MA vs. MS Degrees: A Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 29, 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 Master of Arts (MA) degree and the Master of Science (MS) degree are both graduate level degrees that build on the knowledge of your bachelor’s education

The biggest difference between an MA and MS degree 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 typically pertain to subjects in tech, the natural sciences, medicine, administration, and mathematics. In this article, we’ll go over other degree differences, and discuss ways you can decide the best degree for your personal and professional goals. 

Common MA degree subjects include:

*Exercise and sports science

*International relations

*Media and communications

*Political science

*Psychology

Common MS degree subjects include:

*Biology

*Computer science

*Economics

*Nutrition

*Population and health sciences

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MA vs MS: What’s the difference?

Colleges and universities typically break up MA and MS degrees by subject, but there may be other important differences as well, such as the type of learning you’ll undertake and the cumulative project you’ll complete in order to graduate. 

Curricula 

It’s a good idea to spend time researching the courses you’ll be required to take and ensuring that they align with your larger educational goals. Generally, each master’s degree approaches learning differently. 

When you earn your MA degree you can expect to approach your subject from a humanist perspective that deepens your analytical, critical thinking, and communications skills. When you earn your MS degree, you can expect to approach your subject from a more quantitative perspective that deepens your technical and scientific knowledge. 

Cumulative 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 will depend on 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 that integrates the technical and scientific knowledge you’ve gained. 

Choosing between an MA or MS

There are a number of subjects, such as clinical psychology, statistics, translation, and biology, that offer students an option between an MA degree and an MS degree. If you’re trying to decipher which type of degree might be better for your long-term goals, do a side-by-side comparison of the programs you’re considering and pay close attention to the courses you’ll take. 

For example: 

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

Whichever direction you choose, 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 and its applicability to various industries. 

MA vs MS: Which is right for me?

If you find yourself getting caught up asking which degree is better, the more helpful questions to ask are what each program’s curriculum entails, what standards exist within your current or future industry, and what your long-term educational plans might be. 

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 courses prepare me to achieve my career goals?

  • Who teaches the courses 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 concentrations

Master’s degrees are becoming more specialized to meet industry demands and better prepare students for particular career paths. That means, instead of earning your degree in a more general subject like economics, you may be able to choose from concentrations, such as applied economics, labor economics, or international economics. 

As you weigh your options for different master’s degrees, think about your career goals and what subject, concentration, and coursework will help you achieve them. Even with a concentration, you should still receive an advanced foundational education in the general subject area of your choice before taking more specialized courses.  

Evaluating your industry

You may also want to research leaders and peers working 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?  

Evaluating your educational plans 

Some students earn a master’s knowing they want to advance their education and apply what they’ve learned to their career. Others earn a master’s on their way to a terminal degree (the highest degree you can get in a field). You should think about your long-term plans as you’re determining whether an MA or MS is the best master’s degree for you. 

Some master’s degrees, such as the Master of Architecture (MArch) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) are terminal degrees, while most other subjects offer a PhD and expect those interested in a research or academic career to achieve that level of education.

What are the benefits of an MA or MS? 

Generally, the majority of jobs do not require an MA or an MS. Still, earning either 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 US jobs paying over $94,000—or twice the median salary in the United States—require either a master’s degree or a doctorate degree [1]. 

Earning potential

An MA degree or an MS degree can help you develop specific skills that increase your earning potential. Master’s degree holders earn a median annual salary of $80,340, while bachelor’s degree holders earn $67,860, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [2].

A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers supports those findings. Graduates who earned a master’s in communication and media studies saw a 46.8-percent increase in salary [3]. 

Career growth

Some entry-level positions, certain management-level roles, and many specialized professions, such as counseling, education, and nursing, require a master’s degree [2]. And more jobs are slated to follow suit. The BLS anticipates that jobs in the United States requiring a master’s degree will grow by over 16 percent by 2026—more than for occupations requiring bachelor’s degrees or doctorates.   

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 level 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 

Jobs you can get with an MS degree 

  • Accountant 

  • Astronomer 

  • Computer scientist

  • Economist 

  • IT manager 

  • Speech language pathologist

Is a Master's Degree Worth It? Learn more about evaluating whether an MA or MS degree is the right choice for your future.

What does it take to earn an MA or MS? 

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.

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. You’ll also complete a thesis or research project. 

MA or MS: Getting started

Deciding to pursue an MA degree or MS degree is an exciting step. Take your time considering your career goals, the subjects you’re interested in, and the programs that will best meet your needs. 

Many master's programs are now offered online to accommodate students who may be working full- or part-time and need greater flexibility to complete their graduate. You can earn your MA or MS degree from leading universities on Coursera. There are programs available in high-growth fields such as Computer Science and Engineering, Public Health, Business, and Public Policy.

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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. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Education Pays, https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2019/education-projections/pdf/education-projections.pdf." Accessed November 23, 2021.

3. 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 Nov 29, 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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