What is the difference between an MA, an MS, and a PhD?

Grad School Admissions

What's the difference between an MA, an MS, and a PhD? (Pictured: mortar board and diploma)

Prospective graduate schools students come across a wide array of potential degrees: MA, MS, PhD, MEd, MHA, MFA, MPP … the list goes on and on. What do they all mean?

Here are the basic differences between the three most common types of graduate degrees in the United States—the MA, the MS, and the PhD.

MA

Abbreviation for Master of Arts. An MA is among the most basic graduate degrees you can get. An MA typically takes 1-2 years to earn and is usually awarded in an arts & humanities discipline, such as English or History.

More information on MA degrees from the U.S. Department of Education: Structure of the U.S. Education System: Master’s Degrees

MS (or M. Sci, M.Sc)

Abbreviation for Master of Science. Like an MA, an MS is a basic graduate degree that typically requires 1-2 year of study. However, an MS is usually awarded in the sciences, such as Physics or Biology.

More information on MS degrees from the U.S. Department of Education: Structure of the U.S. Education System: Master’s Degrees

PhD

Abbreviation for Philosophiae Doctor, translated to Doctor of Philosophy. The PhD is the highest academic degree awarded in the U.S. educational system. Earning a PhD can take anywhere from 3 years to a decade or more and is primarily a research degree, meaning that original research must be done in order to earn it. Note that the degree isn't awarded upon completion of the research, but rather upon a successful presentation and defense of the research report, or dissertation.

More information on the PhD degrees from the U.S. Department of Education: Structure of the U.S. Education System: Research Doctorate Degrees.

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