MA, MSc, MPhil, MBA – the Types of Master’s Degrees Explained

by mba

“M” for mastery, not mystery

There are many types of Master’s degrees out there. When choosing a programme, it matters what kind of title you will receive at the end. Will you become a “Master of Science”, a “Master of Business Administration”, or something else? What exactly do they mean, and how do you choose?

Here, we solve the mystery once and for all. Find out what the different abbreviations mean and what benefits they provide, so you can choose the best one for you.


The Master of Arts, or MA, is the most common type of Master’s degree. The word “arts” is deceptive, as it is offered in all subjects in the humanities and social sciences.

Completing an MA means that you have achieved a deeper understanding of your subject, whether it is linguistics, history, or political science. In addition to coursework, the programme includes a capstone project – usually a research-based thesis that presents previously unknown information or offers a new viewpoint in your field.

MA students may travel to gather information for the thesis, conduct a survey, or use archives of historical documents. Employers value the MA because it shows that you not only have deep knowledge in your discipline, but can apply that knowledge, discover new information, and manage a major project on your own.


The Master of Philosophy or MPhil is also confusingly named. It is not a philosophy degree. It ranks above the MA and means that you have developed an even deeper mastery of your field. At many universities, the MPhil follows after the MA and typically lasts longer, sometimes up to three years.

To get an MPhil, you need to complete more in-depth independent research. MPhil candidates often also work as teaching assistants at their university along with professors, and may present at conferences or publish papers in scientific journals. Some MPhil students go on to obtain a PhD – the highest academic degree.

An MPhil shows true dedication to your field and the potential to do higher-level cognitive work. It is applicable in research-oriented fields such as management consulting, where you would need to collect and analyse lots of data.


A Master of Science (MSc or MS) is equivalent to an MA, but in the science disciplines – the fields also known as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Some MSc courses may include more practical work – for instance, engineering students may build machines in the lab, while computer science students may create software. In MSc degrees, the capstone project may take the form of a written thesis or an applied project. This can also be a scientific experiment designed and conducted by the student.

In some cases, you can choose between an MA and an MSc in the same subject – for example, in Psychology. Some students are not aware of the difference when they apply. But your course of study will be quite different depending on which type of degree you choose. In an MA programme in Psychology, you will learn the discipline’s historical background, and will use storytelling approaches to understand people’s behaviour. An MSc in Psychology, on the other hand, would be strictly based on the scientific method. You can expect a greater focus on conducting experiments and using quantitative reasoning. Neither of these options is necessarily better – but you should be aware of the differences before signing up.

MA, MSc, MPhil, MBA – the Types of Master’s Degrees Explained


The prestigious Master of Business Administration, or MBA, is the degree of choice for aspiring business leaders. MBAs are only offered at specialised business schools. They are different from other Master’s degrees in that they require candidates to apply after they have a few years’ work experience. The EMBA, Executive MBA, is the option for senior professionals with over five years of professional and also some managerial experience.

The goal of an MBA is to take you to the next stage of your career in the corporate world or as an entrepreneur. MBA candidates gain a complete understanding of how business works – from finance to managing people. To be admitted, candidates need to show leadership potential, academic skills including quantitative reasoning, and also strong interpersonal skills during the admissions interview. The MBA often costs more than other Master’s degrees to obtain, but it can open up lots of opportunities.


The Master of Architecture refers to a specific kind of programme, at the end of which you will become a licensed architect. This means that you will be legally allowed to design buildings. But that is far from everything you can do with this respected degree.

Architecture students learn how to design anything possible in a two- or three-dimensional environment. They also become skilled in computer-aided design (CAD), their primary way of working. In addition to traditional careers, graduates with this degree can grow in a wide range of fields, from fashion to user experience (UX) for websites and apps.

An MArch takes longer to obtain – more than three years in some cases. You can only earn an MArch in a specialised school of architecture. Just as the MBA gives you a complete preparation for the world of business, the MArch is the equivalent in the world of design. It gives you a wide range of options and access to higher-level positions.


For the creatives out there, the Master of Fine Arts is a practice-oriented degree in disciplines like painting, writing, and cinema. If you aspire to becoming an independent artist or working in the creative industries, the MFA allows you to perfect your skills and take your art to a professional level. You can also make useful contacts in your chosen field, such as galleries, art collectors, and film studios.

It can be difficult to imagine how talent can be “framed” in an academic programme. There is rarely a beaten path to a rewarding creative career, but if you are determined, the MFA can not only boost your creative production but also set you on a successful career trajectory.

And after the Master’s… PhD

Once you have dived deep into a subject with a Master’s degree, you may find that your passion for it only grows and you want to go further. You can do that with a doctoral programme, otherwise known as a PhD – Doctor of Philosophy. And indeed, there are other types of doctoral degrees – e.g. Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).

The doctorate is the highest academic degree, which qualifies you as an expert in your field. To obtain it, you might run a scientific experiment over a period of a few years, or travel the world for a year or two collecting data for a study. Whatever your topic of research, the PhD typically culminates in a dissertation – a book-length work that contributes to scientific knowledge.

What comes next?

Traditionally, the PhD was a qualification for those aspiring to become university professors. Today, the degree is much more versatile. In the UK, only 30% of those with PhDs continue on to academic careers, and the others enter the private sector, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute. The degree is highly valued in the business world. Biomedical companies hire PhDs to do drug development, for example, while PhDs in Computer Science may create new products at the so-called “tech giants”. A PhD allows you to be not just a problem-solver but also a leader and changemaker in your field.

Today, academic studies are not a one-way lane. You can have more than one Master’s degree. It is common for Master’s degree holders to get an MBA after years of full-time work experience when they decide to grow as business leaders. Even PhDs can benefit from MBA studies and this is certainly not a step back, but rather a preparation for a giant leap.

All of these degrees are valued by employers, as they show your dedication and ability to complete innovative projects. Whichever one you choose, it will take your career to the next level. Even better, you will be more likely to find work in a field you are curious and excited about.

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