Erika Lasrado
Written By - Erika Lasrado

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When pursuing higher education, graduate school students are often in the dilemma of choosing between two popular and essential graduate-level degrees in most subjects – the Master of Arts degree and the Master of Science degree. Depending on the selected subject, these may be research-based, course-based, or generally, a mix of the two. While both these types prepare students for different roles in their chosen discipline, the former is selected by those who want to focus on humanities and arts. In contrast, the latter is pursued by those who wish to orient themselves toward more technical and scientific fields. It is beneficial for graduates to understand the pros and cons of both of these degrees to help them make insightful decisions leading to a rewarding career. 

The following sections list the benefits these two degrees can fetch you and the points you need to know to make an informed choice.

MA or Master of Arts degree is a graduate degree

Table Of Contents

What is an MA?

An MA or Master of Arts in the U.S. is a specialized degree in disciplines like philosophy, language, history, design, social science, management, fine arts, and more. It can also be awarded for subjects considered within other domains, including those with scientific orientations like geology and behavioral psychology, among others.

The primary learning mode for Master of Arts degrees includes seminars based on debates about a relevant topic matter with research and discussion on it. Students can complete this program in two years, and depending on the choice of subject, they may be required to submit a thesis. 

Some of the most common subjects in which one pursues an online master of arts degree include:

  • Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Foreign Languages, like French, German, Spanish, Chinese, etc.
  • Art History
  • Philosophy
  • Religion
  • Political Science*
  • Sociology
  • International Affairs
  • Psychology*
  • Education and topics within Education, like Educational Technology, School Counselling, etc.*
  • Comparative Literature
  • English
  • Management Studies
  • Health Care Management (including subjects of Mental Healthcare)*

*These degrees are the highest-paying Master of Arts degrees.

Here is a table with the highest-paying MA degrees and their average median pay in 2021:

MA DegreePotential Job TitleAvg. Annual Pay
Healthcare Administration Health Care Administrators$101,340 
Political Science Political Scientists$122,510 
Psychology Psychologists$81,040 
Education Education Administrators$96,910  

What is an MS?

The MS or Master of Science is a two-year graduate study that is generally technically oriented and focused on developing problem-solving and analytical skills through coursework, laboratory and practical experience, and research. 

It is mainly taken up after receiving a bachelor’s degree and is available in technology, science, law, finance, social science, and arts. Those who want to pursue more scientific or mathematical-oriented programs take up MS in computer science, engineering, mathematics, public health, biochemistry, economics, engineering, etc. 

Unlike MA degrees, most MS programs require students to complete a thesis requirement. Completing a thesis requires substantial coursework and using various research methods. Students will also be required to defend their thesis by integrating what has been done in class and data obtained from lab work. 

MS programs typically take two years to complete; however, some may take longer, especially if you submit a thesis toward your degree’s end. 

Some of the most popular MS degrees in the U.S. include:

  • Computer Science*
  • Software Development*
  • Data Science
  • Health Management*
  • Engineering
  • Business Analytics
  • Engineering*
  • Nurse Anesthesia*
  • Physician Assistant
  • Math
  • Nursing*
  • Economics*
  • Actuary*

*These degrees are the highest-paying Master of Science Degrees.

Here is a table with the highest-paying MS degrees and their average median pay in 2021:

MS DegreePotential Job TitleAvg. Annual Pay
Healthcare Management Medical and Health Service Managers$101,340 
Software Developer Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers$101,020 
Economics Financial Managers $134,180 
Engineering Petroleum Engineers $130,850 
Nursing Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Practitioners, and Nurse Midwives$123,780 

What’s the Difference Between MA and MS?

There are several similarities between MA and MS programs – foundational courses, internship requirements, admission criteria, and more.

Likewise, there are many differences in focus areas, subject areas, assessment methods, teaching style, and graduate outcomes. Understanding the differences between both types can help you decide which fits you better. 

Master of Arts (MA)Master of Science (MS)
Main Focus
Focus on arts and humanitiesFocus on scientific and technical fields. The curriculum is based on STEM subjects like engineering, mathematics, technology, and medicine. Sometimes includes social science subjects.
The learning mode in MA combines theory and research aspects.  Students participate in instruction-based study, including seminars, lectures, and workshops. They are expected to supplement these with independent research.The learning mode in MS focuses on practice-based learning, including workshops, laboratory work, experiments, and lectures. Students are required to conduct independent research and theoretical study.
Students can take up the thesis track or the non-thesis track. In most cases, a thesis is generally not required.Students are encouraged to take up the thesis track, which is sometimes compulsory.
Considered an academic degreeConsidered a professional degree
Entry Requirements
Requires an undergraduate degree, dissertation, project work, and interview as part of the application.Requires undergraduate work, demonstration of technical and specialist abilities, work experience (in some cases), and an interview as part of the application process.
Subject Areas
Subjects from arts, humanities, and social sciences; for example, sociology, anthropology, etc.STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and math.
Graduate Outcomes
It can lead to broader paths. For example, an MA in Media Studies can lead to work opportunities in domains like advertising, teaching, PR, etc.More appropriate for direct career paths and related to specific fields of study. For example, studying MS in Math focuses specifically on careers in mathematics.

MA vs. MS: Which One Should You Choose?

While there is no direct answer to this question, we can look at different factors affecting your personal and professional growth that can help you choose the degree more efficiently.

Both degrees provide students with academic qualifications to help them land better jobs or pursue further academics. They both equally show a student’s dedication to their field of study. 

Employers will generally not differentiate between the two degree types and regard them equally if you have the necessary knowledge and skills to do well. 

To decide which program to choose, you must pick one based on how it fits your personal and professional career goals. Those who prefer taking up humanities subjects might see the Master of Arts as an ideal choice. 

On the other hand, those with good mathematical and logical skills and a keen interest in STEM subjects may feel a Master of Science is more apt for them. 

Obtaining a master’s degree advances your career and provides a rich and rewarding experience in terms of accomplishments. 

Even though the distinction between the MA and MS degree is minor, your choice must be made carefully, as it could determine your future professional outcomes. 

Here are four tips for choosing the right degree:

  1. Evaluate your appropriate career goals. If you want theoretical or critical knowledge, you could opt for an MA; however, additional scientific education and training will be more appropriate through an MS.
  2. Understand different program-related components and ask yourself:
    1. What experiences will I gain from the courses?
    2. How will my program enhance academic mentorship?
    3. Can I access any career guidance post-program completion?
    4. What kind of career goals will be fostered through my program?
  3. Consider the concentrations and courses the program type offers and whether those will help you grow.
  4. Closely observe your seniors, industry leaders, and other peers working in your desired field and what type of degree they hold. You must research and understand if the degree you want to pursue will lead you to academic success. 

Note: if you want to study for a terminal degree, you must pursue an MA. To take up a degree that leads to other academic programs, you would do well to pursue an MS.

degree by subject

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FAQ About MA vs. MS

Do companies care if it is an MA or MS?

Generally, employers only care a little about the type of degree. Both programs are equally recognized. However, there are some niche areas where employers expect jobseekers to hold a specific MA or MS. It is always advisable to do self-research and understand if either type of degree suits your professional goals.

Why should I do an MA?

Why should I do an MS?

Does an MA in science exist?

What is an MBA?