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

By Talya Honebeek• Last updated: Jan 9, 2024
Taught vs research masters: What's the difference and which should I choose?
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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 difference between taught and research masters, so you can choose the course that’s best for you.

Also Read: Canada vs USA for masters

What is a taught master's degree?

1. Taught masters meaning

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 masters taught degree is like a continuation of an undergraduate degree.

Also Read: 6 Masters degrees in Engineering Management that will change your life

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What is a research masters degree?

1. Research masters meaning

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.

Taught vs research masters

Taught masters and research masters are two distinct types of masters programs that offer different approaches to education and learning. Here are the main difference between taught and research masters:

1. Curriculum and structure

Taught masters are structured programs with a predetermined curriculum. Students take a set of modules or courses covering specific subject areas relevant to their field of study. These programs are more structured and organised, with clear learning outcomes. Unlike taught masters, research masters offer more flexibility in terms of the curriculum. Students have more freedom to design their research project within the scope of their field of study.

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2. Coursework

The focus of taught masters is on coursework, where students attend lectures, seminars, and workshops. They are assessed through exams, assignments, projects, and sometimes a dissertation or thesis. The centrepiece of a research master's program is the research project or thesis. Students are required to conduct independent research under the guidance of a supervisor or mentor.

3. Duration

Taught masters typically last one to two years, depending on the country and the program's requirements. Research masters may take longer to complete than Taught Masters due to the in-depth research and analysis involved.

3. Specialisation

Students often choose a specialisation within the field, but their coursework is determined by the university or department. Research masters are more research-oriented, with a significant emphasis on original research and exploration of a particular subject area.

4. Supervision

While students have access to academic staff for guidance and support, they generally have less individualised supervision than in research-focused programs. Research masters offer more individualised supervision and mentorship as students work closely with their research advisors throughout the process.

5. Employability

Taught masters are generally designed to enhance employability by providing students with practical skills and knowledge relevant to their chosen career path. Research masters are often considered a pathway to a Ph.D. or further research-based careers in academia or industry.

Here's a table summarising the key difference between taught and research masters:

AspectTaught MastersResearch Masters
CurriculumPredetermined coursework with set modulesResearch-oriented with thesis/research project
CourseworkFocus on attending lectures, seminars, and workshopsEmphasis on independent research and analysis
DurationTypically 1 to 2 yearsMay take longer due to research requirements
SpecialisationSpecialisation within the fieldMore freedom to design the research project
SupervisionLess individualised supervisionMore individualised supervision and mentorship
EmployabilityEnhances employability with practical skills and knowledgeA pathway to further research-based careers

Taught vs research masters: 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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Should I study a taught or research Masters?

Deciding between a taught or research master's program depends on your academic and career goals, as well as your personal preferences and strengths. Here are some factors to consider when making your decision:

1. Career aspirations

Consider your career goals and the type of role you wish to pursue after completing your master's degree. If you aim to work in a profession that values specialised knowledge and practical skills, a taught master's program may be more suitable. On the other hand, if you are interested in a career in research, academia, or a field that requires advanced research capabilities, a research master's program may be a better fit.

2. Interest in research

Reflect on your interest in research. Are you passionate about conducting independent research and contributing to the knowledge in your field? If research excites you and you enjoy the process of inquiry, a research master's program could be an excellent choice.

3. Program structure

Compare the structure and content of both types of programs. Taught master's programs typically involve a mix of lectures, seminars, and coursework, while research master's programs focus on a more significant research project. Assess which learning approach aligns better with your preferred style of study.

4. Academic Background

Consider your academic background and strengths. Research master's programs often require a strong academic record and a solid foundation in the chosen field of study, as the emphasis is on conducting original research. If your academic strengths lie in coursework and exams, a taught master's program may suit you better.

5. Time commitment

Evaluate the time commitment required for each type of program. Research master's degrees tend to be longer and more intense, as they involve substantial research and writing. Taught master's programs are usually shorter and may be more suitable if you wish to enter the job market sooner.

Take the time to research different programs, talk to current students and faculty members, and seek advice from academic advisors to make an informed choice that aligns with your aspirations.

Postgraduate taught vs research

Postgraduate education in the United Kingdom offers two main pathways

  • Postgraduate research programs
  • Postgraduate taught programs

Postgraduate research programs focus on independent and original research, where students delve deep into a specific research question or topic within their chosen field. They work closely with a research supervisor and complete a research thesis or dissertation to contribute new knowledge to their discipline. These programs are suitable for individuals pursuing careers in academia or research.

On the other hand, postgraduate taught programs emphasise structured classroom-based learning. Students follow a set curriculum, attending lectures, seminars, and practical sessions to gain specialised knowledge and practical skills. Assessment in these programs involves coursework, exams, and sometimes a dissertation or research project.

The choice between postgraduate research vs taught depends on individual interests and career aspirations. If you have a passion for conducting independent research and want to contribute to your field, a postgraduate research program might be the right fit. However, if you seek specialised skills and industry-focused expertise, a postgraduate taught program may be more suitable.

Can I do a PhD after taking a taught Masters?

Many students wonder if they can pursue a Ph.D. after completing a taught master's degree. The answer is yes, it is indeed possible. Universities and research institutions often welcome students who have successfully completed a taught master's program and wish to continue their academic journey by undertaking a Ph.D. program.

Completing a taught master's degree can serve as a stepping stone toward a research-based Ph.D. program. While some additional effort may be required to strengthen your research profile, many students successfully make the transition and go on to make significant contributions in their chosen fields of study.

Taught vs research masters: Fee difference

In general, Taught Masters programs tend to be more structured and may involve a higher number of taught modules or courses, which can lead to higher tuition fees. These programs often focus on providing practical skills and knowledge that are directly applicable to the job market, and the additional resources required for delivering coursework can contribute to higher fees.

On the other hand, while the fees for Research Masters can still be substantial, they might be slightly lower than Taught Masters in some cases. This is because Research Masters programs often have fewer taught modules, and students spend a significant portion of their time conducting research, which may require fewer resources compared to a more structured coursework-based program.

Frequently asked questions

Which degree is right for me in the UK?

If you prefer a structured and specialised curriculum with classroom-based learning, a taught Masters may be suitable. On the other hand, if you have a strong interest in conducting independent research and contributing to your field, a research Masters could be a better fit.

Is a taught Masters or research Masters better?

The choice between a taught Masters and a research Masters depends on your academic and career objectives. A taught Masters offers a structured curriculum with specific subject knowledge, while a research Masters focuses on independent research and academic inquiry.

What is the difference between taught and research masters?

The main difference between taught and research masters lies in their core focus. A taught Masters emphasises classroom-based learning, lectures, and assessments, providing specialised subject knowledge and skills. In contrast, a research Masters centres around conducting independent research, contributing to the existing knowledge in a field, and developing strong research skills.

Are Masters by research better?

A Masters by research offers an opportunity to engage in independent and in-depth research, making it ideal for students pursuing a career in academia or research-oriented professions. However, a taught Masters may suit those seeking specialised skills and industry-focused expertise. The decision should align with your aspirations and preferred learning style.

Why are research Masters cheaper?

Research Masters programs are often cheaper than taught Masters because they require less institutional resources.

Is a Masters by research a full Masters?

Yes, a Masters by research is considered a full Masters degree. It is a postgraduate qualification that requires the completion of a research project, dissertation, or thesis. Know someone considering postgraduate studies? Share the insights in our 'Taught vs Research Masters' article with them.

Refer a friend and help them make the right choice for their academic journey.

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

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