UK masters programmes: information for prospective students

Masters degrees in the UK have a confusing range of names (e.g. MA, MLitt, MPhil, BPhil).

This is partly due to the fact that in Oxford and Cambridge MA is a courtesy title, given to those who have a BA, a few years after graduation, and in Scotland it is given to students after their fourth year of undergraduate study, in comparison to the normal three year programme in the UK. Hence there are no postgraduate programmes called ’MA’ at Oxford or Cambridge or in Scotland - but there are Masters programmes with different titles.

Also several universities have more than one Masters-level qualification. For example, London and Birmingham have both an MPhil and an MA; and Manchester, Liverpool and UEA all have MA and MRes programmes.

Consequently the names can be misleading.There are, however, a few basic distinctions to bear in mind:

  • Whether the programme is one year or two years.
  • Whether the programme is a ’general’ degree, or a ’specialised’ one (e.g. Philosophy of Mind, Indian Philosophy, Metaphysics, etc.). A general degree does not mean that one cannot specialise to at least some extent; however a specialised one commits the student to a particular area of study in advance, normally drawing on the specialisation within the department.
  • Whether, or to what extent, the programme involves taught modules, and if so, what the balance of taught modules and dissertation is. All Masters degrees involve writing a thesis; however, the proportion of the programme that the thesis occupies can range from about a third to 100%. Some universities explicitly offer both ’taught’ Masters and ’research’ Masters programmes; some run different taught programmes, with one aimed at students who simply want to do one (or one more) year of philosophy, and another aimed at students who intend to pursue a PhD afterwards. Programmes in the latter category tend to focus more on research skills and/or have a larger thesis component.
  • What kind of undergraduate-level (BA, BSc) qualification is required. Some programmes require a BA in Philosophy, or at least an undergraduate degree with a significant philosophy component (e.g. English & Philosophy, or PPE). Others do not. Some programmes have specific modules that must be taken by students without an undergraduate philosophy degree.