Course-based vs. Thesis-based Master's of Education Program

By Clare Kaufman

I have the following question: I am considering starting a Masters of Education but am having difficulty deciding between a course and thesis-based program. I have asked numerous colleagues for advice and their opinions vary. What advice can you offer as I begin my quest for a Masters program?

Before you decide on a Master's program, ask yourself this question: what do you hope to do afterwards? Generally speaking, students contemplating a Ph.D. or an academic career are better served with a thesis-based program. Pre-professional students might get more value out of the coursework, unless they are already involved in a particular career. If you've worked in the field and have a specialized function, you might benefit from the intensive focus of a thesis research project.

Both programs, by the way, lead to the same degree; your diploma won't indicate how you satisfied the academic requirements for the M.Ed. In deciding between the two sets of requirements, it helps to understand exactly what each entails. The academic, thesis-based master's differs from the professional degree in that it emphasizes original research and research methodology. Professional, course-based master's degrees are more structured and focus on the direct application of knowledge in teaching and educational administration contexts.

Another important consideration: do you intend to go on to a doctoral degree someday? If so, the thesis-based program offers better preparation for a Ph.D. program. Many course-based master's degrees are not designed with doctoral study in mind, and therefore don't offer certain training crucial for Ph.D. students--namely, research methodology. Moreover, these professional-style programs typically lead to a 'terminal' master's degree, meaning that the credits will not necessarily transfer to a doctoral program.

Aside from these considerations, opinions abound on the relative merits of thesis and non-thesis-based programs. Many argue that a couple courses cannot make up for the knowledge gained in the process of writing a thesis. This is probably true, but you'll have more time to pursue other learning opportunities. An internship, for example, can provide an applied education more relevant to your future career--not to mention networking opportunities. Unless you expect to work for an educational policy think tank, the benefits of an internship--networking and practical experience--might outweigh the benefits of a research project.

About the Author
Clare Kaufman is a freelance writer specializing in education and career advice. She has a graduate degree in English.