If you have a science degree, does it matter if your diploma says BA or BS? Nope.
When you take your degree to a new institution, the labels of “Bachelor of Arts” and “Bachelor of Science” will mean different things to different people. If anybody reads into the meaning of your BA or BS, that’ll say far more about the other person than about what you did in college.
I’ve heard folks vigorously argue a wide range of positions about the general distinction between a BA and a BS. These have included:
- The BS has more lab courses.
- The BA has a deeper education in the liberal arts.
- The BS has more quantitatively rigorous courses.
- The BS is in a specialized topic of concentration, whereas the BA is more generalized.
- The BS is designed for someone entering professional or graduate school, and the BA is designed for someone not pursuing an advanced degree.
All of those things can be true in certain institutions, but are not generally true, despite whatever others might say.
(I was raised to believe that the term “several” meant “at least seven.” Several was definitely appreciably greater than “a few.” Apparently that’s not how most people use it. I could go around insisting that other people are wrong, but what people think is what matters, in cases of counting and college degrees.)
At any given institution, the difference between a BA and a BS is real, with different curricular requirements. However, the distinction between the BA and the BS varies among institutions so much that it would be foolhardy to say that the BS degree or the BA degree means, or doesn’t mean, something in general terms.
Let me illustrate with some examples from different universities in southern California.
- In my current department, the BS has three specific tracks. The BA lacks a track, requires fewer total units, and doesn’t have a calculus requirement.
- In the university where I used to work, they only offer BS degrees in engineering, and other STEM departments have only BA degrees.
- The place where I went to college only offers BA degrees, and had a bunch of laboratory classes, and required calculus and organic chemistry, for both ‘general’ biology and specialized tracks.
- The biology majors at UCLA are all BS degrees, even though this might involve only a couple upper division lab courses. (Note, they have an interdepartmental “Human Biology and Society” degree, which looks super cool, though is not purely a degree in biology.)
- Down the road at UC Riverside, it’s possible to get either a BA or a BS in Biology. The only difference is that the BA requires 16 units in a foreign language, whereas the BS, has 16 more elective units in science instead. There are also BA and BS degrees in other majors, at UCR, including Cell, Molecular and Developmental Biology, and, Entomology, and Plant Biology. It looks like at UCR, in general, the BA degrees require more humanities and social sciences, and the BS requires more upper division science courses.
- Meanwhile, UC San Diego only offers BS degrees in biology, including a a broad degree in General Biology as well as many specialized tracks.
- Over at Cal State Northridge, there are BA and BS degrees, both of which require a track in upper-division coursework, and like at my university, one clear difference is a calculus requirement.
Here’s what I make of the BA/BS situation, in general:
The BA degree does not necessarily have more coursework in the humanities, and the BS degree does not necessarily have more work in the sciences.
In many institutions, if you have a STEM major, you may have no choice between a BS or a BA.
A BS degree is not necessarily more specialized than a BA degree.
If an institution does offer both a BA and a BS, then the BS would tends more required STEM coursework, and the BA may have more non-STEM coursework. However, once comparing across institutions, such comparisons are relatively useless.
If you search, “what is the difference between a BA and a BS,” there are a lot of thoughts out there. Most of them are BS.