How to choose between a thesis and a non-thesis master’s degree?

STUDENT SUCCESS

Are you thinking about pursuing a master's degree? In the first of a two-part series, learn about the difference between a thesis and a non-thesis masters.

When choosing to pursue a master’s degree, the most difficult decisions students face are picking where to apply to and what program or specialization to apply for. But, for some universities, there is one more important decision to make – picking between a thesis and a non-thesis master’s degree.

Many students are uncertain about the type of master’s degree to go for and quickly feel overwhelmed by the varied, and sometimes contradictory, information available on the internet. But choosing a degree type that plays to your learning style and career goals is fundamental in helping you prepare for your future career.

In this piece, we share some advice that Dr. Josephine Nalbantoglu, Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at McGill University, offers to AGFE on the differences between thesis and non-thesis master’s degrees and how you can decide which is the best fit for you.

Non-thesis master’s degrees (also referred to as taught, professional, or course-based masters) are delivered through a series of lectures and seminars and assessed based on course-work, projects, and exams. At McGill University, for example, a non-thesis master’s requires students to complete up to 13 courses (as compared to 3-6 courses in a research-based master’s). In many universities, non-thesis students also have the opportunity to develop some research skills when working on a research paper, a project or a capstone (please note: not all non-thesis master’s programs have a project or capstone).

As implied by its name, a thesis master’s degree is research intensive. Students enrolling in this type of program are expected to develop a research proposal and complete a thesis under the close supervision of a faculty member at the university. The length required differs by university, with some going over 50 pages. Although the thesis masters does include some coursework, the classes are mainly focused on theory and research methods, and students spend most of their time reading, collecting data, analyzing results, and writing a thesis.

Choosing one over the other depends on your career objectives, but also on your personality, your skills, and your preferred working style.

Before deciding which route to take, please review the below checklists to see which option might be a better fit for you.

A thesis master’s degree is more suitable for me if:

  • I enjoy exploring a specific topic in depth

  • I have an inquisitive nature

  • I enjoy writing and reading a lot

  • I enjoy working independently

  • I would like to prepare myself for a career in research and development (R&D) and/or academia


A non-thesis master’s degree is more suitable for me if:

  • I enjoy learning about a wide range of topics within my field of interest

  • I enjoy attending and participating in courses and lectures

  • I enjoy group work and projects, rather than writing

  • I have a career goal in mind and I want to develop a specific set of skills for it

  • I am more comfortable applying what others have researched and tested

Although it is difficult to predict your career path early on, pursuing either of the master's degrees will not limit your career opportunities, it will just require you to focus on different things. So, whether you are choosing to go for a thesis or non-thesis master’s degree, the most important thing is that you don’t rush into the decision. You need to think seriously about what motivates you, what subject area you are most interested in, and what are your strongest skills. Consulting the university’s website and connecting with faculty and admission officers will also help you make this decision.

But, at the end of the day, it all goes back to what you want to do in your life.

Want to know what are the top 5 things you should know before applying for a master's degree? Read part 2 of this series, here.

Interested to hear more about this topic? Watch our interview with Dean Nalbantoglu here.

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