Taught vs research masters: What's the difference and which should I choose?

Talya Honebeek
Talya Honebeek
Last Updated: 24 May 2021 • 5 min read

So you’ve decided you want to do a masters degree and you have a rough idea of which courses you like the sound of and where you might want to study. So all that’s left to do now is apply, right?

Not quite. There’s actually one more decision to make, that you might not even have known about in the first place: would you rather study a taught or research masters?

Both course types involve a high level of academic study and independent work. However, a taught course offers a more familiar structure and a wider variety of subjects. It also offers more assessment modules than a research-based course, which puts more focus on in-depth research and writing.

Not sure which option to choose? We’ve got you covered.

Without further ado, here are the differences between a taught masters and a research masters, so you can choose the course that’s best for you.

Studying a masters abroad

1. What is a taught masters degree?

2. What is a research masters degree?

3. What are the main differences?

4. Which should you choose?

What is a taught masters degree?

As the name suggests, the majority of a taught masters course revolves around a series of modules, each with seminars, lectures and assignments or exams.

Most taught masters degrees will also generally require you to complete a final dissertation or major research project.

In other words, a postgraduate taught degree is like a continuation of an undergraduate degree.

The majority of masters-level programmes are taught courses, with the most popular options being the Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc), but there are also shorter postgraduate certificates and diplomas available.

What is a research masters degree?

A research masters is very different, both in terms of course content and structure.

Rather than taking a variety of modules, each with a mixture of exams and coursework, the progression of a research masters is more fluid.

You may start the course with an introductory module or set of classes focusing on developing your research and writing skills, but after that, you’ll likely have little to no timetabled hours.

Instead, you will be spending your time working independently on one or more extended research projects.

The Master of Research (MRes) and Master of Philosophy (MPhil) are the most common types of research masters degrees.

What are the main differences?

As you can already see, there are a lot of fundamental differences between taught and research postgraduate degrees, both in terms of academic focus and structure.

While in taught courses you will be learning alongside coursemates, a research-based degree entails a lot more independent work. So if you enjoy group work and bouncing ideas off other people in seminars, you may struggle with the lone-working element of a research masters.

Another key difference is the range of topics you will study. If you love variety and want to learn about lots of new things, a taught course will offer you more opportunities to broaden your horizons.

On the other hand, a research masters allows you to choose one topic and research it extensively for the duration of the course. Therefore you need to be sure that you’re ready to commit to your research for up to three years (depending on the course length).

Finally, though both degree types will generally require a 2:1 undergraduate degree - or equivalent working experience - there are some differences in the application process.

While for a taught masters application you need to show your enthusiasm and some existing knowledge of the relevant subject area, a research masters application requires more work.

You will need to submit a research proposal detailing the main questions you want to answer in your research, and what makes these questions original or significant in the first place. You will also need to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject and why you are the right person to do this research project.

Which should you choose?

When it comes to deciding between a taught or research masters, you should first ask yourself what motivates you to study and what you’ve enjoyed most about your undergraduate degree.

If your favourite part of your degree was researching and writing a dissertation, and you want to further develop your academic skills and potentially go on to do a PhD then it’s worth looking into research masters courses.

But if you have a specific career goal outside of academia, a taught masters will allow you to gain a broader range of skills and experience to enhance your CV.

One final consideration should be what are you best at? For example, if you struggle with essays but tend to do well in exams and presentations, then a taught masters with a wider variety of assessment modes might be a better fit for you.

At the end of the day, regardless of which option you choose, studying for a master’s degree is an invaluable experience and either course is sure to open a lot of doors for you further down the line.

Thinking about studying your taught or research masters course abroad? Let us help you find your perfect course and university today!

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Talya Honebeek
Written By
Talya Honebeek

Talya is a part-time journalism master's student living in North Yorkshire.


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