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Master of Arts (MA)

A Master of Arts (commonly abbreviated as a MA) is a globally recognized academic degree awarded to graduates for the completion of their course. The degree generally takes two years to complete, but will vary depend on the country, institution, subject area and courses selected.  Programs resulting in a Master of Arts degree are generally more focused on practical implication and artistic skills, and students are expected to concentrate their creativity on mastering the technical and practical facets of their field. Master of Arts degrees are usually offered in either the liberal arts, the sciences or both covering areas like social sciences, humanities, music, fashion or fine arts.


  • Recognition. Globally recognized
  • Duration. Typically 2 years
  • Subjects. There are several fields that are almost always considered to be arts and thus award Master of Arts degrees. These fields include fine arts, art history, economics, linguistics, media and communications, geography, history, music, sociology, philosophy, psychology, etc.
  • Assessment. Varies based on country, university and subject. For some programs there may be continual assessment that makes the final grade.  For others, it may be a heavily weighted practical exam and work portfolio matters.
  • Grading. Varies based on country, university, and subject.

Global Differences

The Master of Arts degree is awarded across the globe, and two of the main differences tends to be: the duration of the degree and certification. Specialized subjects within disciplines in the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and sometimes Business and Law, fall within the academic realm of Master of Arts. MA candidates are often required to complete research and present a thesis paper prior to completion of their degree.

In the United States, the Master of Arts degree typically takes two to four years to complete and is awarded for the completion of graduate studies in history, literature, language, humanities, social sciences, economics, philosophy, psychology and related fields.

In the UK, as in the United States, a Master of Arts is typically awarded upon the successful completion of an graduate program in one or more fields of the arts. In the UK, there are three types of master’s degrees – taught master’s degrees (one year), post-graduate diplomas (two semesters, no thesis), and research-based master’s degrees (12-24 months, used as an entry to Ph.D. programs).

Master of Arts or Master of Science?

Prospective students trying to chart their course through college might be wondering what the difference between an MA and an MS is.  The primary difference between the two types of degrees is the focus of the coursework students are required to complete in order to earn them.

A Master of Science degree typically focuses on science-related disciplines whereas a Master of Arts focuses on liberal arts programs.  However what is considered to be an art of science may vary from institution to institution.

To cite some examples:

A particular subject, for example Economics, can be awarded a Master of Science at one institution, a Master of Arts at another institution or have the option of one or the other based on the curriculum selected. The University of Nottingham allows students to tailor their module choices in the Economics program to graduate with either an MS or MA.

In the UK, the London School of Economics offers an MS degree in nearly all subject areas, even those usually associated with an arts degree.  On the other hand, University of Oxford almost exclusively awards arts qualifications. Thus, in both instances, there are historical and traditional reasons for the differences.

To cite another example, in the US, Northwestern University’s School of Communication grants MS degrees in all of its programs of study, including theater, dance, and radio/television/film. University of California, Berkeley grants an MS degree in Environmental Economics and Policy from the College of Natural Resources, but an MA degree in Environmental Economics and Policy from the College of Letters and Science.

The differences pose a very important question for students – What degree should I choose?

Which degree is right for me?

Academically, both an MA and MS are equally valued.  Both offer students an opportunity to gain knowledge and skills in their area of interest, and build a platform for employment or doctorate studies.  Students need to identify which is a better fit – which track caters to their chosen subject and strengths in that major. The coursework required for a Master of Arts degree generally allows students to sharpen their communication and writing skills. By comparison, the demand of a Master of Science degree typically fosters analytical skills and a detailed understanding of subject matter.

When deciding which degree program is the best fit, students need to identify:

  • Subjects. What subject they wish to study as it may only be offered as a MA or MS
  • Curriculum. Review the course content and teaching style thoroughly, as an MA in a subject vs. an MS may vary significantly from university to university.
  • Career options. Does the degree provide the right foundation for your future job?
  • Entry requirements. Do you have the appropriate entry requirements e.g. work experience or appropriate undergraduate degree?
  • Interests. Do you enjoy the analytical classes or does your interest lie on the creative side?

A Master of Arts degree offers a multitude of study options for students, and upon graduation the opportunity to enter the professional world or pursue post-graduate studies.  It is imperative that students identify what subject area their interest lies in and subsequently enroll in a program that provides the best platform for their future endeavors.

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