What Is the Difference Between an MS and an MPS?

Woman smiles at Georgetown commencement

Imagine, for a moment, that you were asked to design a master’s degree for busy professionals. What would it look like? What attributes would you want it to have? 

For starters, it would have to meet prospective students where they are. Many will have graduated from college several years ago and will have more work and family responsibilities than recent college graduates. This means their program must be flexible; it should be built around their schedule and enable them to choose between online courses and in-person classes offered after work and on weekends.

These “nontraditional” students are looking for a degree that will help them build their careers, either by advancing in their current field, moving to a related area, or pursuing a different profession entirely. They want practical knowledge and skills they can take immediately into the workplace. And they want to be taught by experts working in industry—leaders with real-world, industry-specific skills—as well as academics who can provide the necessary theoretical background.

What would you call this degree? As it turns out, there is already a name for it: the Master of Professional Studies, or MPS, and over the past several years has become one of the most popular postgraduate degrees in America.

An Emphasis on Practical Skills

A Master of Science degree, or MS, is a higher graduate-level degree that can be pursued after earning a bachelor's, while a Master of Professional Studies is a professional degree with a more applied focus. The MPS goes beyond the basic concepts of the profession and covers how professionals are able to apply these concepts in realistic situations. Beginning professionals in their careers often look for this type of program that helps them develop practical skills; those with more experience who want to explore new areas may also find an MPS beneficial.

The difference between a Master of Science and a Master of Professional Studies degree is that MS degrees are typically focused on research, while MPS degrees focus more on practical problem solving. Whereas an MS focuses on scientific principles and their application in technical fields, an MPS will teach you how to apply those principles in a business or professional environment.

‘Rigorous’ and ‘Thoughtful’

One example of an MPS is the Master’s in Applied Intelligence degree from Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, which offers 16 Master of Professional Studies degrees in four areas: Business & Management, Marketing & Communications, Real Estate & Urban Planning, and Technology & Security.

Retired U.S. Army Captain Dane Hughes graduated from the program in 2019 and is now Special Assistant and White House Liaison for the Secretary of Defense.

“The program teaches you how to look at different problems in a methodical way, to have an extra layer of thoughtfulness implemented in a rigorous process,” Hughes says. “As I’m confronted by complex problems, I can apply some of these lessons—not necessarily directly, but indirectly—to these fast-paced problems we deal with on a daily basis.”

MPS programs also connect students with faculty who work in the field. There are ample opportunities for networking, internships, and other career advancement benefits. Not only does this make for fascinating class discussions, but it also provides students with established industry contacts, an advantage when they look to advance in their careers.

And students learn from both their instructors and their peers. Megan Pierouchakos, a longtime HR executive and 2016 graduate of the Georgetown master’s program in Human Resources Management (HRM), says that there was a lot of mentoring going on in her HRM classes—and that she was one of the ones doing it. This was a two-way street for her as she benefited from learning firsthand what young professionals wanted from their HR leaders.

“That was a side benefit I wasn’t expecting,” says Pierouchakos, Vice President HR Programs, Talent Management and Development at the American Bankers Association. “I was helping to mentor and coach people who were building up their careers or were fresh out of undergraduate school.”

‘All Professions … All Over the Globe’

Often, students enter MPS programs with a fair amount of experience in a given field, but that experience is limited to a small part of what that field has to offer. An MPS can help these young professionals get a more big-picture view of their industry and learn about other positions they might want to pursue in the future. In addition, all of Georgetown’s MPS degrees include a required course in ethics, which is tailored to the kind of ethical questions that arise in that particular industry. This course reflects the Jesuit institution’s core values, which include Cura Personalis (“Care of the Person”) and People for Others. 

“My time at Georgetown really exposed me to industry professionals that I’m not used to seeing,” says John Nikiforakis, an Assistant Product Manager at PEO Soldier and graduate of the Master’s in Project Management program. “In the Department of Defense and government, you’re oftentimes just exposed to a limited number of professions. At Georgetown, you get all walks of life, all professions, from all over the globe. And that kind of experience is something you really can’t get anywhere else.”

Keeping up with those professions, their demands, and how these demands are changing is one of the responsibilities of Kristen Hodge-Clark, Ph.D., Senior Assistant Dean for Program Planning for the School of Continuing Studies. There was a time when program planners would simply ask industry leaders what they wanted in an MPS program and then go design one for them. Now the collaboration between the university and industry is closer and ongoing.

“We’re doing additional work in bringing in more industry voices,” including regular focus groups, Dr. Hodge-Clark says. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s what we’re imagining as a program that we think could be valuable. What should we do to tweak it to better suit the needs of your workforce?’”

It is these kinds of relationships, both within the School of Continuing Studies and between SCS and its industry partners, that make Georgetown’s MPS program meaningful and relevant.

“I love the fact that Georgetown is very much a community,” says Alison Francis, who graduated from the Human Resources Management (HRM) program in 2019 and is now Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Costco. “It’s not that they just talk about being in a community environment; they really do live it, and I found that very much in my experience with my classes, with my professors, and my classmates, even outside of class.”

Learn more