Science vs. Arts Degrees: What’s the Difference and Does it Matter?

Deciding to get a BA or BS degree is tough. You'll have to make a choice.

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College is a time for both explorative and well-defined education. No matter where you go to school, you’ll have to complete a number of general education courses (e.g. math, science, English, and public speaking) and you’ll be given the option to take a number of elective courses of your choosing.

Colleges require general education courses for many reasons. These classes may help you get acclimated to the college environment, teach you material from a variety of subjects, and help you learn everyday skills (e.g., communication, basic math, and problem solving). Dr. Bruce Umbaugh, a professor at Webster University, says “students concentrate so hard on what they’ll select as a major that they often overlook the importance of learning general skills like problem solving, communicating effectively, and analyzing information.” As quoted in this article: “It’s not just that they [students] need to know a bunch of stuff and take a test; they need to be positioned to use that knowledge in the world.” This is the point of general education requirements.

If your general education courses are teaching you the life skills necessary to succeed at any job after graduation, elective classes give you the opportunity to experiment with new subjects and find your academic passion. This exploration can result in you deciding on a major or realizing that what you initially thought was your passion is more of just a hobby. The combination of general education and elective courses gives you a well-rounded background and ups your chances of success after graduation. Of course, the other classes you must take are those required for your major.

When it does come time to declare your major, you may have to decide between:

  • An A.S. and an A.A (if you’re attending a community college)
  • A B.S. and a B.A. (if you’re attending a four-year college or university)
  • An M.S. and an M.A. (if you’ve already completed your bachelor’s degree)

It seems overwhelming, but all of these acronyms mean generally the same thing. As the second letter, the “S” stands for “science” and the “A” stands for “arts.” The first letter denotes what type of program you are in: “A” is for “associate,” “B” is for “bachelor,” and “M” is for “master.” These programs have different lengths: Associate’s degree programs last two years, bachelor’s degree programs last four years, and master’s degree programs typically last two years beyond a bachelor’s degree. Of course, depending on the number of credits you start with, whether you need remedial coursework to catch up, and whether you’re a part-time or full-time student, a program make take more or less time than is typical.

A student who wants to study biology may be better off getting a Bachelor of Science degree.

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I have two degrees: a B.A. in geology and an M.A. in geosciences. Both of these degrees are science degrees, so you may wonder why I didn’t get a B.S. and an M.S. For my first degree, I wasn’t given an option. Carleton College only offers Bachelor of Arts degrees to its graduates, regardless of their major. My second degree, though, I had options. I started out as an M.S. student. To meet the requirements, I had to complete an experiment, defend a thesis, and submit articles to academic journals. I completed half of my degree in the M.S. track before I realized that I wasn’t super into the experiment I was doing, among other things. I switched to an M.A., wrote a 55-page document about the future of global freshwater resources, and graduated with a geosciences degree from a prestigious public university. The only difference was the letter “A” after my degree instead of the letter “S.”

Has having two arts degrees in science affected my job prospects or made people think less of me? Not that I’ve noticed. In my opinion, it’s more important to highlight that you have the education and experience necessary to do the job for which you’re applying. There are some differences in science vs. arts degrees, though.

Note: For the following descriptions, I’ve elected to use bachelor’s degrees as an example. The same general rules apply to both associate’s degrees and master’s degrees.  

For students who want to major in science, technology, engineering, or math:

  • Students who earn B.S. degrees have to take more STEM classes than those who earn B.A. degrees. Typically, instead of taking classes in a wide range of STEM subjects, students who elect to earn a science degree take more classes in the subject matter of their major. For example, a student who earns a B.S. in chemistry will take more and higher-level chemistry classes than a student who earns a B.A. in chemistry. The B.A. student may take more biology and physics, but at a lower level overall.
  • Students who earn science degrees may have to take more upper-level math classes.
  • Students who earn science degrees may have fewer elective credits available.
  • Students who want to pursue a higher degree in the subject of their major may be better off earning a B.S. over a B.A. This is because graduate programs often have rigorous entry requirements and look for students who are dedicated to the subject matter.
  • Students who want to pursue a higher degree in a subject other than that of their major may be better off earning a B.A. over a B.S. because there are more opportunities to take elective courses and pursue outside interests. Students hoping to earn a higher degree in a different STEM subject should strongly consider a B.A. because of the broad scope of the degree.

For students who want to major in humanities, literature, social sciences, history, or another liberal art:

A student who wants to study architecture may be better off getting a Bachelor of Arts degree.

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  • Often, these degrees won’t even be offered as anything other than a B.A., so there isn’t a choice to be made.
  • If a major offers both B.A. and B.S. degrees, students should consider what they want to do after graduation. Those wanting to pursue higher education in the same field should go ahead and get the B.S. Those who are not sure that they want to continue in the same field and those who want to keep their options open should get the B.A.

The differences are pretty obvious when you look back; it’s written in the name. Science degrees make you take more STEM classes and focus heavily on classes that directly relate to your major. Arts degrees give you more flexibility, but still require you to choose a major and take a significant number of related classes. Both degrees require the same number of credit hours.

When deciding which to declare, think about what you want to do in the future. If you know that you want to get a higher degree in the same subject and pursue that subject for the rest of your working years, the science degree is great. If you want to stay flexible and not lock yourself into a career path, think about the arts degree. In the grand scheme of things, what future employers want to see is that you’re educated enough to do the job and that you’ve got the skills to be successful. The “B” is much more important than what comes after it.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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