I would like to share a big factor I really had to consider when I applied for a scientific master's degree. Like many people, more than I realised, I started my application well into the summer, after my third year exams were out of the way. Those of you thinking it is too late to apply, it’s not! I wasn’t too sure what kind of course I was looking for. As I did more googling, I quickly became overwhelmed by the numerous course options available with similar titles that differed by just one word. The main thing I struggled to decide on was whether I wanted to do a taught or research master's degree. What were their differences and did they really matter? At the end I’d still get a postgraduate degree, right?
Remember, choosing to get a postgraduate qualification is a great way of enhancing your chances to rise above your competitors in the competitive science industry. That is why choosing the type of postgraduate programme (MSc or MRes) best suited to your career aims and preferred learning style is very important.
Essentially, an MSc primarily contains taught modules, whilst an MRes is more heavily research based and you learn through the projects. Whereas an MSc will generally have one large research project, which makes up the dissertation and one third of the course, an MRes will have two research projects and one third of the university credits will come from taught components.
The emphasis in an MRes is development of individual research skills, providing students with a deeper introduction to research methods and writing, which provides a strong foundation to build on for those considering a PhD. This isn’t to say to that you can’t follow-up an MSc with a PhD. An MSc does provide sufficient preparation, but if you are pretty certain research and academia is something you want to pursue, then an MRes should be seriously considered as it facilitates the transition. Another thing to point out is that many postgraduate funding bodies only award money to PhD students who have completed research programmes, something to keep in mind as finding PhD funding can be notoriously difficult. An MRes also gives you a better taste of what a PhD or a research career could be like, allowing you to work out if it is really for you.
I ended up choosing to study an MSc, because what I really wanted to get out of my degree was a broader understanding and theoretical expertise in multiple topics that I was interested in, instead of a more narrowed focus. Also I know that an MRes requires a lot more independent study which I felt I wasn’t quite ready for.
Another thing to consider is that there are more taught master's options across the country than research master's degree. A search on FindaMasters UK (www.findamasters.com) showed that for the Life and Chemical Sciences discipline there was 2372 MSc courses available for only 294 MRes. However, sometimes an MSc will have an MRes counterpart; same programme title and content focus, just with a different course structure. This has been increasing in recent years.
At the University of Bath, there are seven MSc and seven MRes on offer in the Biology and Biochemistry department. Six of the MSc share the same programme title to an MRes counterpart and thus are good examples for course structure comparison. Students doing an MRes in Biosciences, for example, can pick the same taught modules as those doing a MSc in Biosciences. Often MRes and MScs of the same program title or nature, will share compulsory units, again showing the similarity in overall course objective. Yet, across the two semesters MRes students can only pick two optional modules, whereas MSc choose seven, as they only do their project in the summer once the taught modules are out of the way. MSc have more assessment through examinations, coursework, dissertations and group projects which can feel very similar to an undergraduate course, which appealed to me but is not for everyone.
Due to this, MSc have more diverse modules, whilst an MRes can feel a lot more focused right away. I have been told by MRes students in my department that it can feel difficult prioritising optional and compulsory modules when there are the two big projects looming over them. They really had to develop a strong work ethic to not let the project interfere with the success of their taught components.
Neither degree is more prestigious or preferred by employees. Both will ultimately teach you how to be a good researcher and analytical thinker with strong transferable skills. It really just boils down to which type will make it easier for you to achieve your best work and keep you interested.