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What is a Master of Liberal Arts?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

To obtain a Master of Liberal Arts degree, or MLA, a student must first complete a bachelor's degree. Once the student has finished the undergraduate degree, he or she may begin the graduate studies necessary to obtain a Master of Liberal Arts degree. The course of study varies from institution to institution, but most MLA degrees concentrate on a variety of disciplines rather than a specific area of coursework like most graduate degrees. A Master of Liberal Arts degree offers flexibility in coursework and scheduling, as the degree itself is often targeted by adults in the workplace who may need to take night classes.

Unlike most master's degrees, the Master of Liberal Arts degree does not force the student to study one particular area of interest and become highly specialized in it. The degree instead encourages students to study a variety of fields to encourage development of ideas and to expand knowledge in particular areas of interest. It was initially created at Wesleyan University for the benefit of teachers, and it went against the grain of the educational constraints of the time. Teachers were encouraged to expand their knowledge bases to both improve themselves and to have more to offer their own students.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Some Master of Liberal Arts programs today offer more focused instruction beyond the basic core classes. The student can begin exploring different fields, then hone in on a more specific field he or she finds interesting. A student could, for example, begin studying biology, sociology, history, and literature. He or she could then decide history was the most compelling discipline and decide to focus more on that particular field.

An interesting facet of the liberal arts degree is the fact that it is not necessarily pursued to enhance career goals or to seek advancement in the workplace. Some candidates simply seek to better understand the world around them, or to encourage higher level thinking. While some teachers or professors may pursue the degree to boost a resume or become more valuable to the institution for which they work, many candidates take part in a Master of Liberal Arts Degree for his or her own edification, understanding, or desires for self-improvement.

The MLA could also be a stepping stone toward a PhD program or other educational pursuit. Students may continue on to law school after finishing an MLA, which will give them a better understanding of global and local issues. Some candidates use the degree as a way to test the waters in a variety of fields so they might settle on one and pursue another advanced degree in that field.

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