What’s the Difference between a Masters and a Masters?

After a day in London away from the department for the “Kick-off” meeting of this year’s Astronomy Grants Panel I find myself back in lovely sunny Cardiff with a mountain of things to catch up on: exams to set, forms to fill in, postgraduate interviews to arrange, forms to fill in, references to write, forms to fill in, lectures to prepare, oh and some forms to fill in. I’ll therefore keep this brief before grabbing a bite to eat and heading off to the department for an afternoon in the office.

Quite a few times recently, current and prospective students (or parents thereof) have asked me what the difference is between an MSc and an MSci or equivalent (which, at least in Cardiff, exists in various flavours according to the specialism, i.e. MPhys, MChem, etc). I have to admit that it’s all very confusing so here’s my attempt to explain.

The main distinction is that the MSc “Master of Science” is a (taught) postgraduate (PG) degree, usually of one year’s duration, whereas the MPhys etc are undergraduate (UG) degrees usually lasting 4 years. This means that students wanting to do an MSc must already have completed a degree programme (and usually have been awarded at least Second Class Honours)  before starting an MSc.

Undergraduate students wanting to do Physics in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, for example, can opt for either the 3-year BSc or the 4-year MPhys programmes. However, choosing the 4-year option does not lead to the award of a BSc degree and then a subsequent Masters qualification;  graduating students get a single qualification.

It is possible for a student to take a BSc and then do a taught MSc programme afterwards, perhaps at a different university, but there are relatively few MSC programmes for Physics  in the UK because the vast majority of students who are interested in postgraduate study will already have registered for 4-year undergraduate programmes. That’s not to say there are none, however. There are notable MSc programmes dotted around, but they tend to be rather specialist; examples related to my own area include Astronomy and Cosmology at Sussex and Astrophysics at Queen Mary. The only MSc programme we have in my department is in Biophotonics. To a large extent these courses survive by recruiting students from outside the UK because the market from home students is so small. No department can afford to put on an entire MSc programme for the benefit of just one or two students.

So why does it matter whether one Masters is PG while the other is UG? One difference is that the MSc lasts a calendar year (rather than an academic year). In terms of material covered, this means it contains 180 credits compared to the 120 credits of an undergraduate programme. Typically the MSc will have 120 credits of courses, examined in June as with UG programmes, followed by 60 credits worth of project work over the summer, handed in in September.

The reason why this question comes up so frequently nowadays is that the current generation of applicants to university (and their parents) are facing up to fees of £9K per annum. The cost of doing a 3-year BSc is then about £27K compared to £36K for an MPhys. When rushing through the legislation to allow universities to charge this amount, the Powers That Be completely forgot about PG programmes, which have accordingly maintained their fees at a similar level. For example, the MSc Astronomy at Sussex attracts a fee of about £5K for home students and about £15K for overseas students. These levels are roughly consistent with the UG fees paid by existing home students (approx £3.5K per annum, bearing in mind that you get 1.5 times as much teaching on an MSc compared to a year of an MPhys).

Being intelligent people, prospective physicists look at the extra £9K they have to pay for the 4th year of an MPhys and compare it with the current rate for an entire MSc and come to the conclusion that they should just do a BSc then switch. This seems to be not an unreasonable calculation to make.

However, there are some important things to bear in mind. Firstly, unlike UG programmes, the fee for PG programmes is basically unregulated. Universities can charge whatever they like and can increase them in the future if they decide to. See, for example, the list at Cardiff University which shows that MSc fees already vary by more than a factorof four from one school to another. Incidentally, that in itself shows the absurdity of charging the same fee for UG degrees regardless of subject…

Now the point is that if one academic year of UG teaching is going cost £9K for future students, there is no way any department can justify putting on an entire calendar of advanced courses (i.e. 50% more teaching at an extremely specialist level) for half tthe  income per student. The logical fee level for MSc programmes must rise to a mininum of about 1.5 times the UG fee, which is a whopping £13.5K (similar to the current whopping amount already paid by overseas students). It’s therefore clear that you cannot take the current MSc fee levels as a guide to what they will be in three years’ time, when you will qualify to enter a taught PG programme. Prices will certainly have risen by then.

Moreover, it’s much harder to get financial support for postgraduate than undergraduate study.  MSc students do not qualify for student loans as undergraduates do, for example. Also the MSc fee usually has to be paid in full, up front, not collected later when your income exceeds some level. Some PG courses do run their own bursary schemes, but generally speaking students on taught PG programmes have to find their own funding.

In summary I’d say that, contrary to what many people seem to think,  if you take into the full up-front fee and the lack of student loans etc, the cost of a BSc + MSc is  already significantly greater than doing an MPhys, and in future the cost of the former route will inevitably increase. I therefore don’t think this is a sensible path for most Physics undergraduates to take, assuming that they want their MSc to qualify them for a career in Physics research, either in a university or a commercial organization, perhaps via the PhD degree, and they’re not so immensely rich that money is no consideration.

The exception to this conclusion is for the student who wishes to switch to another field at Masters level,  to do a specialist MSc in a more applied discipline such as medical physics or engineering. Then it might make sense, as long as you can find a way to deal with the increased cost.

In conclusion, though, I have to say that, like many other aspects of Higher Education in the Disunited Kingdom, this system is a mess. I’d prefer to see the unified system of 3 year UG Bachelor degrees, 2-year Masters, and 3-year PhD that pertains throughout most of contintental Europe. To colleagues there our two types of Masters degree and the funding anomalies arising from them look like a complete mess. Which is what they are.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out an even worse anomaly. I did a 3-year Honours degree in Natural Science at Cambridge University for which I was awarded not a BSc but a BA (Bachelor of Arts). A year or so later this – miraculously and with no effort on my part – turned into an MA. Work that one out if you can.

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15 Responses to “What’s the Difference between a Masters and a Masters?”

  1. Steve Warren Says:

    Didn’t you have to pay for your MA? I’m sure I had to pay the sum of five guineas (seriously!).

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t remember, but I don’t think I paid anything. I think because I was a scholar I got it for free, or something.

      • Its even more bizarre now. I graduated from Cambridge with a BA and MSci on the same day. Then three years later the BA changed to an MA.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Oxbridge were awarding degrees before the sciences differentiated away from philosophy, which is why they give BA and MA in all subjects including science. Whether this has changed recently I don’t know, but it’s a change I would regret because it is harmless and gives a nice excuse to explain.

        As for their no-effort upgrade from BA to MA, the explanation must again lie in history, but I don’t know it. Long ago you got your first degree from by taking three subjects (the tripos, hence trivial), grammar (not meaning what it does today), logic and rhetoric; then got a higher degree by taking the remaining four subjects, the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. (Then – and only then – might you be let loose on theology…) So there was no free upgrade in mediaeval times, and how and why it crept in would be of interest to me. Supposing that degree standards at Oxbridge are no different from anywhere else, the passage from Bachelors to Masters should be no different from anywhere else and in this case those universities should change to match majority usage.

        Anyone know the history?

  2. Phil Uttley Says:

    Good points. Last year at my old university, we told the first UCAS cohort to face the new fees that the MPhys/BSc choice would likely not make any difference to what they ended up paying back. The reason is that, given the interest on the loan and the rate of payback as a fraction of income, students would have to end up earning ~70K per year to ever pay back the loan within the time limit (25 years I think). Since there is a fixed time limit and the payment rate scales with income and not amount borrowed, it makes sense then to borrow *as much as possible*, because you will likely not come close to paying back 3 years worth, let alone 4 years worth of loans. For the same reason, it makes no sense for parents to pay some fraction of the fees up front, unless they pay most of them – otherwise they are just giving the money to the government without affecting the amounts their children will pay back!

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, the masters degree structures in Britain need rationalising, and the Bologna system (3 years for a bachelor’s degree, 2 years for a master’s, and 3 for a PhD) would be a sensible reform. Perhaps the complexity of the different fees will act as an incentive to government to move on this once the new fee system for undergraduate courses settles in (though United Kingdom governments have ignored the issue for close to two decades so far).

    A move to a two-year master’s degree, were it to happen in Britain, would change the character of university education significantly. A serious research project requiring the full-time equivalent of about a year would give master’s graduates with proper experience of research, including practical research skills. It might also reduce the popularity of PhD study if people could get a serious taste of research on a master’s degree. Universities offering master’s courses would have to be able to carry out both the teaching and the research project supervision (although I suspect some institutions would give it a go without the resources).

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve long thought that we need more and better Masters graduates and fewer PhDs. But unless there are bursaries for Bologna-style MScs how many will actually take them?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, that’s my view. I would expect industry and business would find the analytical skills developed on a two-year master’s degree useful, and they might not spout the nonsense about graduates being “overspecialised” or “overqualified” that they sometimes do for people with PhDs.

      The issue of funding would be critical. Would research councils be willing to offer significant funds, or would students be expected to fund themselves from loans if the loans system were offered to them at master’s level?

  4. Sic transit gloria mundi.

  5. “I’d prefer to see the unified system of 3 year UG Bachelor degrees, 2-year Masters, and 3-year PhD that pertains throughout most of contintental Europe.”

    While harmonizing degrees within Europe is perhaps a desirable goal, in many countries the means which have been chosen to this end leave much to be desired. Also, although the lengths of the studies for the degree might be nominally the same, the actual amount of time needed and the level of studies can vary quite a bit.

    • In the old days, one knew that the various schemes weren’t comparable, so if one was really interested in what the degrees mean, one had to do some research into the requirements in that country etc. Now, things are only slightly more similar, but the similar names and nominal times give the impression that all degrees mean the same thing, which is not the case.

  6. Wasn’t it common in the past in the UK to award some sort of master’s degree as a consolation price for someone who dropped out of doing the doctorate?

    • telescoper Says:

      MPhil doesn’t always mean PhD (failed). It is possible to do an MPhil degree by research, examined by a thesis in the same way as a PhD. Some students elect to take this qualification as a 1-year research degree. However, it is common practice for students registering for a PhD degree to be enrolled first on an MPhil degree. Since the first year is probationary, satisfactory performance is needed to transfer from the MPhil to the PhD at the end of Year 1. Failure to do so may lead to the student having to write up for an MPhil. It is also possible for a student who studies for a PhD and submits a thesis to be awarded an MPhil at the end of the viva if they don’t satisfy the examiners that they have reached the necessary level for the award of a doctorate.

      • I realize that this isn’t always the case, but since it sometimes is—especially when awarded after a viva when the candidate was never enrolled in the corresponding course—does it give the degree a bad impression in general, in the sense that most people don’t want to win the Oscar for the best adapted screenplay: there is nothing wrong with it per se, but the fact that it is often given as a consolation prize taints it somewhat.

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