Answer: There is no standard difference between a master of arts (MA) in communication and a master of science (MS) in communication. As with any degree, programs and curricula vary by school. Any differences one may find between an MA program and an MS program will be a result of the programs themselves (e.g., specific requirements, focus areas, curriculum), not the degree type. When comparing an MA or MS to a Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in communication, however, there is a clear distinction. Master of Professional Studies programs tend to focus on applied communication, while MA and MS programs can be either theoretical or applied in nature. No matter the degree, students should be sure to research individual programs thoroughly to find the one that best aligns with their academic and professional goals.
Students researching master’s in communication programs will find three different degree types available: MA, MS, and MPS. With no clear difference between a master of arts and a master of science, students are better off thinking of these two degrees as one type, and master of professional studies as another. MPS programs are typically focused on applied communication, which results in coursework that has a greater emphasis on professional skill development as opposed to communication theory and research methods. While these programs may still teach underlying theories and research methodologies, it is to illustrate how these principles are used in professional settings. Common focus areas for MPS programs include public relations, branding, integrated marketing communications, and strategic communication.
On the other hand, MA and MS programs can be theoretical, applied, or a hybrid of both, depending on their particular focus. This means they may cover areas that an MPS program would not. For example, a master of arts or master of science could focus on communication studies or interpersonal communication, which are topics typically not found in a master of professional studies program.
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Master of Arts (M.A.) vs. Master of Science (M.S.)
While there may have been a clear distinction between them at one point in history, MA and MS in communication programs are fairly similar today, with often no discernable differences to separate the two degree types. Differences between a master of arts in communication and a master of science in communication vary from program to program, and typically reflect a difference due to program specifics (e.g., curriculum, focus of faculty research, university mission or values, etc.) rather than degree type (MA vs. MS).
In some cases, an individual school or program might offer both degree types. It is only in these particular instances when meaningful differences can be found. For example, Murray State University currently has a Master of Arts and a Master of Science in Organizational Communication. What differentiates the two degree paths is that the master of arts requires a thesis to complete, while the master of science requires additional electives and a final examination as its capstone requirement.
However, this difference cannot be applied across all programs. As an illustration, the University of North Texas and University of Utah both offer a master of arts and a master of science in communication. For these programs, the distinguishing factor is foreign language proficiency. To earn a master of arts at either of these institutions, the graduating student must illustrate proficiency in a foreign language or have taken at least two years of a foreign language. The MS degree programs do not include this requirement.
With no standard difference between an MA and MS, students are better off researching individual programs and evaluating each based on their particular academic and professional interests. For example, students who intend to pursue a doctoral degree after earning their master’s should strongly consider a program that allows them the option of completing a thesis, as some Ph.D. programs require a master’s thesis for admission. Conversely, students looking to advance or change their career may want to consider a program with an applied project capstone that they can use on their resume post-graduation.
Master of Professional Studies vs. Master of Arts and Master of Science
Though there is little difference between a master of arts and a master of science, there is a clear distinction between the two degrees and a master of professional studies. While MA and MS programs might focus on either theoretical or applied communication, emphasizing social scientific research or professional skill development (or both, in the case of “hybrid” programs), MPS programs are almost always applied. This means that the primary goal of the degree is to prepare students to be leaders in the workforce, as opposed to preparing them for Ph.D. study and careers in academia.
As a result, master of professional studies programs tend to focus on topics like public relations, strategic communication, corporate communications, integrated marketing communications, branding, training and development, and human resources management. Unlike a master of arts or master of science, an MPS is less likely to require a thesis. The following list includes examples of schools that currently offer MPS programs in the field of communication:
- Georgetown University — MPS in Public Relations and Corporate Communications
- Georgetown University — MPS in Integrated Marketing Communications
- Georgetown University — MPS in Design Management and Communication
- Missouri State University — MPS in Applied Communication
- Penn State University — MPS in Strategic Communication
- The City College of New York — MPS in Branding and Integrated Communications
For more on the differences between theoretical, applied, and “hybrid” programs, check out our Guide to Theoretical vs. Applied Master’s in Communication Programs.