Key differences between taught vs research master’s degrees

SOURCE: Brendan Smialowski / AFP
Before deciding which programme route to take, students should decide whether a taught or research master's degree would suit them best.

By U2B Staff 

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According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs requiring a master’s degree are projected to increase by 18% from 2012 to 2022. Having to choose from a wide range of master’s degrees can sometimes be overwhelming, especially with a variety of courses being available, with multiple specialisations to select from per subject. Another important choice to make is what type of master’s is best suited for you. 

All master’s degrees can be divided into two general camps: taught and research. Which will provide you with a more immersive experience? What is the difference in the subject matter? Which will better prepare you for a PhD?

It’s good to ask yourself these questions and learn the differences before making a decision. Although these distinctions are not absolute and many courses even involve traits of both, the course description for any master’s programme is likely to highlight which is more dominant in the course. 


What are the main differences?

The main difference between the two is the level of independence during studies. Taught programmes follow a similar format to an undergraduate degree, and will include things like lectures, seminars, and workshops, or lab lessons. Taught programmes can usually be completed in 12 months full-time, or 24 months part-time.

Students are still required to do independent research and study on their own time, but they will receive ample guidance from professors and lecturers. Examples of a taught master’s include a master of arts or master of science degree, along with postgraduate certificates and diplomas. 

Research programmes usually have very few, if any, taught-classes. For those that prefer the idea of intensive research and a more independent approach to working towards a master’s degree without the constraints of attending scheduled lectures, a research master’s would be the best option. 

A student’s focus will be on large projects or a dissertation based solely on independent research. Students are usually paired with a specialised supervisor who will guide learners throughout their degrees, on hand for help.

Also known as a master of philosophy (MPhil), these programmes usually take 18-36 months full-time, or 36-48months part-time to complete.


What are the similarities?

A research master’s degree is generally worth the same number of credits as a taught master’s degree. As mentioned earlier, both may also include elements that incorporate teaching methods of both taught and research.

For example, a research master’s may involve undertaking an introductory taught module. This could be for the purpose of advancing subject knowledge or providing a set of research techniques to utilise throughout a student’s programme or future career.

A taught master’s will still include a large research component. This is because all postgraduate programmes culminate in a final thesis, for which students will undertake an individual project of some sort.

Which is best for you?

Almost any subject can be pursued through taught master’s degrees, which means students will generally have a wider choice of courses to choose from. It also follows a similar schedule to a bachelor’s programme, meaning students who take this route will have a better idea of what to expect.

Taught master’s are usually better options for those looking to improve employability by gaining advanced knowledge of a subject. This is especially true for those with a specific career in mind that requires a specific qualification.

Research master’s programmes are generally seen as a way of getting into academia. Many students that decide to study a master of research or master of science by research do so in order to progress to a doctorate level and gain a Ph.D.

A research master’s can give students more freedom and flexibility to manage their own time and workload, studying the exact areas and topics they are passionate about. It can also give a head start to those looking to pursue a career where strong research skills are essential.