What is the Difference Between an MA Degree and an MS Degree?

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Graduate school lets you apply the knowledge you gained as an undergraduate to a higher level of study, but many students want to know more about the difference between an MA and MS degree. An MA is a Master of Arts, and an MS is a Master of Science. Both degrees generally take around two years to complete on a full-time basis, but there are a number of differences between the degrees, including the classes you take and what you choose to study.

Types of Majors

One of the main differences between the two types of graduate degree programs relates to the major that you choose. A Master of Arts applies to more artistic and cultural topics. You might earn an MA in history, liberal arts, criminal justice, English or a foreign language. Colleges that offer MS degrees only offer those degrees to students who study more scientific topics. You might earn an MS in engineering, chemistry, biology or another similar field. You typically cannot earn an MS in any field outside of science and engineering.

Courses Taken in the Program

Another difference between the two degrees is the type of courses offered in the program. If you want to complete an MS degree, you can expect to take a number of courses that require a large amount of research and technical skills. A computer science major will take classes that cover the basics of different programming languages, firewalls and other security features and the ins and outs of computer repair. Students working on an MA degree will usually take classes that require less technical skills. They might take courses on art history, the history of different cultures, language arts and behavioral sciences.

Fieldwork vs. Thesis

Another thing that is different between the two programs is the additional component that you take during your last year. Technical programs and MS programs usually offer some type of thesis or project for students. As a science major, you might study the effect of different substances on the human body and how those substances can cause a reaction. MA students may have the option of doing a smaller project that requires less research. For example, a fine arts student might do a series of paintings to demonstrate his or her skills. Some MA programs, including education programs, let students complete fieldwork during their last year.

Terminal Degree

One difference between an MA and MS degree that some students don't think of is whether the degree is a terminal one. A terminal degree is the highest type of degree that an individual can receive in his or her field. An MA is usually a terminal degree, while an MS degree prepares students for working on their doctoral degrees later. Many types of liberal arts studies culminate with an MA. Students studying historic preservation, fine arts and other topics cannot get a degree higher than an MA. Those studying scientific and technical topics can usually work on a PhD.

Both a Master of Arts and a Master of Science are graduate programs offered by colleges across the country. Students can finish their degrees in two years through most schools. The main difference between an MA and MS degree is that an MA applies to arts and humanities degrees and an MS applies to scientific and technical degrees.