What is a Masters degree?

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Masters study can increase your subject knowledge or allow you to change career direction, but the high costs and demands mean it isn't for everyone…

A Masters degree is a qualification awarded to students who show a high level of expertise in a particular field. It's at level 7 on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) - above Bachelors but below Doctoral.

Masters study is intense and ends with a thesis. The qualification 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 study lasts one or two years, but part-time study can take two to four. Courses normally begin in September or October, though some start in January or February.

Types of Masters degrees

There are two main types of Masters - taught and research. These are further broken down into individual qualifications. Key options, in order of popularity, include:

  • MSc (Master of Science);
  • MA (Master of Arts);
  • MPhil (Master of Philosophy);
  • MRes (Master of Research);
  • LLM (Master of Laws);
  • MLitt (Master of Letters);
  • MD (Doctor of Medicine);
  • MFA (Master of Fine Arts);
  • MEd (Master of Education).

What's the difference between a taught and research Masters?

Taught Masters are similar to undergraduate degrees. They involve lectures, seminars and practical work, with assessment through essays, exams, dissertations and group projects. You'll study independently while receiving close tutor support. Taught Masters suit students looking to change careers, boost prospects or gain a wide-ranging skillset.

Research Masters involve learning through research. You'll study one topic closely with the support of a supervisor, producing a dissertation. Research Masters, particularly MRes degrees, suit students who work well independently, want their work published, are interested in a specific topic, or are planning to undertake PhD study.

What's the difference between an MA and an MSc?

An MA degree usually covers humanities subjects, such as history, media studies and English literature. It often balances research, discussion, essay writing and practical exercises. The MSc, meanwhile, is based on broader scientific learning and can cover subjects including IT, medicine and psychology. It is theory-heavy and emphasises reading and research.

What does a Masters degree involve?

Around two-thirds of Masters degrees are studied full time, with a third taken part time. Part-timers are usually older - often because they are fitting study around an existing career or family. Part-time study is the best option for many, as complementing the Masters course with strong work experience is very important to employers. Some Masters programmes also offer a distance learning option.

You may have less than ten hours of weekly contact time, but you'll be expected to undertake 30-35 hours of independent study. Teaching and accreditation methods vary, but the pace of a Masters is usually faster than an undergraduate degree. However, the specialist knowledge gained makes it worthwhile.

On completion of your Masters you will be awarded a distinction, merit or pass.

How much does it cost?

Cost varies hugely and fees differ between subject areas. However, most courses cost UK and European Union (EU) students between £6,000 and £9,000 per year. Non-EU students should expect to pay much more, with a recent HSBC study finding that the average fee is £13,840. However, some postgraduate programmes will cost international students closer to £40,000 per year.

More than half of graduates in 2012/13 self-funded their further study, through savings, loans or employment. Over a fifth received a grant or award, such as Research Council funding, alumni discount or a university bursary. Beware, though: Research Council grants are very competitive, with many requiring you to have a first-class Bachelors degree.

Students may also be eligible for employer sponsorship or institutional scholarships. Always ensure that you check whether there are any conditions attached to your chosen method of funding.

Although Masters study is tough, some balance it with part-time work. However, international students on a Student Visitor visa aren't eligible to work and may not be able to apply for many grants or awards.

Will a Masters degree improve my job prospects?

Masters study in the UK is very highly regarded by international students and employers alike. Graduates are more likely to be employed in professional and managerial jobs immediately after graduation than first degree graduates.

Just 3% of part-time Masters graduates in 2012/13 were unemployed six months after graduation, compared to 9% of full-time graduates. Teaching and nursing were common destinations for part-time graduates, while jobs were more spread among full-time graduates - the largest proportion were working as business, human resources (HR) and finance professionals.

Around 12% of full-time Masters graduates went on to further study, compared to just 2% of part-time graduates.

A Masters degree:

  • allows you to change job, kick-start a career in certain professions (e.g. law, medicine, teaching) or enter a career or company at a higher level;
  • puts you on the path to chartership;
  • gives you an insight into an industry and the opportunity to create contacts;
  • allow you to compete in the international job market if you wish to work in a country where Masters degrees are commonplace;
  • enables you to progress onto a PhD;
  • allows you to study a passion in greater depth.

Despite these positives, Masters study is only valuable if it's complemented by relevant work experience. If you fail to gain work experience, your employability will be seriously weakened and you'll run the risk of getting into unnecessary debt. Furthermore, some graduates find that starting salaries are lower than expected. Again, this could have financial implications.

What qualifications do I need?

You'll usually need at least a 2:1 at Bachelors level, or an equivalent qualification. However, those with a 2:2, a third, or no undergraduate degree may be considered with appropriate professional experience. Contact the admissions department directly if you don't quite meet the criteria.


International students can find more information about how their qualifications compare to those in the UK at UK NARIC (National Recognition Information Centre for the United Kingdom).

How do I find a postgraduate course?

Before creating your shortlist and attending open days, you should search Masters degrees. You can then consider variables such as:

  • course content, including core modules and reading lists;
  • institution reputation and department ranking;
  • external course validation, e.g. by a professional body;
  • the timetable, especially if you need to fit in part-time work;
  • entry requirements;
  • fees and funding;
  • employment prospects;
  • student satisfaction;
  • tutors and their professional practice.

Where can I study?

Aside from universities, there are two further types of institution that award postgraduate degrees in the UK: university colleges and specialist higher education colleges.

University colleges, or colleges of higher education, offer a limited number of Masters programmes without having independent university status. Courses are usually validated by a larger, fully accredited university and class sizes are often small. Keele University, The University of Nottingham and the University of Winchester all began life as colleges of higher education.

Specialist higher education colleges, meanwhile, offer a small number of Masters programmes that often aren't available at fully independent universities. Taught by experts, all courses are based around one specialist subject - for example, agriculture or performing arts.

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 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 fairs - you can meet representatives from numerous universities;
  • university tutors - they'll explain the course content and how your career goals match up