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A Master of Arts (M.A., MA, A.M., or AM) from the Latin Magister Artium, is a type of Master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. The M.A. is usually contrasted with the M.S. or M.Sc. (both Master of Science) degrees. Those admitted to the degree typically study English, history, geography, communication, or other of the humanities, philosophy, social sciences, fine arts or (at some universities) nursing, museum studies or theology. The degree can be conferred in respect of passing examinations, in respect of research, or a combination of the two.
In Germany, the traditional equivalent of the postgraduate Master of Arts was the Magister Artium. This degree, which usually required 5 years of studies, did exist in former West Germany and in reunited Germany until 2010, but not in former East Germany where all degree courses led to Diplom degrees. Traditional Magister degrees were granted in social sciences and most of the humanities, with the exception of visual and performing arts such as music and theatre. The Magister Artium was either a double major degree, or a combination of one major and two minors. German postgraduate Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees were introduced in 2001. Therefore, the new Master of Arts and the old Magister Artium degrees existed side by side until the phase out of the old degrees in 2010. The new Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees together also require 5 years of studies, which is the reason why the new Master of Arts and the old Magister Artium degrees are considered equivalent.
In the Netherlands, the Master of Arts and the Master of Science degrees were introduced in 2002. Until that time, a single program that led to the doctorandus degree (or the ingenieur degree in the case of technical subjects) was in effect, which comprised the same course load as the Bachelor and Master programs put together. Those who had already started the doctorandus program could, upon completing it, opt for the doctorandus degree (before their name, abbreviated to 'drs.'; in the case of ingenieur, this would be 'ir.'), or simply use the Master's degree (behind their name) in accordance with the new standard (so, 'M.A.' or 'M.Sc.'). Since these graduates do not have a separate Bachelor's degree (which is in fact – in retrospect – incorporated into the program), the Master’s degree is their first academic degree.
The Polish equivalent of Master of Arts is "magister" (its abbreviation "mgr" is placed before one's name, like dr). At the technical universities one is awarded with inżynier (engineer) after three years and then with "magister" after completing another two years of study and graduating. Such persons use titles "mgr inż". In the 1990s, the M.A. programs usually lasting 5 years were replaced by separate 3-year bachelor's and 2-year master's programs. The degree is awarded in the arts (literature, foreign languages, etc.), natural sciences, mathematics, computer science fields, and economics. The completion of a research thesis is required. All master's degrees in Poland qualify for a doctorate program.
In Finland, Denmark and Norway, the master's degree is a combined taught/research degree, awarded after 2 years of studies after completing the bachelor's degree. The student is required to write a scientific thesis. This programme was earlier called a candidate degree, abbreviated as cand. and followed by a suffix denoting the subject of study - e.g. cand.philol.
The M.A. is typically a "taught" postgraduate degree, involving lectures, examination, and a dissertation based on independent research. Taught master's programs involve one or two years of full-time study. Many can be done part-time as well. Until recently, both the undergraduate and postgraduate master's degrees were awarded without grade or class (like the class of an honours degree). Nowadays however, master's degrees are normally classified into the categories of Fail, Pass, Pass with Merit or Pass with Distinction. This education pattern in United Kingdom is followed in India and many Commonwealth Nations.
In law, the standard taught degree is the Master of Laws (LL. M.), but certain courses may lead to the award of an M.A., MLitt, Master of Studies (MSt), and at Oxford, the Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL). These degrees are all considered substitutes to one another and are thus generally equivalent.
In the ancient universities of Scotland, the degree of Master of Arts is awarded in some universities as a first degree to undergraduates (see Master of Arts (Scotland)). The practice of awarding these degrees of Master of Arts without postgraduate examination or coursework is very ancient, but anomalous among modern universities.
The Master of Arts is awarded in Arts, Humanities, Theology and Social Sciences. However, some universities—particularly those in Scotland—award the Master of Letters (MLitt) to students in the Arts, Humanities, Divinity and Social Sciences.
The title of Master of Arts may also be awarded, in the case of the oldest British universities only, without further examination to those who have graduated as Bachelor of Arts and who have the requisite years' standing as members of the university or as graduates. This happens, in England, only at the universities of Oxford, four years after completing a bachelor's degree, and Cambridge, six years after the first term of study. It is also the case at the University of Dublin in Ireland.
The MLitt is a research degree at the University of Cambridge, where the Master of Philosophy (MPhil) is the name given to the standard one-year taught degree with a unique research element, in contrast to the use of MPhil at other institutions for a research degree.
In February 2011, Labour MP for Nottingham East, Chris Leslie, sponsored a private member's bill in Parliament, the Master’s Degrees (Minimum Standards) Bill 2010-12, in order to "prohibit universities awarding Master’s degrees unless certain standards of study and assessment are met". The Bill's supporters described the practice as a "historical anachronism” and argued that unearned qualifications should be discontinued in order to preserve the academic integrity of the taught MA. Further, they warned that the title gave Oxbridge graduates an unfair advantage in the job market.
Research by the universities watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, in 2000, showed that two-thirds of employers were unaware that the Cambridge MA did not represent any kind of post-graduate achievement involving study.
On 21 October 2011, the Master’s Degrees (Minimum Standards) Bill 2010-12 received its second reading. The Bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the end of the session, meaning it made no further progress.
In Canada and the United States, the Master of Arts (Magister Artium) and Master of Science (Magister Scientiæ) degrees are the basic graduate-level degrees in most subjects and may be entirely course-based, entirely research-based, or, more typically, a combination of the two.
Admission to a master's program is normally contingent upon holding a bachelor's degree. Some programs provide for a joint bachelor's and master's degree after about five years. Some universities use the Latin degree names, such as Artium Magister (A.M.) or Scientiæ Magister (S.M.). For example, Harvard University, Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown University use the degree abbreviations A.M. and S.M. for some of their master's degrees. A Master of Arts degree may be given in a scientific discipline, common at Ivy League universities, e.g., from Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Many universities offers Master of Arts degree programs, which are differentiated either as Thesis or as Non-Thesis programs. Usually, the duration for a Non-Thesis option is one to two years of full-time study. The period for a Thesis option may last longer, depending also on the required level of courses and complexity of the thesis. Sometimes, qualified students who are admitted to a "very high research" Master of Arts degree might have to earn credits also at the Ph.D.-level, and they may need to complete their program in about three years of full-time candidature e.g. at the universities Harvard in the US and McGill in Canada.
A thesis must be a distinct contribution to knowledge. It must demonstrate ability to plan and carry out research, organize results, and defend the approach and conclusions in a scholarly manner. The research presented must meet current standards of the discipline. Finally, the thesis must clearly demonstrate how the research advances knowledge in the field.