A Guide to MA vs. MS Degrees

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 13, 2021

Earning an MA or an MS degree can bolster your subject knowledge and critical thinking skills, accelerate your career growth, and even lead to higher salaries.

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The biggest difference between the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Science (MS) has to do with subject matter. Although requirements will vary by program, MA degrees typically pertain to subjects in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, while MS degrees pertain to  subjects in tech, natural sciences, and mathematics.

Deciding which one to pursue means identifying which subjects you’re interested in and how those interests align with your career goals. 

MA vs. MS: Which is right for me?

In order to determine which type of program is right for your career path, there are a number of important questions you can ask yourself. This process can help you understand your own goals more clearly and confidently choose the program that aligns with your objectives.

Evaluating programs

It’s important to research the programs you’re thinking about applying to and evaluate what each one offers, paying close attention to how it will feed into your overall education needs, career path, and personal development.  

Program-specific questions to ask:

  • How will the classes help prepare me to achieve my career goals? 

  • Who teaches the classes and what kind of experience do they have? 

  • Is academic mentorship important to me? How does the program foster that? 

  • What kind of career support or career placement does the program offer? 

Evaluating your industry

You may also want to research professionals in your industry to learn about their educational backgrounds. Pay attention to whether most hold an MA or an MS and the subject they studied. 

Additionally, it’s a good idea to figure out what kind of degrees your industry requires, and if there are any standards you should be aware of. For example, while it’s possible to earn an MA in computer science, it’s more standard for industry employees to hold an MS in computer science. 

Industry-specific questions to ask: 

  • What type of degree have my peers earned? In what subjects? 

  • What type of degree have my industry’s leaders earned? 

  • What type of degree does my industry typically require for the career I’m interested in? 

  • What level of degree will help me advance in my industry?  

Read more: Should You Go Back to School? 7 Things to Consider

Choosing between an MA and MS 

In certain fields, you'll get to choose between earning an MA or an MS. Examples include: clinical psychology, statistics, and biology. In these cases, do a side-by-side comparison of the programs you're considering so you can determine which curriculum will help you achieve your goals.

  • If your career goals require additional scientific education or specific technical training, then an MS degree may likely be your best course of action. 

  • If your career goals require a deeper theoretical or critical knowledge of an industry, then an MA degree may likely be your best course of action.  

No matter which you end up choosing, both the MA degree and the MS degree enhance your subject knowledge, training you to think more critically and comprehensively about aspects of a particular subject.  

Common MA degree subjects include exercise and sports science, international relations, media and communications, political science, and psychology.

Common MS degree subjects include biology, computer science, economics, nutrition, and population and health sciences.

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What are the benefits of an MA or MS? 

Earning a master's degree can bolster your subject knowledge and critical thinking skills, accelerate your career growth, and even lead to higher salaries. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that half of all jobs paying over $94,000—or twice the median salary in the US—require either a master’s degree or a doctorate degree [1]. 

But as you're examining degree possibilities, you may discover that your interest in an MA or MS program goes beyond career goals—you may be really passionate about a particular field or subject. It's important to factor that in because programs like these take a lot of commitment, so you want to make sure you'll enjoy the subject matter. Additionally, as you explore certain career fields, you may determine that the jobs you're interested in don't actually require either an MA or an MS. In that case, it might make more sense to choose a different path.

Earning potential

An MA degree or an MS degree can help you develop specific skills that increase your earning potential. A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found a significant increase in earning potential for certain master’s degree majors. For example, graduates who earned a master’s in communication and media studies saw a 46.8-percent increase in salary [2]. 

Career growth

The BLS anticipates that jobs requiring a master’s degree will grow by over 16 percent by 2026—more than for occupations requiring bachelor’s or doctorate degrees.   

Even if a role doesn’t require it, an MA or MS is one way to stand out from other job candidates who don’t have the same level of education. Earning a master’s degree shows employers your commitment to a particular field as well as your advanced knowledge and training. 

Jobs you can get with an MA degree

  • Diplomat

  • Internal communications manager

  • Marketing manager

  • Political scientist 

  • Public relations manager

  • Research analyst 

Read more: What Does a Marketing Manager Do? A Guide

Jobs you can get with an MS degree 

  • Accountant 

  • Astronomer 

  • Computer scientist

  • Economist 

  • IT manager 

  • Speech language pathologist

What does it take to earn an MA or MS? 

Time to completion

While it might seem as though one type of degree—the MA or the MS—takes longer, on average each typically takes a similar amount of time: between 18 months and two years to complete if you attend full-time. 

Learn more about how long it takes to complete a master’s degree.

Coursework 

During your time in an MA or MS program, you will move through core, required, and elective courses that broaden and deepen your subject knowledge. Each program varies, but typically students can expect to complete between 30 and 60 credit hours of coursework. 

Coursework can be an excellent way to hone the topics or particular skills you want—or need—for your career. No matter which degree you ultimately choose, you may be able to choose electives that specifically address your educational needs. Depending on the program, you may even be able to take elective classes in other subjects, though you may first need approval to ensure those classes count toward your overall degree progress. 

Thesis or research project

Both MA degrees and MS degrees often require a cumulative project to conclude coursework, which can be a thesis, research project, capstone project, or internship.

The type of final project inevitably comes down to the program, but an MA degree tends to require a thesis or original piece of scholarship, whereas an MS degree tends to require a research project. 

Pursuing an MA or MS degree: Getting started

Deciding to pursue an MA degree or MS degree is an exciting step—but a big one that requires significant research and thought. Take your time considering your career goals, the subjects you’re interested in, and the programs that will best meet your needs. It’s a decision that shouldn’t be rushed. 

Many master’s programs are now being offered online to accommodate students who may be working full- or part-time. As you think about your options, browse Coursera’s online master’s degree offerings.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Related articles

Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Employment Projections Through the Perspective of Education and Training, https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2019/education-projections/pdf/education-projections.pdf." Accessed October 7, 2021.

2. National Association of Colleges and Employers. "The value of earning a master's degree substantial for several majors, https://www.naceweb.org/job-market/compensation/the-value-of-earning-a-masters-degree-substantial-for-several-majors/." Accessed October 7, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 13, 2021

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.

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