master of Business Administration (MBA) is an incredibly popular master's degree for those who are interested in deepening their understanding of business, finance, marketing, and management. In addition to getting a foundational overview of business, you can typically choose to specialize in an area (like marketing or finance).

  • The Master of Social Work (MSW) is a master's degree for those interested in a career as a licensed clinical social worker, substance abuse counselor, counselor, and more. These degree programs typically include courses designed to help you prepare for a state licensing exam and may include fieldwork and internships.

  • A Master of Education (MEd) applies to the field of education. Students who choose this degree may work as classroom teachers or pursue careers as school or district administrators, instructional technologists, or curriculum developers for school districts and private education-focused companies. 

  • The Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) is geared toward people who want to work in a library. It can also be a helpful master's program if you plan to work as an archivist, museum registrar, or historian.

  • A Master of Nursing (MSN) program is a professional degree typically used by registered nurses or individuals with a bachelor’s degree in nursing who want to advance their careers. With this degree, you may be able to seek leadership positions within a health care facility.

  • The Master of Law (LLM) was developed for people who are interested in and want to work in the legal profession but don't want to earn a Juris Doctor degree. Graduates typically do not pursue a career as a practicing attorney, but they may work in positions requiring some law knowledge. They may work for health care, financial services, and non-profit organizations.

Learn more: MA vs. MS Degree: A Guide

What are the entry requirements for an MA degree?

The entry requirements for an MA degree can vary, but in many cases, you will need at least a bachelor's degree before applying. As we mentioned earlier, this doesn't need to be in the same subject as your bachelor's degree, but you may want to explain why you're interested in studying a new subject and what you hope to do with your advanced degree.

Some schools may also ask you to take the GRE or a comparable graduate entrance exam, and others may expect you to have a minimum GPA in your undergraduate work. Other requirements may include the following:

  • Application

  • Essay or writing sample

  • Letters of recommendation

  • Transcripts from previous schools

Learn more: GMAT vs. GRE: Which Should I Take?

What can I do with an MA degree?

After completing your MA degree, you can pursue new career opportunities, seek career advancement opportunities, or continue your education by earning a PhD.

The careers you can pursue will ultimately depend on what you study. For example, if you study English, you can go on to become a copywriter, content writer, editor, or social media manager, among a range of other roles. That's because subjects in the humanities and social sciences emphasize valuable workplace skills, like critical thinking, creativity, and communication, which are among the most desired skills in the workplace, according to the World Economic Forum [3].

In fact, students tend to appreciate MA and MS degrees because of the career flexibility they offer. Rather than pursuing one set path, they can use the degree to explore a few different options with the specialized knowledge and advanced skills they've acquired.

Read more: What Can You Do With a Master of Arts Degree?

Get started on Coursera

If you’re looking for greater flexibility as you consider earning your master's degree, explore whether an online master's degree from a leading university on Coursera could be a good fit. Many programs offer open courses you can try for free before applying to the full degree program.

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Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Projections: Occupations that Need More Education for Entry are Projected to Grow Faster Than Average, https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/education-summary.htm." Accessed May 31, 2023.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.