A popular postgraduate option, a Masters degree enables you to study an area of interest in more depth and in some cases can improve your chances of securing a job. Learn more about qualification types, how long they last and what's involved

Masters degrees at a glance

  • Level 7 postgraduate qualification.
  • Takes one to two years’ if studied full time or two to four year's part time.
  • Taught or research courses available.
  • Require more advanced independent study than an undergraduate degree.
  • Postgraduate loans of up to £12,167 can help with the cost.

A Masters degree is a Level 7 qualification - placing them above Bachelors degrees but below PhDs. Study is intense and typically involves completing a series of modules and writing a dissertation. In the UK, Masters degrees are worth 180 credits.

While having a Masters qualification can greatly improve your career prospects, the high costs and academic demands mean this method of postgraduate study isn't for everyone, so research your options thoroughly before deciding to pursue this route.

Masters degrees shouldn't be confused with the Scottish Master of Arts (MA), which is an undergraduate degree awarded by certain universities.

How long is a Masters degree in the UK?

Full-time Masters usually involve one or two years of study, while part-time programmes last between two and four years.

What’s the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study?

The term 'undergraduate' refers to first-degree students studying for a Bachelors degree, while 'postgraduate' is used to describe graduate students studying a second-cycle qualification, typically a Masters, postgraduate certificate (PGCert) or diploma (PGDip). The term 'postgraduate' is also used to describe those studying PhDs.

Compared with undergraduate degrees, Masters degrees are usually:

  • focused on one particular area of a wider subject, giving students a greater amount of specialist knowledge
  • more flexible in terms of modules and study options
  • more intense, advanced and faster-paced
  • smaller in terms of class size
  • cheaper (but more expensive than PGCerts, PGDips and PhDs).

PGDips and PGCerts are qualifications at the same level as Masters degrees, but they're shorter and you don't have to write a dissertation.

What do MA, MSc, MBA, MPA and MRes stand for?

The Master of Arts (MA) is usually awarded to those studying courses in social sciences, art and humanities, and business, consulting and management. MA programmes often involve research, discussion, essay writing and practical exercises.

The Master of Science (MSc) typically covers science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes. However, some social sciences and business, consulting and management courses also fall into the MSc category. Programmes are typically theory-heavy with an emphasis on reading and research.

More commonly known as the MBA, the Master of Business Administration is an advanced, prestigious postgraduate qualification ideal for those who want to increase their professional reputation, boost their salary and expand their networks. Professionals who have gained at least three years of business and management experience usually take an MBA. The average age of students is typically between 27 and 30.

A Master of Public Administration (MPA) is similar to an MBA in that it is a graduate-level professional degree. It's a prestigious qualification aimed at community, government and non-profit leaders in the public sector.

A Master of Research (MRes) is a one-year, full-time research degree, which focuses more on independent study. Courses exist to train researchers for a profession or PhD study.

For help choosing a suitable course, see which Masters degree is right for me?

Should I do a taught or research Masters?

Masters can be either taught or research-based, which one you choose depends on your preferred method of study, academic interests and career goals.

Taught Masters degrees are similar in style and structure to undergraduate degrees. They consist of lectures, seminars and practical assignments, with work assessed through exams, essays, dissertations and group projects. Students are encouraged to work independently, yet receive close tutor support.

The majority of Masters degrees are taught programmes and the Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc) are by far the two most popular taught options. Others include:

  • LLM (Master of Laws)
  • MArch (Master of Architecture)
  • MEd (Master of Education)
  • MEng (Master of Engineering)
  • MFA (Master of Fine Arts)
  • MLitt (Master of Letters)
  • MMus (Master of Music)
  • MSt (Master of Studies).

Taught Masters courses are usually taken by those who have a specific profession in mind and want to enhance their subject knowledge.

The emphasis is different with a research Masters. These types of programmes include the:

  • Master of Research (MRes)
  • Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
  • Master of Letters (MLitt), which can be both taught or research based.

Students are expected to actively and independently learn by working on extended projects and producing a thesis on one  topic, which takes up around 60% of the student's  time. Programmes involve little to no in-class teaching, but an appointed supervisor provides guidance.

Research Masters are best suited to those who are interested in academic research or those who aspire to a research or academic career.

Graduates of both type of Masters are eligible for PhD study.

While the funding situation is the same for both types of Masters, there is sometimes a difference in fees. Tuition fees for research Masters can often be cheaper than taught courses, especially where humanities are concerned.

To find your perfect course, search for a Masters degree.

What does a Masters involve?

You can opt to study full or part time, in block mode or via distance learning.

Full-time study is the most common and these students usually progress directly from a Bachelors degree, while part-timers are typically older. Part-time students often fit study around an existing career or family commitments, allowing them to gain work experience while studying - something very important to employers.

Courses are typically split into separate core and optional modules, and depending on the subject studied you may get the opportunity to complete a work placement or a period studying abroad as part of the programme. Courses normally begin in September or October, though some start in January or February.

You may have fewer than ten hours of weekly contact time, but you'll be expected to undertake at least 30 to 35 hours of independent study. Teaching methods include seminars, lectures and workshops. Assessment methods include practical assignments, essays, presentations, portfolios, degree shows and a thesis.

How are Masters graded?

Similar to the third, second and first class honours awarded for Bachelors courses, on completion of your Masters, you'll be given a pass, merit or distinction mark.

For the majority of taught Masters you will need:

  • 50% or above for a pass
  • 60% or above for a merit
  • 70% or above for a distinction.

Variations do occur, though. For example, some institutions may grant a pass at 40%, or a distinction at 80%.

How much does a Masters cost?

Masters fees aren't fixed, and vary enormously across universities. Course costs often depend on two factors - the university's reputation and the subject.

According to UCAS, postgraduate tuition fees can range from £4,900 to over £30,000, but they put the average at around £11,000 per year. As a guide, arts and humanities courses are cheaper than STEM programmes, while courses in medicine usually cost more. An MBA is one of the most expensive qualifications available, although fees vary. For example, the MBA at London Business School costs £97,500.

International students pay considerably more than UK students for Masters programmes.

For example, to study MSc Forensic Psychology and Mental Health at The University of Manchester in the 2022/23 academic year, full-time UK students pay £11,000. The same course costs international students £23,000. In 2022/23, UK students will pay £10,820 for the MA Journalism programme at City University London, while international students are charged £21,650.

The student, via debit card, credit card or bank transfer, pays their fees up front. If you cannot self-fund your Masters degree, don't worry - funding is available. This can come in the form of:

You'll also need to factor in living costs such as rent, food, household goods, travel expenses and leisure activities. Big cities such as Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester will be more expensive and the cost of living in London will be considerably more. It's vital that you do your research and figure out your finances before applying for a course.

A lot of Masters students attempt to finance their tuition fees and living costs through part-time work, though non-UK students on a short-term study visa aren't able to do this. It's possible - albeit challenging - to work 10 to 15 hours per week and still achieve a healthy work-study balance. Working for the university, or from home, is ideal.

Part-time study while working full time may also be a good option for you. To find out more, see working while studying.

Where can I get more advice?

You can get more guidance on Masters study from:

  • Your careers and employability service - advisers can explore your options, help you to decide which course is best for you and assist your application.
  • Current students - they'll tell you how much work is involved and recommend books and other sources.
  • Postgraduate study fairs - you can meet representatives from numerous universities at these events.
  • University tutors - academics from your prospective course can explain the course content, while current tutors can reveal how your career goals match up.

This Prospects webinar aired July 2021.

Find out more

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