There are two main types of postgraduate masters courses – taught or research masters. If you are not sure which type of course to go for, we’ve set out below some of the main differences between the two, how to recognise which is which, and the main reasons for studying each type:

Taught Masters Courses

A taught masters course usually means, as the word suggests, that the majority of the course content is ‘taught’ – through lectures, seminars or discussions led by a course tutor or leader or visiting lecturer. There will still be lots of additional work to do, including essays or group work or other assignments, but the main delivery of the course is through the teaching of the individual elements. Many, but not all, taught masters courses are modular, with topics taught for a set amount of time, usually with an examination or some other form of assessment at the end of the module. Others spread the teaching in a topic or theme throughout the duration of the masters course. Often a modular course will include some ‘core’, usually compulsory courses which all students on the course must take, and then there will be a choice of modules from a given list of courses, either from within the same department, or sometimes from other departments within the same University.

Research Methods

Some taught masters courses will include course elements, sometimes compulsory, which include the words Research Methods in the title. This is usually to ensure that you gain the correct level academic research skills to ensure you can follow the rest of the course successfully, as well as giving you a taste of how research can be conducted in that subject area. If you find one or two of these listed in a course description, it does not mean that the course is a research masters. A taught masters course is likely to include a project (or sometimes a placement) relating to the course content, on which you will be expected to write a report. It will usually include some research, but again this does not make the course itself a research masters.

How to Recognise a Taught or Research Masters Course

A taught masters course can usually be recognised by qualifications such as MSc, MA, LLM, MBA etc – these do not include reference to research in the award itself. A research masters, on the other hand, can usually be identified either by the qualification MRes (Masters by Research) or MSc or MA by Research OR in the title of the course such as Research Methods in Social Sciences.

Research Masters Courses

Research masters usually include a few taught elements, mostly focussing on teaching specific research skills within the particular discipline. The rest of the course will consist of one or more substantial research projects.

Choosing the type of Masters Course

You would normally follow a taught masters course if you want to gain specific knowledge in the subject areas covered by the course – whether that is a wide ranging course, or a specific course in a particular focussed area. Most professionally oriented courses (unless particularly related to a research based career) are likely to be taught masters courses. This is also usually true of professionally accredited masters courses. You might find it helpful to consider a research masters course if you are specifically considering a PhD, or if you are wondering if a PhD would be right for you – undertaking a research project as part of a research masters may help you decide. A research masters can also be useful if you are considering a career where a research role may be an option, for example in a science or engineering related subject, but you don’t want to do a PhD.

If you are doing a masters course because you love the subject and want to learn more about it, you can also choose between a taught or research masters to reflect the way you prefer to study and how you prefer to learn. If you want to focus in depth in a particular area, then a research masters may be something to consider. It’s worth noting that, if you are thinking about a PhD, in the UK at least, some disciplines (in particular social science, arts and humanities) will require or at last prefer you to have either a masters with some research element or research skills included in the masters OR a research masters. A quick note on MPhils – very occasionally, a University will offer a separate MPhil, which is usually a masters course with a substantial research element. However, an MPhil is mostly likely to be the first part of a PhD and will therefore not be offered as a separate qualification. If you see two courses with similar titles within the same department, where one is offered as an MA or MSc, and the other as MA or MSc by Research, or an MRes, look at the course content closely to see what the difference is. We’d also recommend you check the kind of jobs and careers students from both types of courses have gone on to do, to see what would work best for you.

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