What Is a MA Degree (and Do I Need One)?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Explore the Master of Arts (MA) degree and how it differs from other master's degrees. Learn admission requirements, cost, uses of the degree, and more.

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

The Master of Arts (MA) degree is a graduate-level degree focused on fields of study like the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences. It's one of the most common master's degrees students earn, along with the Master of Science (MS). Whether you earn an MA degree to prepare for a specific career or as a step toward a more advanced degree, you could develop important skills you can use in the future through your studies.

Earning a Master in Arts degree can help you advance your career and gain specialized knowledge in your chosen field. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects careers requiring a master's degree to grow faster than average through 2030. That means earning a master's degree may boost your job prospects and help you make more money. The median salary for those with master's degrees in the United States was $77,920 in 2021 [1]. 

What is an MA degree?

A Master of Arts — MA degree — is a type of master's degree that can help you deepen your knowledge about subjects typically found in the arts and humanities. With an MA degree program, you can gain deeper subject knowledge in your chosen field of study, even if you already have a bachelor's degree in the same field. 

What subjects can you study?

Master of Arts programs let you study many subjects, including English, creative writing, art history, political science, and more. Some of these subjects can lead directly to careers. An MA in communications may prepare you to work as a journalist or public relations professional, while an MA in history can serve as a foundation for a career as an archivist or history teacher. The list below can give you an idea of the variety of subjects you can study:

  • Anthropology

  • Applied linguistics

  • Computer science

  • Critical and creative thinking

  • International relations

  • Legal studies

  • Literature

  • Political science

  • Sociology

  • Teaching

  • Theology

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

The biggest differences between an MA degree and other master's degrees include the scope of study and the type of work you can pursue after earning the degree. Some master's degrees, such as the Master of Education, are professional degrees that apply to a specific field. Other master's degrees, like Master of Fine Arts, are terminal degrees in their fields, which means you may be able to apply to teach at the university level if you hold that degree. 

MA degree coursework tends to include more seminar and lecture-based classes. This delivery method may not have as much hands-on work as you may find in other degree programs. Here's how they compare:

  • A Master of Science (MS) usually applies to science fields, including nursing, engineering, biology, and statistics, but some schools offer this degree in social sciences. You will likely spend more time researching topics if you pursue this degree and may need to complete a thesis or capstone project to earn the degree.

  • The Master of Social Work (MSW) is a professional 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.

  • The Master of Public Administration (MPA) is a professional degree designed to prepare students for careers in public service administration. This degree shares many similarities with the Master of Business Administration, but people who choose this degree typically plan to pursue work with the government or non-profit agencies.

  • A Master of Education (MEd) is a professional degree that 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 another professional degree geared toward people who want to work in a library. This master's degree also can be helpful 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.

What will studying for an MA degree involve?

The MA degree program generally combines research and coursework. Depending on your study area, you may need to complete a thesis, internship, or capstone project. Your classes will likely include lectures and seminars that allow you to interact with your professors. You can expect to spend time listening to lectures, participating in discussions, researching topics, and presenting information.  

What are the entry requirements for an MA degree?

The entry requirements for an MA degree vary from school to school, but you will need at least a bachelor's degree before starting. In most cases, the bachelor's degree may be in any subject area, but check with the school you plan to attend if the degree you want requires a specific undergraduate major. Some schools may ask you to take the GRE, 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

  • Reference letter

  • Transcripts from previous schools

How long does it take to complete an MA degree?

An MA degree program can take one to three years, but most students can finish the degree in about two years. Many universities offer online studies that allow students to adjust the timeframe to fit their lifestyles. Some schools offer flexible accelerated programs, which can shorten the time it takes you to complete the degree program. Still other programs provide students with the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree simultaneously. These programs can add a year to a regular four-year degree program. 

What is the cost of studying for an MA degree?

The cost of studying for an MA degree is usually between $30,000 and $120,000 [2]. What it actually costs you depends on several factors, including whether the school is private or public and whether classes are in-person or online. Your major and time commitment (full or part-time) also impact how much you will pay. 

What can I do with an MA degree?

You can pursue new career opportunities or continue your education after earning an MA degree. Some professions require a master's degree, including education administrators, economists, social workers, and librarians. A Master of Arts degree can open the door to opportunities for you in your career and prepares you for doctoral studies.

Although some doctorate programs accept students without a master's degree, you may find it helpful to earn a master's degree first. 

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

Get started

If you’re looking for flexibility to balance family, work, and education, explore whether an online master's degree from a leading university on Coursera could fit your goals. Many programs offer open courses you can try for free before applying to the full degree program.

You are Currently on slide 1

Related articles

Article sources

1. 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 June 23, 2022

2. Education Data. "Average Cost of a Master’s Degree, https://www.educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree." Accessed March 29, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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.

Learn without limits