MPhil vs MSc – Differences Explained

On first glances, the difference between an MPhil and an MSc may appear marginal, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

While both degrees are a postgraduate Masters qualification, they’re designed for two opposite career paths – an MSc for a career in industry, and an MPhil for a career in research or on the way to a PhD. Learning the differences between the two forms of postgraduate study will allow you to make an informed decision about your next steps and offer a clearer path to your ideal career.

This page will give you an understanding of what an MPhil and MSc are, their differences, and ultimately, which of the two degrees is better suited for you.

What Is an MPhil?

An MPhil is an advanced postgraduate degree short for Master of Philosophy. The degree is typically undertaken after an undergraduate degree by those who wish to gain specialised knowledge in original research. Although discussed later, it’s important to distinguish between the two ways an MPhil may be undertaken as we will only focus on one of them for reasons you will see.

An MPhil can be undertaken as either:

  1. standalone degree lasting two years. Successful completion of this research degree will lead to being awarded a Master of Philosophy.
  2. precursor to a PhD programme. In these cases, a university first enrols a PhD student into an MPhil programme as a way of deciding whether their research skills are good enough for carrying out a PhD. After the research student’s first year, the student is examined and one of two outcomes occur:
    • (1) their research skills are considered suitable and their MPhil programme is upgraded to a PhD programme, or
    • (2) their research skills are considered unsuitable, but they have the opportunity to complete the second year of their MPhil programme to be awarded a Master of Philosophy.

While the MPhils from both routes will be identical, it’s likely that if you’re trying to weigh up the differences between an MPhil and an MSc, you would be more interested in the standalone MPhil route given its greater similarities to an MSc. Because of this, we’ll mainly focus on the standalone path in comparing an MPhil to an MSc. We recommend you read our full guide to an MPhil if you’re interested in undertaking one as a precursor to a PhD.

What Is an MSc?

An MSc is a Master’s degree short for Master of Science. Like an MPhil, they’re typically undertaken shortly after completing an undergraduate course such as a Bachelor’s degree. While MPhil courses are available in nearly all fields, MSc’s are exclusive to STEM-based subjects, such as engineering, physics and maths.

An MSc may sound like a specialist degree reserved for a few career paths, however, they’re a common Masters course taught in most universities. Regardless of your subject or university, an MSc is typically a one-year course and aims to increase your knowledge of specific topics within your field.

Difference between an MPhil and an MSc

MPhil vs MSc – Differences Explained

An MPhil and an MSc may seem similar – both are postgraduate Master’s degrees, both are typically undertaken after an undergraduate degree, and both are available to STEM students. Yet, there is a crucial difference between the two; and this difference will likely be the deciding factor in which degree is best for you.

This difference is your intended career path.

The degrees target two different professions; an MSc a profession in industry and an MPhil a profession in research. To make this possible, the degrees set out to provide you with a unique set of skills and specialised knowledge.

As an MSc is aimed at those wishing to develop a career in industry, it focuses on providing practical knowledge which has uses within the workplace. Therefore, while theoretical-related concepts may be taught, they will form a small part of your learning material with the focus instead on practical topics. For example, a civil engineering student may undertake an MSc in Construction Project Management; here, topics from resource planning to cost and risk management would be covered.

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Unlike an MSc, which although may contain research-based components depending on the university, an MPhil is almost always a research-only degree. As a result, the degree is mainly undertaken by those who wish to pursue a research-based profession.

As discovered earlier, an MPhil may also be undertaken as a precursor to a PhD by those who wish to have a career in advanced research or academia. Where an MSc focuses on broader knowledge around several specialised subject areas, an MPhil focuses on a specific research question, within a specialised topic. In other words, it goes a level of specialisation deeper than an MSc. For example, had the previous civil engineering student opted for an MPhil instead of an MSc, their study and therefore resulting knowledge may have centred around ‘how risk management may better be managed through the use of technology’. It’s for this reason most consider an MPhil a ‘mini-PhD’ and an MSc as a specialised ‘addon’ to an undergraduate degree.

MPhil vs MSc: Table Summarising Differences

MPhil (Master of Philosophy) MSc (Master of Science)
Degree Type Master’s degree Master’s degree
Degree Form Advanced postgraduate research degree Postgraduate science degree
Studying Mode Independent research project Taught course
Assessment Mode Thesis (written) and viva voce (oral) Exam and coursework
Subject Availability All subjects STEM & business subjects
Duration 2 years (full time) 1 year (full time)
Ideal Career Path Working in research or advancing to a PhD for accessing careers in advanced research or academia Working in industry

Is an MPhil Better than An MSc?

Academically, an MPhil is the most advanced Masters qualification you can obtain. For this reason, it sits above an MSc but below a PhD in terms of course difficulty, and ‘academic prestige’ if such a thing even exists.

However, you would be mistaken to think this makes an MPhil degree better or more valuable than an MSc degree. In truth, we’ve seen how both degrees meet the different long-term requirements of the postgraduate student undertaking them. Therefore, the better question would be ‘which degree is better suited for you?’.

If your goal is to gain practical knowledge which you can apply to your industry, then an MSc is likely for you. On the other hand, if your goal is to have a profession in education or research, an MPhil will likely be the better option, especially as a precursor to a PhD degree.


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