According to HESA, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of new students on taught postgraduate courses increased by 16% from 2019-20 to 2020-21.
But what do you really know about postgraduate courses and is postgraduate study worth it and right for you? In this article we help you think things through by identifying some key questions you should ask yourself. But firstly, let’s look at the various types of postgraduate courses available.
An MSc (Master of Science), MA (Master of Arts) or MBA (Master of Business Administration), are the most popular postgraduate courses. They take one or two years, full time or longer part time. Masters may be taught in a similar way to undergraduate degrees, or have a research focus with a greater proportion of time spent on independent study. Research masters may lead to a MRes (Master of Research) or MPhil (Master of Philosophy).
Postgraduate certificates and diplomas
At the same level as a masters degree but can sometimes be achieved in a shorter period of time. They are often vocational and can be taken full time or part time whilst in relevant employment.
Graduate Conversion Course
If your undergraduate degree hasn’t prepared you for certain careers, you may be able to take a graduate conversion course; many of these are intensive, accelerated programmes. Examples include conversion courses in psychology, law, medicine, nursing, engineering, social work and teaching (the PGCE/PGDE – Postgraduate Certificate/Diploma in Education). These vocational programmes often include work placements.
Certain professional qualifications – such as those in marketing or management, or that qualify you to work as an accountant, solicitor or actuary, for instance – are at postgraduate level. These are offered through professional bodies.
The highest level of qualification you can achieve is a doctorate (e.g. PhD – Doctorate of Philosophy). Doctorates can take up to four years, full time or seven years, part time. Doctorates involve researching, writing and publishing an extensive thesis on a specialist topic with the support of an academic tutor. Some doctorate courses are vocational and include practical experience as well as research.
Have I got what it takes?
Make sure that you’ll cope with both the level and intensity of postgraduate study. Check the academic entry requirements for any courses that interest you. You normally need to have (or be on track to gain) at least a 2:1 degree classification, sometimes in a relevant subject. Admissions tutors may accept you on certain postgraduate courses if you have an equivalent professional qualification and/or significant relevant experience.
For entry to a doctorate programme you may need to have achieved a relevant masters degree. For research-based courses, you have to identify a topic and submit a detailed research proposal.
Apart from fulfilling the academic requirements, you must show your commitment. Admissions tutors will expect you to have read around your subject and perhaps attended conferences and so on. For vocational courses, paid or voluntary work experience may be necessary or useful.
What’s driving my decision?
There are lots of good reasons to undertake postgraduate study, but as it involves a big financial and time investment, the decision shouldn’t be taken lightly. Some positive reasons for continuing with your studies include:
- to study in more depth a subject that fascinates you
- to gain entry to a specific career
- to progress in a current career
- to give you the necessary research experience, e.g. for entry to an academic or scientific career
- to give you the edge in the employment market (although this isn’t guaranteed)
Alarm bells should ring if you’re considering a postgraduate course just because you can’t decide what to do and you’re delaying making a decision. And even if you have a goal, you may find that there’s a better way to achieve this, such as gaining work experience.
Can I afford it?
Postgraduate courses don’t come cheap. Just like with undergraduate study, you’ll normally have to pay for your tuition and living costs. Fees vary widely; courses that involve a lot of face-to-face tuition are generally the most expensive. Taking a course part time or through distance learning can allow you to work and earn while studying.
Some of the ways in which you can fund your studies are listed below. Ensure that you fulfil any eligibility criteria and do check the details – including your obligations – carefully.
- Government-backed postgraduate loans – and sometimes grants – are available to help pay for your tuition fees and/or maintenance costs. You can find information through GOV.UK in England, Student Finance Wales, Student Awards Agency Scotland or Student Finance Northern Ireland.
- Each year Research Councils allocate grants to universities and other research organisations to fund PhD studentships. Competition for these funds is intense.
- If you’re interested in teacher training, nursing or other healthcare courses or social work, you may be able to access particular funds to help with your postgraduate studies.
- Scholarships or bursaries may be available through universities or professional bodies.
- Some employers offer formal sponsorships.
- If you are working, ask your employer whether they’d consider supporting you through a work-related postgraduate course.
You can find out more about postgraduate funding on the Prospects website.
Where shall I study?
Depending on your subject, you may or may not have a choice of courses at different institutions.
Start by searching for appropriate courses online, for example through Prospects or Postgraduate Search. Attending a postgraduate fair will give you a chance to speak to people from a range of institutions, and open days and virtual events will give you the opportunity to find out more about the university, faculty, facilities etc, and to speak to students and staff.
You may be thinking of taking your postgraduate studies at the same university where you did your undergraduate degree (the familiarity will be an advantage) or study near your home so that you can live with your family, but these might not be the best courses.
It’s worth looking at a range of universities in the UK or, in fact, overseas. Whatever you do, base your decision on sound research. Find out as much as you can about:
- course content, including any compulsory and optional modules
- teaching and assessment methods, contact time and the support provided to students
- the background and/or research interests of academic staff
- the university and department’s facilities
- the destinations of previous students
- course accreditation (if relevant)
- the reputation of the course with employers or academics
- links with commerce and industry – whether they provide work placements, mentoring or networking opportunities, for instance
What is the best mode of study?
You may not have a choice for the particular subject you want to study, but you often have the option to study full time, part time, through distance learning or blended learning (which involves a mixture of online and face-to-face tuition).
There are a number of factors that can impact your decision. How quickly do you want to (or need to) achieve your qualification? What sort of learning would suit you? If you are thinking of studying part time or through distance learning, will you have sufficient motivation and time, especially if you are working or have other commitments? Also think through the financial implications of different modes of study.
When and how do I apply?
Make sure that you apply in good time – ideally six months or so before the start date. Note that not all courses begin in September/October. Competitive courses fill up quickly, so new applicants may not be considered once the course is full.
For many postgraduate programmes you apply directly to your chosen institution/s. There are a few centralised application systems, such as for professional courses in teacher training, clinical psychology or for entry to performance-based courses in music, dance or drama.
For graduate-entry courses to train in certain professions, such as nursing, the allied health professions, social work, medicine or veterinary science, you apply through the UCAS undergraduate application service.
Application processes vary, but you will complete an application for each course (unless it’s a centralised system). The form will inevitably include space for you to outline your reasons for applying, what you have to offer and so on. Treat it with as much care as you would your undergraduate personal statement. You also need to give the names of referees, who may be employers or course tutors. There’s usually an application fee.
Depending on the course, you may have to attend an interview, do an audition, provide a portfolio of your work or undertake an admissions test. As mentioned earlier, for a research-based course, you normally submit a research proposal for consideration.
Start researching courses as soon as possible and seek professional advice if necessary. If you’re still doing your undergraduate studies or if you’re a recent graduate, guidance should be available through your university careers service.
Don’t forget that you don’t have to start your postgraduate studies immediately after completing your first degree. People often benefit from stepping back from studying for a while. Taking your education to the next level is an exciting prospect, but make sure it’s the right option for you.
Debbie Steel, updated October 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.