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Master of Arts vs. Master of Science: Pros and Cons

  1. Nov 12, 2011 #1
    I have a rather general question, but I think it's one that many find thinking about. If you believe this topic has been covered before extensively, please point me to the URLs.

    I noticed there is a bunch of schools out there offering Master of Art degrees in scientific disciplines as opposed to Master of Science (and some offer both.) What, if anything, is the difference between the two options as seen by employers and potential colleagues working in the field? Is it right that M.S. candidate is supposed to complete thesis whereas M.A. should take comprehensive exam? What is generally better for future in the field: thesis or comprehensive exam? What is so called 'terminal masters' and what advantages it has over 'non-terminal' masters degree?


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  3. Nov 12, 2011 #2


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    I don't know if there is any practical difference in the structure of an MA or MSc (there is huge variety amongst Master's degrees anyway) but I would be wary of a university offering an MA for a scientific subject, it makes me wonder if the universities offering it don't have the facilities and faculty to do a proper science course. I don't think an employer would look to favourably on a MA in science.
  4. Nov 12, 2011 #3
    I would agree with this with one exception: mathematics.

    Typically in the US, if a university offers a terminal masters degree in math it can be an MA or MS. I'm not sure about universities that offer both. At my university, they ONLY offer the MA degree, which is rigorous (and flexible) enough to continue to doctoral work or become an applied mathematician. It includes a master's thesis, oral defense, comprehensive examinations over algebra, analysis, topology, and a chosen subject, and two foreign language exams (between French, German, and Russian) where you have to be able to read in both, and converse in at least one. It's a large, divison I school, with a good reputation (not top twenty, but maybe just below) so it's no walk in the park. I would feel comfortable with my skills going up against anyone from 'named' schools at the master's level.

    In any case, just using that as an example to show that, at least for math, the MA is just as rigorous as the MS, so there's no difference in this specific instance.

    I imagine it might be different with other disciplines.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2011
  5. Nov 12, 2011 #4
    Yes, it does sound familiar - but what is the difference between the two? In other words, suppose you were challenged to choose between two candidates - one with M.A. and one with M.Sc. How would you compare the two, other than saying that typical science masters programs don't offer M.A. ? There must be something intrinsically inferior that M.A. has compared to M.S. and my belief is that it's thesis requirement, but I'm not sure.
  6. Nov 12, 2011 #5

    For those that offer both, I would try investigating their websites and/or calling to see the difference between the MA and MS. If you need help, I have mucho experience with this so you could PM the programs you're interested in and the schools and I could dig up whatever.

    See my post above for more info about math.
  7. Nov 12, 2011 #6
    ^ Check my previous post (I think we posted about the same time!).

    But yes, I would bet that if they offer both, the MA is without a thesis and the MS is with a thesis.

    However, in terms of inferiority or status, there is no way to judge from that aspect alone the difference between the two in my opinion. You have to look at the program's rigor and classes to really get an idea.

    I know some people probably 'look down' on the MA because it has the word 'arts' in the title, but typically it's just a different style. Even though I have to do a thesis WITH an oral defense, I think they call mine an MA because there is an additional language requirement, in which case the MA I'll have is actually "more prestigious" than most other MS terminal masters.
  8. Nov 13, 2011 #7


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    In some places it's the other way around. The MS would be a terminal master's with no thesis required, while the MA requires a thesis and is a stepping stone to a PhD.

    Then again, there are schools that have thesis and non-thesis options for BOTH MA and MS. So it all depends on the school.
  9. Nov 13, 2011 #8
    So let's suppose graduate of masters program looks for job in the field. For example, computer science M.A. graduate looks for a job in, let's say high performance computing. Does it make them better off to have done thesis for the degree or it doesn't really matter?
  10. Nov 13, 2011 #9


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    I'd look at the courses that they took, whether they did a thesis or not, etc.

    To my mind, this is similar to the difference (or lack thereof) between a B.A. and a B.S. In the U.S. It's impossible to generalize meaningfully, at least not in the context of evaluating specific applicants for jobs, Ph.D. programs, etc. You have to look at the details of the person's academic record.
  11. Nov 13, 2011 #10
    You're right... my bad. I actually thought this, but then it escaped me and I forgot to mention it.
  12. Nov 13, 2011 #11
    I know not everyone here is involved in making hiring decisions or recommendations, but let's say you were asessing two grads from relatively similar schools, both with masters degrees, one with thesis completed and one without. What is a general attitude (if it's a meaningful question) to people who have earned masters of science but haven't completed thesis? I believe academic jobs are rather different from industry, so I'm interested in opinion of both.
  13. Nov 13, 2011 #12


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    It depends what they are applying for. If the position entails a lot of independent lab work then the one with the thesis has the advantage having typically spent anywhere between three and twelve months on a research project.
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