What are the Differences Between an MA and MS in ABA? [2024 Guide]

When considering a career in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), you might find yourself at a crossroads, choosing between a Master of Arts (MA) and a Master of Science (MS) degree. Both degrees offer unique perspectives and training in the field of ABA, a discipline dedicated to understanding and improving human behavior.

Making an informed decision requires understanding the differences between these two degrees, from their coursework and learning outcomes to the career opportunities they unlock.

This guide offers some insights into the differences between these popular degree options. Use it to inform yourself about each program’s unique qualities so you can make an informed decision about your educational future.

Differences Between an MA and MS in ABA

MA Vs. MS in ABA

An MA in ABA emphasizes practical application of of behavior analysis principles and direct client interaction, ideal for those seeking roles in professional service delivery. Conversely, an MS in ABA focuses on research and the scientific basis of behavior analysis, suited for careers in academia or research-oriented positions.

An MA in ABA focuses on the integration of ABA principles with education, counseling, or social work, emphasizing a holistic approach to behavior analysis. An MS in ABA leans more towards the research-oriented aspects of the field. Both degrees offer the opportunity to make a significant impact in the lives of individuals and communities through the application of ABA principles.

Differences in Coursework

The coursework differences between MA and MS programs in ABA highlight the distinct paths these degrees pave for students.


The coursework for most MA in ABA degrees is designed with a strong emphasis on the practical and therapeutic applications of ABA principles. Students in MA programs often engage in courses that cover behavior assessment techniques, which are crucial for identifying specific behavioral issues and developing targeted intervention strategies.

The coursework for an MA in ABA typically includes classes that integrate psychological theories and practices with behavior analysis. You might study topics such as the ethical considerations in counseling, educational psychology, and intervention strategies for diverse populations. These courses aim to prepare you for applying ABA principles in various settings, including schools, community centers, and mental health facilities.

Intervention strategies courses provide comprehensive training on the implementation of ABA techniques to modify behavior effectively, tailored to individual client needs.

In an MA program, you might also take a course on counseling techniques for families and caregivers, focusing on how to communicate and implement ABA strategies in a compassionate and effective manner. Another course might explore the role of culture and diversity in behavior analysis, preparing you to work sensitively with clients from various backgrounds. Another course could cover educational strategies for individuals with autism, emphasizing inclusive teaching methods and individualized education plans (IEPs).

Ethics in practice is another critical area of study, focusing on the ethical considerations and professional conduct standards essential for practitioners in the field. These courses aim to prepare MA students for real-world scenarios where ethical dilemmas may arise, ensuring they are equipped to make decisions that best serve their clients.

Additionally, MA programs may include coursework on communication skills, reflecting the degree’s focus on direct interaction with clients and families. This includes training on how to communicate effectively with clients, families, and other professionals, as well as how to use counseling techniques to support clients through the behavior change process.


On the other hand, an MS in ABA will have a stronger emphasis on research methodology, data analysis, and the biological bases of behavior. Courses might cover advanced topics in experimental design, statistical analysis for behavior data, and neuroscience as it relates to behavior modification.

The MS in ABA curriculum leans heavily towards the scientific investigation and theoretical underpinnings of behavior analysis. Courses in research methods are fundamental, teaching students how to design, conduct, and analyze empirical research studies. This includes training in various research designs and statistical analysis techniques, preparing students to contribute new knowledge to the field of ABA.

An MS program might include a course on the quantitative methods in behavior analysis, teaching you to analyze and interpret complex data sets. Another course could focus on the physiological underpinnings of behavior, offering insights into how biological factors influence behavior change. A third example would be a course on the development and evaluation of behavior intervention technologies, highlighting the role of innovation in advancing the field of ABA.

Statistical analysis courses further equip MS students with the skills to analyze data, an essential component of research that helps in understanding the effectiveness of ABA interventions. Experimental design courses focus on the methodologies for setting up experiments to test hypotheses within the field of behavior analysis, emphasizing the importance of control and variable manipulation in deriving valid conclusions.

Differences in Learning Outcomes

Graduates of MA programs in ABA are typically well-prepared to apply ABA principles in practice. They are trained to assess client needs, design and implement behavior intervention plans, and evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions. The learning outcomes for an MA in ABA emphasize practical skills and client-centered services, preparing graduates for roles that require direct interaction with clients and interdisciplinary teams.

In contrast, MS programs in ABA aim to produce graduates who are proficient in conducting research and contributing to the theoretical and empirical bases of the field. Learning outcomes for an MS in ABA include the ability to design and conduct empirical research, analyze data using statistical methods, and contribute to the development of new theories and techniques in behavior analysis.

Differences in Career Opportunities

An MA in ABA can lead to careers in education, counseling, and social services, where professionals apply ABA principles to help individuals improve their behavior and achieve personal goals. Graduates may find positions as school-based behavior analysts, ABA therapists in community settings, or counselors specializing in behavior modification.

MS in ABA graduates often pursue careers in research, clinical practice, or higher education. They might work as clinical directors of ABA programs, lead research projects to develop new behavior analysis methodologies, or teach at the university level. Their training in research methods and data analysis also makes them competitive candidates for positions in healthcare settings, where they design and oversee behavior intervention programs.

Is an MS Harder than an MA?

As mentioned above, an MS in ABA typically emphasizes research, statistical analysis, and the scientific underpinnings of behavior analysis. This degree path may be seen as more challenging if you do not have a strong background in mathematics or science, as it involves rigorous training in research methodologies, data analysis, and experimental design.

Students in an MS program are often expected to engage in original research, which requires a high level of critical thinking, problem-solving, and technical writing skills. If you are less inclined towards research activities or find statistical concepts and data interpretation daunting, an MS in ABA might present a steeper learning curve.

Conversely, an MA in ABA focuses more on the practical application of behavior analysis principles in various settings, such as schools, clinics, and community programs. This degree path may include more coursework on intervention strategies, ethical considerations in practice, and counseling techniques.

While still challenging, an MA may be perceived as more accessible if you are more interested in direct practice rather than research. The challenges in an MA program often revolve around mastering the application of ABA techniques, developing effective communication skills for interacting with clients and families, and navigating the ethical complexities of professional practice.

It’s also important to consider the type of thesis or capstone project required by each program. An MS might require a research-based thesis that contributes new knowledge to the field, while an MA might allow for a project that focuses on practical application or a literature review. The nature of this final project can significantly influence your experience of the program’s difficulty.

Ultimately, the perceived difficulty of an MS versus an MA in ABA is subjective and varies based on your preferences and academic strengths.

Is an MS Better than an MA?

Whether an MS is better than an MA in ABA depends on your career objectives. If you aim to engage in research or seek a career in clinical practice focusing on evidence-based interventions, an MS might be more aligned with your goals. However, if you are drawn to educational settings or wish to integrate ABA with counseling, an MA could be a better fit.

Do You Need a Master’s in ABA to be a BCBA?

Yes, obtaining a master’s degree in ABA or a related field is a prerequisite for becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Both an MA and an MS in ABA can fulfill the educational requirements for BCBA certification, provided the program includes the necessary coursework and supervised experience.

Is a Behavior Analyst Same as a BCBA?

The terms ‘BCBA’ and ‘Behavior Analyst’ are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, however, they represent different levels of training, certification, and expertise within the field of ABA. While all BCBAs are behavior analysts, not all behavior analysts are BCBAs.

A behavior analyst is a professional who applies the principles of ABA in various settings, including education, healthcare, and organizational management, to bring about positive behavioral changes. This term broadly encompasses individuals who work within the domain of behavior analysis, employing its techniques and principles to assess, design, implement, and evaluate interventions aimed at modifying behavior.

However, being a behavior analyst does not inherently imply a specific level of education or certification. Professionals with a range of educational backgrounds, from bachelor’s degrees to doctoral degrees, can work in roles that involve behavior analysis.

In contrast, a BCBA is a professional who has met specific standards set by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). To earn the BCBA certification, you must complete a graduate-level degree (master’s or doctoral) in behavior analysis or a closely related field, fulfill a defined period of supervised practical experience, and pass the BCBA examination.

The BCBA certification is internationally recognized and serves as a benchmark for professionals in the field, indicating a high level of competence in applying ABA principles ethically and effectively.

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