As the most popular postgraduate qualification, a Masters degree is ideal for those who want to further their knowledge in a particular subject and improve their employability

Masters degrees at a glance

  • Level 7 postgraduate qualification.
  • Takes one to two years full time or two to four years part time.
  • Taught or research courses available.
  • More intense and require more advanced independent study than an undergraduate degree.
  • Postgraduate loans up to £10,609 can help with the cost.

A Masters degree is a level 7 qualification - above Bachelors degrees but below PhDs. Study is intense and typically involves completing a series of modules and writing a dissertation.

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 making a decision to go down 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 degrees usually involve one or two years of study, while part-time programmes last between two and four years.

What is 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 postgraduate diploma (PGDip). '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.

MA, MSc, MBA, MRes - what do they all mean?

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 salary and expand networks.

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

Types of Masters degrees

Masters can be either taught or research-based.

Taught Masters degrees are similar in style and structure to undergraduate degrees. They typically 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 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).

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

The emphasis is different with a research Masters (usually an MRes). Students are expected to actively and independently learn by producing a thesis on one particular topic, which takes up around 60% of the student's overall time. Programmes involve little to no in-class teaching, but guidance is provided by an appointed supervisor.

What does a Masters degree involve?

You can opt to study full or part time, in block mode or via distance learning. Full time study is the most common, evidenced by the fact that there are slightly more full-time Masters students than part-time students.

Full-time Masters students are usually those who 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 more easily 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 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, portfolios, degree shows and a thesis.

How is it 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 are usually more costly. An MBA is one of the most expensive qualifications available, although fees vary. For example, the MBA at London Business School costs £78,500.

International students will pay considerably more than UK and European Union (EU) students for Masters programmes.

Fees are paid up front by the student, via debit card, credit card or bank transfer. 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.

Almost half of full-time Masters students attempt to finance their tuition fees and living costs through part-time work, though non-EU 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.

Find out more