Master of Arts

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A Master of Arts is a type of Master’s degree awarded by colleges, universities and higher education institutions in the United States and other countries throughout the world. Many four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. offer both Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S. or M.Sc.) degrees, but the two are not to be confused. While students pursuing a Master of Art degree focus their studies within the fields of humanities, social sciences, fine arts, history, theology or philosophy, students pursing a Master of Science degree typically focus their studies in the sciences.

United States

In the United States, the Master of Arts and Master of Science are the two most common master’s degrees awarded by higher education institutions. Master’s degree programs in the U.S. can be course-based or research-based, but most incorporate a combination of both coursework and research. Research-based master’s programs typically involve completing a research project and/or writing and defending a thesis.

Most student’s wanting to pursue a master’s degree (M.A. or M.S) are first required to earn a bachelor’s degree. In turn, those wanting to pursue a doctoral degree are often required to earn a master’s degree, but this isn’t always the case. Some doctoral programs will consider applicants who only have a bachelor’s degree. However, many colleges and universities now offer joint programs that allows students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degree simultaneously. Joint bachelor’s/master’s degrees take about five years to complete on average.

At some higher education institutions, such as Harvard University and other Ivy Leage universities, a Masters of Arts is awarded in scientific field that would traditionally be reserved to the Masters of Science designation by most other universities. In addition, some scholls refer to both the Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees using their Latin names, Artium Magister (A.M.) or Scientiæ Magister (S.M.).

United Kingdom

At several major universities in the United Kingdom, including Oxford, Dublin and Cambridge the Master of Arts degree is conferred to Bachelors of Arts students as a matter of tradition after they’ve completed a certain number of years of study. At most higher education institutions in the United Kingdom, students become eligible to receive a Master of Arts (MA) degree seven years from the time they began their bachelor’s degree, for a small fee and without any additional study our examination requirements. As in the United States, the Masters of Arts degree in the UK is generally awarded in fields of study within Humanities, Liberal Arts, Social Sciences and Theology. However, in Scottland, and few other regions of Great Britain, universities award the Master of Letters (MLitt) instead of the Master of Arts. Like the Master of Arts, the MLitt focuses on coursework in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. At a few institutions (e.g. University of Cambridge) the MLitt is a research degree. However, at most universities throughout the United Kingdom the Master of Philosophy (MPhil) is the standard master’s level research degree awarded.

The Master of Arts (M.A.) in the United Kingdom is typically a course-based postgraduate degree where students attend regular lectures, take exams and prepare a research-based disseration. Course-based master’s degree usually take one to two years fo full-time study to complete.

Students studying law work toward earning the Master of Laws (LLM) degree, but they can also earn an M.A. in Law depending on the courses they take. A Master of Laws, Bachelor of Civil Law (another master’s level law degree), M.A., MLitt, or Master of Studies (another popular general master’s level degree) are all considered equivalents and substitutes for one another.

Traditionally, the Master of Arts degree could be awarded, for a small fee and without further examination, to any student who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree and remained a standing member of the university or a graduate for a prescribed period of time. However, in 2011, Christopher Michael Leslie, a British politician, introduced into Parliament the “Master’s Degrees Bill 2012-12″, which prohibited higher education institutions with the UK from awarding master’s degrees unless certain minimum study and assessment prerequisites were met. Those in favor of the bill argued that the current “tradition” of awarding Master of Arts degrees without the completion of certain standards of study and assessment was compromising the academic integrity of course-based Master of Arts degrees. They also suggested that institutions (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, etc.) awarding the unmerited title of “Masters” were providing their students with an unfair advantage in the job market and were doing a disservice to employers. In fact, a study conducted by Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education showed that about two-thirds of employers didn’t have any idea that universities, including Cambridge, were awarding MA’s to potentially under-qualified students. Notwithstanding, Bill 2012-12 didn’t make it through Parliarment and was never made into law.

The Master of Arts degree in several of the older Scottish universities (e.g., University of St. Andrews, University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh, University of Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt University and University of Dundee) is an undergraduate degree, equivalent to a traditional bachelor’s degree.


The Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees were introduced in Germany in 2001. Prior to 2001, the most common, and comparable, postgraduate degree was the Magister Artium, which was available until 2010 in the former West Germany (but not the former East Germany). The Magister Artium required five years of full-time study. Prior to the introduction of the Master of Arts, all postgraduate degree programs in East Germany let to Diplom degrees (also common in Austria, Switzerland and other European countries). Like the Master of Arts degree, the Magister Artium focused on humanities and social sciences, as well as few other fields within the visual and performing arts. The newly introduced Master of Arts and the traditional Magister Artium coincided from 2001 until the Magister was phased out in 2010. Together Germany’s Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts take five years to complete, the same time require to complete the Magister Artium.

Finland, Denmark and Norway

In Scandinavia, particularly Finland, Norway and Denmark the master’s degree is both a course-based and research-based degree that required two years of full-time study following the completion of a four-year bachelor’s degree. All master’s degrees require students to prepare a thesis. Prior to the introduction of the master’s degree, the master’s equivalent program offered was the candidate degree (cand.).


Both the Master of Arts and the Master of Science degrees were introduced in the Netherlands in 2002, just a year after they were introduced in Germany and few other European countries. Up until 2002, there was a single graduate level program that led to the doctorandus degree, which was considered by Dutch legislation to be the equivalent of the MA of MSc degree. For those seeking a graduate technical degree, there was the ingenieur. For those students who had already begun a doctorandus program prior to 2002, upon completing the program, they were given the choice of receiving the doctorandus degree (Drs) or they could opt for a Master’s degree.


Higher education institutions in Poland offer the “magister” which is the equivalent of the Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees offered in the United States and other European countries. The Magister is granted in the natural sciences, computer sciences, mathematics, fine arts, and economics. Prior to the 1990s, the Magister was a five year program. Today it is a 2-year program, preceded by a prerequisite 3-year bachelor’s degree. Students pursuing a Magister are required to complete a research thesis. Upon graduation, students are entitled to place the abbreviation “mgr” before their name, like Dr.

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