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Master of Arts vs. Master of Science: What's the Difference?

A professional considering master’s degree programs while sorting through documents at a table with the text MA vs MS

A master's degree allows you to gain specialized knowledge in your field and can make you more competitive in the job market. There is more than one kind of master's degree available. Some are specific to a profession, such as a Master of Library Science degree.

So, what is a master's degree exactly? A master's degree can be either a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) and provides in-depth learning beyond a bachelor’s degree. The key difference between the two degrees is that the former focuses on arts and humanities while the latter is geared more toward scientific and technical fields. 

To decide whether a Master of Arts or a Master of Science is the right choice for you, consider two key factors:

  1. Your personal and professional interests
  2. Your career goals

By choosing a master's degree with both of these elements in mind, you will add to your knowledge base and build your career at the same time.

Master of Arts vs. Master of Science

The Master of Arts focuses more on humanities and theoretical understanding. The Master of Science focuses more on scientific or technical expertise.

It’s important to review the degree programs that interest you by:

  • Examining the curriculum: Most schools have their entire course catalog available online. Be sure to review the course list for the Master of Arts or Master of Science degrees available in fields that interest you. This will help you decide if the more theoretical-based Master of Arts or the more technical Master of Science is the best fit to reach your goals.
  • Considering your goals: Identifying your goal for earning a master's degree will help direct you to the right degree for you. Consider whether your goal is to earn more money, work in a specific career field or advance in your current field and use your answers to determine if a humanities-based degree or more technical degree is the right choice.

To help make your decision, study the resources available on the websites of the schools you're interested in. Reach out to their alumni network to see if graduates from your program are available to speak with prospective students.

What’s the Difference Between a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree?

Before deciding which master’s degree is right for you, it helps to take a close look at the difference between a bachelor's and master's degree.

The bachelor’s degree provides the general education skills you’ll need to succeed in any field, coupled with several years of introductory coursework in your major. A bachelor's degree in any field will require completing a series of courses designed to ensure that every learner graduates with the core skills needed to communicate, conduct research and think critically.

A master’s degree, on the other hand, allows you to go take a deeper dive into your chosen academic field.

They can also take less time to complete than a bachelor’s degree. The time it takes to get a bachelor's degree varies, but it is commonly referred to as a "four-year degree", and usually needs 120 credits to complete. How long it takes to get a master's degree also varies by program, but it can typically be done in just one or two years. 

Why Earn a Master’s Degree?

A blue infographic piece with the text BLS reports the median annual wage for professions requiring a master's degree: $56,750 - $122,960A master’s degree in virtually any subject can boost your competitiveness in the job market. The degree is a signal to employers that you’re committed to learning more about a particular subject. It also shows employers that you have accomplished the written, creative and analytical thinking skills needed to succeed in your career field.

While a graduate degree is not a guarantee of employment, the more highly educated you are, the greater your predicted earnings are over time.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for professions requiring a master's degree ranges from $56,750 to $122,960.

A higher salary is a worthy goal, but is only one reason to invest the time and money in furthering your education. Other reasons to pursue a graduate education include:

  • Accomplishing a personal or professional goal
  • Advancing in your career over time
  • Furthering personal interest
  • Honing research skills and contributing to scholarship in your field
  • Increasing chances of landing the job you want
  • Qualifying for a career change

What Careers Require a Master's Degree?

A yellow infographic piece with the text MS programs can include: Business Analytics, Criminal Justice, Cyber Security, Healthcare Admin., MarketingTo complete a master's degree of any kind, you must be diligent, focused and dedicated to your field. Most master’s degrees include instruction and practice in research and written communication, regardless of major. Graduate study in any field also indicates a demonstrated ability to think critically, creatively and analytically.

Some careers, such as law and library science, require graduate degrees specific to their field. But a specific graduate degree isn't required for many other fields. Many master's degrees, such as an online MBA, provide opportunities across diverse industries.

So why earn one? Because the master’s degree is often a factor that can set you apart from the competition and position you for a promotion, raise or career change. The personal satisfaction of mastering a particular area of study is meaningful as well.

In-Demand Master’s Degrees

Master's degrees are more in demand than ever. In fact, employment in occupations requiring a master's degree is projected to grow by 16.4% from 2020 to 2030, according to BLS. That's the fastest growth of any education level.

Of the 833,700 master's degrees conferred during the 2018-19 school year in the U.S., the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported the top three degree areas were:

Within each of these disciplines – and others, such as social sciences, liberal arts and STEM – you can narrow in on the subject that interests you most. Some colleges, such as Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), have more than 100 master’s degrees available for you to explore and choose from.

Your MS and MA degree options may include:

Master of Science:

  • MS in Accounting – You may choose to focus on auditing, forensic accounting, management accounting or taxation
  • MS in Business Analytics – Apply this expertise to virtually any industry, particularly to data-driven positions in health care, IT or government service
  • MS in Criminal Justice – Focus on advanced counterterrorism or public safety administration in your quest to make your mark within the U.S. justice system
  • MS in Cyber Security – Virtually every business needs an expert in cyber security to ensure all data is secure
  • MS in Finance – Studying corporate finance or investments can lead to roles as a financial analyst, financial manager or personal financial advisor, to name just a few opportunities in this field
  • MS in Healthcare Administration – Graduate studies in this in-demand area could incorporate principles of finance, law, policy, informatics and strategic planning
  • MS in Information Technology – A variety of concentration options allow you to customize your Master of Science degree to help you meet the business, technical and analytical needs of your organization
  • MS in Marketing – Brand building, campaign analysis and data analysis are covered in this degree, with concentrations available in digital marketing, new media & communications, marketing research & analytics and social media marketing
  • MS in Project Management – Become a project management professional and drive change and innovation at your organization
  • MS in Psychology – Specialize in child & adolescent development psychology, forensic psychology or industrial organizational psychology to gain master’s level knowledge in psychological theory and methods

Master of Arts:

  • MA in Communication – Concentrate on new media & marketing or public relations for a laser-sharp focus on a field where you can deliver an impact through shaping and delivering multi-modal messages
  • MA in English – The focus on literary texts and analysis as well as literary scholarship can lead to careers in teaching, public relations, technical writing, fundraising and more
  • MA in English & Creative Writing – Focus on fiction, non-fiction, poetry or screenwriting with advanced academic training in this degree, and enjoy developing your written communication, critical analysis and literary craft
  • MA in History – Understanding our past is the key to a better future, and historians lead the way. A focus on American history, military history or public history can help prepare you for a museum career or work as a journalist, educator or archivist, to name just a few
  • MA in Mental Health Counseling – Gain the skills needed to become a clinical mental health counselor, making a positive impact in the lives of others

Which Degree is Better?

A blue infographic piece with the text MA programs can include: Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Communication, English & Creative Writing, English, HistoryThere’s really no right or wrong when choosing a master’s degree. Your interests and goals are what matter most. After all, you’re the one who will spend the next year and a half to two years doing the work. Your school's academic advisors can help you select the degree that best fits your aspirations, but the final decision rests with you.

It’s important to note that having earned a Bachelor of Arts degree does not necessarily mean you have to earn a Master of Arts degree. The same holds true with Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science degrees.

Perhaps you enjoyed the focus on humanities covered in your Bachelor of Arts degree, but you want a more technical Master of Science degree to benefit your career advancement.

Or maybe your Bachelor of Science degree was great scientific or technical instruction, but now you’re ready for a more liberal arts-focused master’s degree. Both are possible, and both are okay.

What Can You Do Post-Master's?

While you don't have to have a master's degree to earn a graduate certificate, many people choose to follow up their master's degree by sub-specializing with a certificate. Likewise, if you aren't sure if earning a master's degree is for you, you might consider enrolling in a certificate program instead.

SNHU, for example, offers more than a dozen certificates in many areas. A few examples include:

And after completing the master's degree or post-master's certificate, you might wish to continue on to earn a doctorate or other terminal degree in your field.

Is a Master’s Degree Right for Me?

A master’s degree is more than an investment of time and money. It’s also an investment in yourself. The best part about choosing a master’s degree is that you can choose to study something that really interests you. Add the fact that a master’s degree can help you become more competitive on the job market for the jobs you want, and the investment is a sound one.

There are a lot of options when it comes to graduate study. As the workplace continues to evolve, a master's degree allows you to evolve along with it. You'll be better prepared to weather changes in the job market and positioned to excel in your field. A master's degree truly does allow you to invest in your own potential.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU master's degree that can best help you meet your goals.

Marie Morganelli, PhD, is a freelance content writer and editor.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, institutionally accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.