A Masters degree is the most commonly taken postgraduate qualification. It typically lasts for between one and four years, depending on the mode of study

The qualification is at level 7 on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) - above Bachelors but below Doctoral - and is awarded to students who show a high level of expertise in their field. Study is intense and typically involves writing a thesis.

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

While having a Masters degree can greatly improve your career prospects, the high costs and demands mean that this method of postgraduate study isn't for everyone.

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. Courses normally begin in September or October, though some start in January or February.

What's the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study?

Compared to 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 postgraduate certificates, postgraduate diplomas and PhDs).

What's the difference between taught and research Masters?

Masters degrees 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. Taught Masters degrees best suit students who are looking to change careers, boost their job prospects or gain a wide-ranging skillset.

The emphasis is different with a research Masters. 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. Research Masters degrees best suit students who work well alone, want their work published, are interested in a specific topic or are planning to undertake PhD study.

Types of Masters degrees

Masters degrees can be further broken down into specific qualifications. The Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc) are by far the two most popular options, but other types include the:

  • LLM (Master of Laws);
  • MArch (Master of Architecture);
  • MBA (Master of Business Administration);
  • MEd (Master of Education);
  • MEng (Master of Engineering);
  • MFA (Master of Fine Arts);
  • MLitt (Master of Letters);
  • MMus (Master of Music);
  • MPhil (Master of Philosophy);
  • MRes (Master of Research);
  • MSt (Master of Studies).

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

How does an MA differ from an MSc?

The MA is usually awarded to those on courses in: social sciences; arts and humanities; and business, consulting and management. The MSc most commonly covers science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes. However, some social sciences and some business, consulting and management courses fall into the MSc category.

While the MA often balances research, discussion, essay writing and practical exercises, the MSc is theory-heavy and emphasises reading and research.

What does a Masters degree involve?

You may have fewer than ten hours of weekly contact time, but you'll be expected to undertake at least 30-35 hours of independent study. On completion, you'll be awarded a pass, merit or distinction.

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-timers 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.

How much does it cost?

Masters fees aren't fixed, and vary enormously both across universities and within an institution. However, most programmes cost UK and European Union (EU) students between £4,000 and £9,000 per year. Non-EU students, meanwhile, are charged an average of £14,000 per year. Fees are paid up front by the student, via debit card, credit card or bank transfer.

Course costs often depend on two factors: the university's reputation and the subject. According to Postgrad Solutions, the average arts and humanities programme costs £3,000 to £8,200 per year, with STEM courses costing between £3,700 and £9,950.

If you cannot self-fund your Masters degree, don't worry - funding is available. This can come in the form of Masters loans, scholarships and bursaries, Professional and Career Development Loans, Research Council grants, employer sponsorship or crowdfunding.

UCAS estimates that the average postgraduate spends £8,000-£11,000 every year on living costs. The National Union of Students (NUS) puts the figure for those studying outside of London at £12,000, including £4,990 for rent, £2,920 for food, £360 for household goods, £40 for insurance, £1,920 for personal items, £1,710 for travel and £1,190 for leisure. Knowing how much money you’ll need for living expenses and course costs is therefore vital.

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 10-15 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. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reports that 88% of students who mix work with postgraduate study take a part-time course. For more information, see Which Masters degree is right for me?

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;
  • 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