What kind of master’s degree is right for me? | Ontario Agricultural College

What kind of master’s degree is right for me?

Posted on Thursday, March 14th, 2024

Written by Jadyn Koehler, OAC undergraduate student

students in the rural planning masters program are discussing a project in a classroom
OAC Rural Planning Students

Deciding on a master’s program in food, agriculture, communities or the environment can be overwhelming. You might be asking yourself:

  • “What’s the difference between a course-based master’s program and thesis-based?” 
  • “What careers can I pursue with a master’s in agriculture and food?”
  • “What is a major research project (MRP)?”
  • “Do I need to find a faculty advisor?”

This article will list the key differences between a master’s by coursework and a master’s by thesis, to help you decide which is the best fit for you!

Do you want to complete more courses or research in your master’s program?

In both course-based and thesis-based master’s programs, you will be required to take some graduate level courses, but the main difference between them is how many. Course-based programs typically fall under one of two frameworks for completion: 

  1. A strictly coursework program: you must enroll in certain courses to earn your degree, or 
  2. A coursework + major research project (MRP) program: you must complete several courses in addition to a MRP to graduate. 

It may be helpful to think of a MRP as a “mini-thesis” of sorts; the scope of the project is smaller than a thesis and does not need to be a new contribution to the discipline, but it still needs to be well-researched and academically strong!

Thesis-based programs, on the other hand, are research intensive. The small number of courses you complete are more tailored to your specific research interests. To graduate, you need to complete and defend a thesis that contributes something new to your discipline. Much of your time is spent conducting research and working towards this goal.

Discover course-based and thesis-based masters programs from the Ontario Agricultural College

Complete your master’s degree in months vs. years

Another big difference between course-based and thesis-based is the length of the program. Course-based master’s programs typically take around 1 year to complete (3-4 semesters of full-time study), while thesis-based programs are a longer commitment and are often completed in 2 years (5-6 semesters of full-time study). Remember that these are general timelines for both types of programs, but individual completion times can vary based on personal circumstances, part-time semesters, and more.

Finding an advisor for your master’s degree

The majority of the course-based master’s offered by OAC do not require you to find an advisor prior to applying. In most cases, you can find an advisor after you have been accepted into, or started, your program. 

If you’re applying to a thesis-based program, in most cases you are required to find a faculty advisor willing to advise you on your studies and research before submitting your application. Some exceptions (thesis-based master’s that don’t require students to have an advisor before applying) are the Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) and the MSc in Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (FARE) programs. 

How to fund your master’s degree

A big draw of thesis programs is that students are often able to receive funding to help them pay for their graduate studies. Many thesis-based programs in the OAC offer master’s students a minimum stipend for each year of their program (the exact amount or if it is offered varies by department). Thesis students are also eligible for paid roles such as Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTAs), Graduate Research Assistantships (GRAs), and Graduate Service Assistantships (GSAs), and can apply for a plethora of different scholarships ranging from internal to government funded awards. 

Alternatively, course-based master’s programs are often self-funded, meaning that no guaranteed funding is offered by the department and students are largely responsible for funding their studies themselves. There are still a number of scholarships available for course-based master’s students and other opportunities for funding, such as bursaries, that can make pursuing a course-based program feasible and affordable for many students.

You can learn more about funding here: How to Finance Your Degree: Guide to Awards and Master’s Program Scholarships | Ontario Agricultural College

More comprehensive vs more specific

With both program types, you will specialize your learning in a specific area by choosing a field to focus on and will often take multiple courses on this particular field. For example, OAC’s Department of Animal Biosciences offers four different specializations within their master’s programs; a student specializing in Animal Nutrition would therefore take courses such as Advanced Animal Nutrition, Metabolism, and Techniques in Animal Nutrition Research in both the thesis and course-based programs. However, students in the course-based program are also required to take courses outside of their specialization, while thesis students typically focus on their main specialization. Thesis programs = more focused. Course-based programs = more comprehensive.

Course-based master’s programs allow students to gain a broader understanding of their chosen topic area, and with the addition of experiential learning opportunities such as workplace projects and internships, can help students prepare to enter the workforce and begin building a career in their chosen field. 

With a thesis-based program, students take that a step further and are able to delve really deeply into their area of research as they complete their thesis, effectively preparing them for future careers in research or to continue their educational journey in a PhD program, for example. 
However, remember that everyone’s path is their own, and both a course-based or thesis-based program can properly prepare you for your future career and further education by giving you transferable skills, hands-on experience, and a place in the close-knit OAC community at the University of Guelph! 

You may want to consider a course-based master’s program if:

  • You want a program that allows you to explore your subject area and field through a focus on coursework rather than research
  • You want a program that you can complete quickly (only 1 year)
  • You don’t necessarily want to find or decide on a faculty advisor right away
  • You are willing to take on the responsibility of self-funding your studies
  • You want to gain a comprehensive understanding of your subject area and field while completing courses and engaging in experiential learning opportunities

You may be interested in a thesis-based master’s program if:

  • You want a program that is more research-intensive with less coursework requirements
  • You want a longer program (2 years vs 1)
  • You are willing to find a faculty advisor before applying to your program
  • You would like the opportunity to receive funding during the completion of your program
  • You want to learn really deeply about a specific topic while conducting your own research, and eventually write and defend a thesis

About Jadyn Koehler (she/her)

Jadyn is a motivated 4th year student at the University of Guelph currently working on completing her undergraduate degree in the Bachelor of Arts and Sciences (BAS) program with minors in History and Nutritional and Nutraceutical Sciences. She is passionate about learning, nutrition, and animals, and hopes to pursue a graduate degree (MSc) in the field of nutritional sciences next year.

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