A master's degree (from Latin magister) is a second-cycle academic degree awarded by universities or colleges upon completion of a course of study demonstrating mastery or a high-order overview of a specific field of study or area of professional practice. A master's degree normally requires previous study at the bachelor's level, either as a separate degree or as part of an integrated course. Within the area studied, master's graduates are expected to possess advanced knowledge of a specialized body of theoretical and applied topics; high order skills in analysis, critical evaluation, or professional application; and the ability to solve complex problems and think rigorously and independently.
Medieval era to 18th century
The master's degree dates back to the origin of European universities, with a Papal bull of 1233 decreeing that anyone admitted to the mastership in the University of Toulouse should be allowed to teach freely in any other university. The original meaning of the master's degree was thus that someone who had been admitted to the rank (degree) of master (i.e. teacher) in one university should be admitted to the same rank in other universities. This gradually became formalised as the licentia docendi (licence to teach). Originally, masters and doctors were not distinguished, but by the 15th century it had become customary in the English universities to refer to the teachers in the lower faculties (arts and grammar) as masters and those in the higher faculties as doctors. Initially, the Bachelor of Arts (BA) was awarded for the study of the trivium and the Master of Arts (MA) for the study of the quadrivium.
The nineteenth century saw a great expansion in the variety of master's degrees offered. At the start of the century, the only master's degree was the MA, and this was normally awarded without any further study or examination.The Master in Surgery degree was introduced by the University of Glasgow in 1815. By 1861 this had been adopted throughout Scotland as well as by Cambridge and Durham in England and the University of Dublin in Ireland. When the Philadelphia College of Surgeons was established in 1870, it too conferred the Master of Surgery, "the same as that in Europe".
From the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, the pattern of degrees was therefore to have a bachelor's and master's degree in the lower (undergraduate) faculties and to have bachelor's and doctorates in the higher (postgraduate) faculties. In the United States, the first master's degrees (Magister Artium, or Master of Arts) were awarded at Harvard University soon after its foundation. In Scotland the pre-Reformation universities (St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen) developed so that the Scottish MA became their first degree, while in Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, the MA was awarded to BA graduates of a certain standing without further examination from the late seventeenth century, its main purpose being to confer full membership of the university. At Harvard the 1700 regulations required that candidates for the master's degree had to pass a public examination, but by 1835 this was awarded Oxbridge-style 3 years after the BA.
In Scotland, Edinburgh maintained separate BA and MA degrees until the mid nineteenth century, although there were major doubts as to the quality of the Scottish degrees of this period. In 1832 Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor and an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, told the House of Lords that "In England the Universities conferred degrees after a considerable period of residence, after much labour performed, and if they were not in all respects so rigorous as the statutes of the Universities required, nevertheless it could not be said, that Masters of Arts were created at Oxford and Cambridge as they were in Scotland, without any residence, or without some kind of examination. In Scotland all the statutes of the Universities which enforced conditions on the grant of degrees were a dead letter."
It was not until 1837 that separate examinations were reintroduced for the MA in England, at the newly established Durham University (even though, as in the ancient English universities, this was to confer full membership), to be followed in 1840 by the similarly new University of London, which was only empowered by its charter to grant degrees by examination. However, by the middle of the century the MA as an examined second degree was again under threat, with Durham moving to awarding it automatically to those who gained honours in the BA in 1857, along the lines of the Oxbridge MA, and Edinburgh following the other Scottish universities in awarding the MA as its first degree, in place of the BA, from 1858. At the same time, new universities were being established around the then British Empire along the lines of London, including examinations for the MA: the University of Sydney in Australia and the Queen's University of Ireland in 1850, and the Universities of Bombay (now the University of Mumbai), Madras and Calcutta in India in 1857.
In the US, the revival of master's degrees as an examined qualification began in 1856 at the University of North Carolina, followed by the University of Michigan in 1859, although the idea of a master's degree as an earned second degree was not well established until the 1870s, alongside the PhD as the terminal degree. Sometimes it was possible to earn an MA either by examination or by seniority in the same institution, e.g. in Michigan the "in course" MA was introduced in 1848 and was last awarded in 1882, while the "on examination" MA was introduced in 1859.
Probably the most important master's degree introduced in the 19th century was the Master of Science (MS in the US, MSc in the UK). At the University of Michigan this was introduced in two forms in 1858: "in course", first awarded in 1859, and "on examination", first awarded in 1862. The "in course" MS was last awarded in 1876. In Britain, however, the degree took a while longer to arrive. When London introduced its Faculty of Sciences in 1858, the University was granted a new charter giving it the power "to confer the several Degrees of Bachelor, Master, and Doctor, in Arts, Laws, Science, Medicine, Music", but the degrees it awarded in science were the Bachelor of Science and the Doctor of Science. The same two degrees, again omitting the master's, were awarded at Edinburgh, despite the MA being the standard undergraduate degree for Arts in Scotland. In 1862, a Royal Commission suggested that Durham should award master's degrees in theology and science (interestingly with the suggested abbreviations MT and MS, contrary to later British practice of using MTh or MTheol and MSc for these degrees), but its recommendations were not enacted. In 1877, Oxford introduced the Master of Natural Science, along with the Bachelor of Natural Science, to stand alongside the MA and BA degrees and be awarded to students who took their degrees in the honours school of natural sciences. In 1879 a statute to actually establish the faculty of Natural Sciences at Oxford was promulgated, but in 1880 a proposal to rename the degree as a Master of Science was rejected along with a proposal to grant Masters of Natural Sciences a Master of Arts degree, in order to make them full members of the University. This scheme would appear to have then been quietly dropped, with Oxford going on to award BAs and MAs in science.
The Master of Science (MSc) degree was finally introduced in Britain in 1878 at Durham, followed by the new Victoria University in 1881. At the Victoria University both the MA and MSc followed the lead of Durham's MA in requiring a further examination for those with an ordinary bachelor's degree but not for those with an honours degree.
The Bologna declaration in 1999 started the Bologna Process, leading to the creation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). This established a three-cycle bachelor's—master's—doctorate classification of degrees, leading to the adoption of master's degrees across the continent, often replacing older long-cycle qualifications such as the magister degree in Germany. As the process continued, descriptors were introduced for all three levels in 2004, and ECTS credit guidelines were developed. This led to questions as to the status of the integrated master's degrees and one-year master's degrees in the UK. However, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education Institutes in Scotland have both been aligned with the overarching framework for the EHEA with these being accepted as master's-level qualifications.
At the start of the twentieth century there were therefore four different sorts of master's degree in the UK: the Scottish MA, granted as a first degree; the Master of Arts (Oxbridge and Dublin), granted to all BA graduates a certain period after their first degree without further study; master's degrees that could be gained either by further study or by gaining an honours degree (which, at the time in the UK involved further study beyond the ordinary degree, as it still does in Scotland and some Commonwealth countries); and master's degrees that could only be obtained by further study (including all London master's degrees). In 1903, the London Daily News criticised the practice of Oxford and Cambridge, calling their MAs "the most stupendous of academic frauds" and "bogus degrees". Ensuing correspondence pointed out that "A Scotch M.A., at the most, is only the equivalent of an English B.A." and called for common standards for degrees, while defenders of the ancient universities said that "the Cambridge M.A. does not pretend to be a reward of learning" and that "it is rather absurd to describe one of their degrees as a bogus one because other modern Universities grant the same degree for different reasons".
In 1900, Dartmouth College introduced the Master of Commercial Science (MCS), first awarded in 1902. This was the first master's degree in business, the forerunner of the modern MBA. The idea quickly crossed the Atlantic, with Manchester establishing a Faculty of Commerce, awarding Bachelor and Master of Commerce degrees, in 1903. Over the first half of the century the automatic master's degrees for honours graduates vanished as honours degrees became the standard undergraduate qualification in the UK. In the 1960s, new Scottish universities (with the exception of Dundee, which inherited the undergraduate MA from St Andrews) reintroduced the BA as their undergraduate degree in Arts, restoring the MA to its position as a postgraduate qualification. Oxford and Cambridge retained their MAs, but renamed many of their postgraduate bachelor's degrees in the higher faculties as master's degrees, e.g. the Cambridge LLB became the LLM in 1982, and the Oxford BLitt, BPhil (except in philosophy) and BSc became the MLitt, MPhil and MSc.
In 1983, the Engineering Council issued a "'Statement on enhanced and extended undergraduate engineering degree courses", proposing the establishment of a 4-year first degree (Master of Engineering). These were up and running by the mid 1980s and were followed in the early 1990s by the MPhys for physicists and since then integrated master's degrees in other sciences such as MChem, MMath, MGeol, etc., and in some institutions general or specific MSci (Master in Science) and MArts (Master in Arts) degrees. This development was noted by the Dearing Report into UK Higher Education in 1997, which called for the establishment of a national framework of qualifications and identified five different routes to master's degrees:
This led to the establishment of the Quality Assurance Agency, which was charged with drawing up the framework.
In 2000 renewed pressure was put on Oxbridge MAs in the UK Parliament, with Labour MP Jackie Lawrence introducing an early day motion calling for them to be scrapped and telling the Times Higher Education it was a "discriminatory practice" and that it "devalues and undermines the efforts of students at other universities". The following month the Quality Assurance Agency announced the results of a survey of 150 major employers showing nearly two thirds mistakenly thought the Cambridge MA was a postgraduate qualification and just over half made the same error regarding the Edinburgh MA, with QAA chief executive John Randall calling the Oxbridge MA "misleading and anachronistic".
The QAA released the first "framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland" in January 2001. This specified learning outcomes for M-level (master's) degrees and advised that the title "Master" should only be used for qualifications that met those learning outcomes in full. It addressed many of the Dearing Report's concerns, specifying that shorter courses at H-level (honours), e.g. conversion courses, should be styled Graduate Diploma or Graduate Certificate rather than as master's degrees, but confirmed that the extended undergraduate degrees were master's degrees, saying that "Some Masters degrees in science and engineering are awarded after extended undergraduate programmes that last, typically, a year longer than Honours degree programmes". It also addressed the Oxbridge MA issue, noting that "the MAs granted by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are not academic qualifications". The first "framework for qualifications of Higher Education Institutes in Scotland", also published in January 2001, used the same qualifications descriptors, adding in credit values that specified that a stand-alone master should be 180 credits and a "Masters (following an integrated programme from undergraduate to Masters level study)" should be 600 credits with a minimum of 120 at M-level. It was specified that the title "Master" should only be used for qualifications that met the learning outcomes and credit definitions, although it was noted that "A small number of universities in Scotland have a long tradition of labelling certain first degrees as 'MA'. Reports of Agency reviews of such provision will relate to undergraduate benchmarks and will make it clear that the title reflects Scottish custom and practice, and that any positive judgement on standards should not be taken as implying that the outcomes of the programme were at postgraduate level."
Master's degrees are commonly titled using the form 'Master of ...', where either a faculty (typically Arts or Science) or a field (Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, Business Administration, etc.) is specified. The two most common titles of master's degrees are the Master of Arts (MA/M.A./A.M) and Master of Science (MSc/M.S./S.M.) degrees; which normally consist of a mixture of research and taught material. Integrated master's degrees and postgraduate master's degrees oriented towards professional practice are often more specifically named for their field of study ("tagged degrees"), including, for example, the Master of Business Administration, Master of Divinity, Master of Engineering and Master of Physics. A few titles are more general, for example Master of Philosophy (MPhil), used (in the same manner as Doctor of Philosophy) to indicate degrees with a large research component, Master of Studies (MSt)/Master of Advanced Study (MASt)/Master of Advanced Studies (M.A.S.), and Professional Master's (MProf).
The form "Master in ..." is also sometimes used, particularly where a faculty title is used for an integrated master's in addition to its use in a traditional postgraduate master's, e.g. Master in Science (MSci) and Master in Arts (MArts). This form is also sometimes used with other integrated master's degrees, and occasionally for postgraduate master's degrees (e.g. Master's in Accounting). Some universities use Latin degree names; because of the flexibility of syntax in Latin, the Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees may be known in these institutions as Magister artium and Magister scientiæ or reversed from the English order to Artium magister and Scientiæ magister. Examples of the reversed usage include Harvard University, the University of Chicago and MIT, leading to the abbreviations A.M. and S.M. for these degrees. The forms "Master of Science" and "Master in Science" are indistinguishable in Latin, thus MSci is "Master of Natural Sciences" at the University of Cambridge.
In the UK, stops (periods) are not used in degree abbreviations. In the US, The Gregg Reference Manual recommends placing periods in degrees (e.g. B.S., Ph.D.), however The Chicago Manual of Style recommends writing degrees without periods (e.g. BS, PhD).
Master of Science is generally abbreviated M.S. or MS in countries following United States usage and MSc in countries following British usage, where MS would refer to the degree of Master of Surgery. In Australia, some extended master's degrees use the title "doctor": Juris doctor and Doctors of Medical Practice, Physiotherapy, Dentistry, Optometry and Veterinary Practice. Despite their titles these are still master's degree and may not be referred to as doctoral degrees, nor may graduates use the title "doctor".
The UK Quality Assurance Agency defines three categories of Master's degrees:
The United States Department of Education classifies master's degree as research or professional. Research master's degrees in the US, e.g. M.A./A.M. or M.S., require the completion of taught courses and examinations in a major and one or more minor subjects, and (normally) a research thesis. Professional master's degrees may be structured like research master's (e.g. M.E./M.Eng.) or may concentrate on a specific discipline (e.g. M.B.A.), and often substitute a project for the thesis.
The Australian Qualifications Framework classifies master's degrees as research, coursework or extended. Research master's degrees typically take one to two years, and two thirds of their content consists of research, research training and independent study. Coursework master's degrees typically also last one to two years, and consist mainly of structured learning with some independent research and project work or practice-related learning. Extended master's degrees typically take three to four years and contain significant practice-related learning that must be developed in collaboration with relevant professional, statutory or regulatory bodies.
In Ireland, master's degrees may be either Taught or Research. Taught master's degrees are normally one to two year courses, rated at 60 - 120 ECTS credits, while research master's degrees are normally two year courses, either rated at 120 ECTS credits or not credit rated.
There are a range of pathways to the degree, with entry based on evidence of a capacity to undertake higher degree studies in the proposed field. A dissertation may or may not be required, depending on the program. In general, the structure and duration of a program of study leading to a master's degree will differ by country and by university.
Stand-alone master's programs in the US are normally two years in length. In some fields/programs, work on a doctorate begins immediately after the bachelor's degree, but a master's may be granted along the way as a intermediate qualification if the student petitions for it. Some universities offer evening options so that students can work during the day and earn a master's degree in the evenings.
In the UK, postgraduate master's degrees may be either "research" or "taught", with taught degrees being further subdivided into "specialist or advanced study" or "professional or practice" (see above). Taught degrees (of both forms) typically take a full calendar year (i.e. three semesters, 12 months), although some may be completed within an academic year (i.e. two semesters, 8 months), while research degrees often take either a full calendar year or two academic years. The UK integrated master's degree is combined with a bachelor's degree for a four (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) or five (Scotland) academic year total period - one academic year longer than a normal bachelor's degree.
In Australia, master's degrees vary from 1 year for a "research" or "coursework" master's following on from an Australian honours degree in a related field, with an extra six months if following on straight from an ordinary bachelor's degree and another extra six months if following on from a degree in a different field, to four years for an "extended" master's degree.
In the Overarching Framework of Qualifications for the European Higher Education Area defined as part of the Bologna process, a "second cycle" (i.e. master's degree) programme is typically 90–120 ECTS credits, with a minimum requirement of at least 60 ECTS credits at second-cycle level. The definition of ECTS credits is that "60 ECTS credits are allocated to the learning outcomes and associated workload of a full-time academic year or its equivalent", thus European master's degrees should last for between one calendar year and two academic years, with at least one academic year of study at master's level. The Framework for Higher Education Qualification (FHEQ) in England Wales and Northern Ireland level 7 qualifications and the Framework for Qualification of Higher Education Institutes in Scotland (FQHEIS) level 11 qualifications (postgraduate and integrated master's degrees, with the exception of MAs from the ancient universities of Scotland and Oxbridge MAs) have been certified as meeting this requirement.
Irish master's degrees are 1 – 2 years (60 - 120 ECTS credits) for taught degrees and 2 years (not credit rated) for research degrees. These have also been certified as compatible with the FQ-EHEA.
Admission to a master's degrees normally requires successful completion of study at bachelor's degree level either (for postgraduate degrees) as a stand-alone degree or (for integrated degrees) as part of an integrated scheme of study. In countries where the bachelor's degree with honours is the standard undergraduate degree, this is often the normal entry qualification. In addition, students will normally have to write a personal statement and, in the arts and humanities, will often have to submit a portfolio of work.
In the UK, students will normally need to have a 2:1 for a taught master's course, and possibly higher for a research master's. Graduate schools in the US may require students to take one or more standardised tests, such as the GRE, GMAT or LSAT.
Comparable European degrees
In some European countries, a magister is a first degree and may be considered equivalent to a modern (standardized) master's degree (e.g., the German, Austrian and Polish university Diplom/Magister, or the similar five-year Diploma awarded in several subjects in Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and other universities and polytechnics).
Under the Bologna Process, countries in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) are moving to a three cycle (bachelor's - master's - doctorate) system of degrees. Two thirds of EHEA countries have standardised on 120 ECTS credits for their second-cycle (master's) degrees, but 90 ECTS credits is the main form in Cyprus, Ireland and Scotland and 60-75 credits in Montenegro, Serbia and Spain. The combined length of the first and second cycle varies from "3 + 1" years (240 ECTS credits), through "3 + 2" or "4 + 1" years (300 ECTS credits), to "4 + 2" years (360 ECTS credits). As of 2015, 31 EHEA countries have integrated programmes that combine the first and second cycle and lead to a second-cycle qualification (e.g. the UK integrated master's degree), particularly in STEM subjects and subjects allied to medicine. These typically have a duration of 300 – 360 ECTS credits (five to six years), with the integrated master's degrees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland being the shortest at 240 ECTS credits (four years).
A French "diplôme d'Ingénieur" is also the equivalent of a master's degree, provided the diploma is recognised by the Commission des titres d'ingénieur, as are qualifications recognised at Level I of the répertoire national des certifications professionnelles (national register of professional certificates).
Also, the five-year diploma (δίπλωμα) awarded in all Polytechnics (schools of engineering) and the Athens School of Fine Arts is considered equal to a graduate degree plus a master's degree.
In Brazil, after a regular graduation (after acquiring a bachelor's degree), students have the option to continue their academic career through a master's course (a.k.a. stricto sensu post-graduation) or specialization (a.k.a. lato sensu post-graduation) degrees. At the master's degree ("mestrado", in Portuguese, also referred as "pós-graduação stricto sensu") there are 2–3 years of full-time graduate-level studies. Usually focused on academic research, the master's degree (on any specific knowledge area) requires the development of a thesis, presented (and defended) to a board of Ph.D. after the period of research. Differently, the "specialization" degree (also referred as "pós-graduação lato-sensu"), also comprehends a 1–2 years studies, but do not require a new thesis to be purposed and defended, being usually attended by professionals looking for a complimentary formation on a different knowledge area than their original graduation.
In addition, a great part of Brazilian universities offers a M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration) degree. Those, nevertheless, are not the equivalent of US M.B.A. degree though, as it does not formally certifies the student/professional with a master's degree (stricto-sensu) but a post-graduation degree instead. A regular post-graduation course has to comply with a minimum of 360 class-hours, while a M.B.A. degree has to comply with a minimum of 400 class-hours. Master's degree (stricto sensu) does not requires minimum class-hours, but it's practically impossible to finish it before 1.5 year due the workload and research required; an average time for the degree is 2.5 years. Specialization (lato sensu) and M.B.A. degrees can be also offered as distance education courses, while the master's degree (stricto-sensu) requires physical attendance. In Brazil, the degree often serves as additional qualification for those seeking to differentiate themselves in the job market, or for those who want to pursue a Ph.D. It corresponds to the European (Bologna Process) 2nd Cycle or the North American master's.
M.Arch., M.L.A., M.U.D., M.A., M.Sc., M.Soc.Sc., M.S.W., M.Eng., LL.M. Hong Kong requires one or two years of full-time coursework to achieve a master's degree.
For part-time study, two or three years of study are normally required to achieve a postgraduate degree.
M.Phil. As in the United Kingdom, M.Phil. or Master of Philosophy is a research degree awarded for the completion of a thesis, and is a shorter version of the Ph.D.
In Pakistani education system, there are two different master's degree programmes:
Both M.A. and M.S. are offered in all major subjects.
In the Indian system, a master's degree is a postgraduate degree following a Bachelor's degree and preceding a Doctorate, usually requiring two years to complete. The available degrees include:
In Nepal, after bachelor's degree about to at least three or four years with full-time study in college and university with an entrance test for those people who want to study further can study in master and further Ph.D. and Doctorate degree. All Doctoral and Ph.D. or third cycle degree are based on research and experience oriented and result based. Master of Engineering (M.Eng.), Master of Education (M.Ed.), Master of Arts (M.A.) and all law and medicine related courses are studied after completion of successful bachelor towards doctoral degree. M.B.B.S. is only a medical degree with six and half years of study resulting medical doctor and need to finish its study o 4 years of period joining after master degree with minimum education with 15 or 16 years of university bachelor's degree education. The most professional and internationalised program in Nepal are:
In Taiwan, bachelor's degrees are about four years (with honors) and there is an entrance examination required for people who want to study in master and Ph.D. degrees. The courses offered for master and PhD normally are research-based. The most foreign student-friendly programs in Taipei, Taiwan are at:
Programs are entirely in English and tuition is less than would be paid in North America, with as little as US$5000 for an M.B.A. As an incentive to increase the number of foreign students, the government of Taiwan and universities have made extra efforts to provide a range of quality scholarships available. These are university-specific scholarships ranging from tuition waivers, up to NT$20,000 per month. The government offers the Taiwan Scholarship ranging from NT$20,000–30,000 per month for two years. (US$18,000–24,000 for a two-year program)