MA, MS, ME – O My!

Master's Degree LettersSo, you’ve decided to pursue a master’s degree – congratulations! As you research options, you will find a wide array of degree types, and it’s important to make sure you choose the one that fits your ultimate goal.

As most of you know, first comes the undergraduate (or bachelor’s) degree, typically a four-year program of study leading to a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts. Then comes the master’s degree (also called a graduate degree), awarded after completing a 2- or 3-year program (longer if you’re going part-time).

Master’s degrees impart a body of knowledge to students that is both theoretical and applied; teach high-order skills in analysis and critical evaluation; and inculcate thinking processes that are both rigorous and derived from independent thought.

The two most common master’s degree options are a Master of Science (MS or MSc) or a Master of Arts (MA). Whether students earn an MA or MS depends more on the school attended (ie, the distinction is often based on institution-specific criteria), than the academic requirements fulfilled, or the field of study.

Master's Degree LettersOver time, the nomenclature of master’s degrees has gotten more complex, and now includes more specific indications of the field of study, and/or the profession, of the degree holder. Some call these “first professional degrees.” So, in addition to an MS in XXX, we now see variations such as a Master of XXX: MEd (Master of Education), MBA (Master of Business Administration), MFA (Master of Fine Arts), MSW (Master of Social Work), MM (Master of Music), etc.

Students can also find master’s degrees within one area of study that have different titles, which indicate a different focus. You can get a Master of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering, as well as a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering; you can get a Master of Arts in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology, or an MS in I/O Psychology, or even a Master of Applied I/O Psychology.

Add to that the distinctions between master’s degrees, licentiate degrees, specialist degrees, professional degrees, and applied degrees… and it gets complicated, doesn’t it?

In general, MS degrees indicate that a thesis is required. Other variations, like a Master of Engineering, may indicate that a formal thesis is not required. Thesis-required degrees are important for those hoping to move on to a PhD program, or who need a more rigorous research background. A non-thesis degree may give you similar job opportunities, except from those organizations that are looking specifically for research experience. “Applied” degrees indicate an emphasis on the applied versus the theoretical emphasis of a particular program of study, and often don’t require a thesis.

To make sure you’re getting good professional and academic advice, identify your end goal and find the right resources to inform yourself. That might be an academic source such as the Association of American Universities, a professional body such as ASCE, the American Society of Civil Engineers or SIOP, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology, or an academic advisor from a college or university.

Be sure to get clear answers from the schools you’re interested in. For example, at Colorado State, there are plan options within certain degrees that allow you to complete the master’s degree with a thesis (Plan A), a professional paper (Plan B), or a coursework-only curriculum (Plan C). Academic advisors will help you choose which option is right for you.


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