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So, you’ve finished/are finishing your first degree. Unless you’re going into a profession like Architecture or Law, which have fairly set routes in, you may be wondering if it’s worth doing a postgraduate degree, and what your options are. This resource breaks down a lot of the questions you may want to ask, and covers some important things to consider when you start to look at graduate level study.

What different types of postgraduate degree are there?

  • The most common options are master’s degrees (MA, MLitt, MPhil, Msc, MFA etc) and ‘Doctorates’ (PhD, DPhil etc.)

  • In the UK it is rare to progress directly from undergraduate to studying for a PhD, and it is usual to complete a master’s first

  • You can do your master’s and PhD at different institutions

  • You can convert a master’s to a Postgraduate Diploma at any time before you begin your dissertation, and a PhD can be left and returned to, or simply published as a smaller paper

  • For master’s degrees you will usually have the option of a ‘taught’ or ‘research’ degree. These will usually last 1-2 years full time and 2-4 years part time

  • Taught degrees will usually have a series of modules, tutorials and assignments on the subject that you have to complete in addition to developing a thesis for a dissertation

  • A research only degree will usually only involve self-directed research and the development of a thesis for a dissertation. You’ll have a supervisor to help with your work but you won’t have regular lectures or any coursework

The advantages of a taught degree is that you can develop your specialism and learn more from experts. The advantage of a research degree is that you get to really do a deep dive on a specific topic you’re passionate about and get on with developing your own area of expertise.

Once you’ve decided on taught vs research, you should look for institutions that offer the type of degree you want, in the subject you want. Prospects postgraduate course finder is very useful - so is Find a Masters.

Think about what you want to know before you go, talk to current and former students, and have a look at some reviews. Remember - even if an institution is super prestigious or famous it might not be right for you, and if you’re not in the right place for you your research won’t be as good as it could be.

Most universities will also arrange for you to speak with a representative if you have any questions - this is especially useful if you are considering going to a university abroad which may have special requirements or things you have to take into consideration.

How do I find the money to do my masters?

Financing a postgraduate degree varies wildly depending on what you want to do. For example, if you picked a private university or highly specialised course provider like Sotheby’s it would be very expensive. On the other hand, if you chose to spend six years getting a PhD at an American university you could be paid to do so - but only during term time! Make sure to do your research before setting your heart on a course.

  • Many universities and departments will have a limited list of bursaries, fellowships and other funding opportunities you could apply for, but there’s much more out there

  • You can use these useful sites to find a whole range of postgraduate funding opportunities and benefits advice.

  • It’s also worth looking into any big professional or industry bodies like the British Council or the Royal Societies and others, especially if there’s a connection to your chosen subject!

  • This part is a lot of research but it’s worth it - especially if you’re planning on studying full time and won’t be able to work alongside your research

Loans are also available but the less you have to borrow the better!

Why do people say that it’s important to pick a good supervisor?

The difference between uni and being at primary/secondary school is that you get to choose what you’d like to study, and align things ideally to your interests!

So when you’ve found a few courses and a few scholarships, look into the people in the department or university ‘school’ who will be teaching modules or available for supervision. You can normally find them on the course description page or the department website.

  • What are their research areas?

  • Are there people there who seem interested in the same things as you?

  • Have they published papers that would be helpful for your research goals?

All these things will help you find a university that will nurture your curiosity and hopefully have access to the kinds of resources you will need to make your research first class.

Okay, so how do I actually apply for a masters?

  • Not all postgraduate courses run applications through UCAS, lots of universities have their own individual ways of submitting. This means it’s more work the more courses you apply to but it also means you can pick the application process and requirements you feel most comfortable with

  • You will be asked for references, so it’s worth discussing your plans to apply for further study with your current university professors - especially if they taught you relevant modules, supervised your dissertation, or gave you good essay feedback

  • You can email people who taught you even after you’ve graduated to ask if they’ll be a reference, and most of the time they’ll say yes

  • If you can’t find a reference, you need information about your degree, or you would like to know if any other graduates on your degree have pursued the same path then it’s a great idea to email the University’s alumni services office and ask for advice. They are there to help you throughout your career and can be a great resource

Is the search for postgraduate housing the same as for undergrads?

Generally there is not a lot of housing available for postgrads, especially in city universities, so you will need to get your application in quickly if you are applying for housing assistance that is contingent on being in university accommodation.

Sometimes you will need to apply for Postgraduate housing at the same time as you apply for the course, especially if the deadline is soon, but a lot of the time this will be done after you apply and are accepted, and have confirmed your offer.

Many postgraduates live in privately rented shared accommodation - the University will probably have a message board or other service where you can connect with other postgraduates looking to rent together and split costs. The Student Room also has a couple of boards. This is a great way to meet people, especially as postgraduate study is generally a lot more time consuming and a lot less social than undergraduate. You can also use sites like Spareroom to find a flatmate.

How do I balance my wellbeing with academia?

Academia is a notoriously difficult and high pressure environment, heavily dependent on interpersonal dynamics, department politics, and obscure or archaic value systems. The skills and knowledge you can gain are incredibly valuable and rewarding, but if you choose to pursue postgraduate study or an academic career you should do it for you first and foremost - and if the conditions starts to be too detrimental to your mental health, physical health, or general wellbeing then there is no shame in taking stock of all you have gained calling it quits.

Realising that your state or circumstances are incompatible with an incredibly strenuous and demanding process should not be a source of shame, and no matter how far you get in your degree you will have gained something - even if you just read a couple more books or heard a new lens on the world in a lecture.

That being said, postgraduate study can and should be fun, and you’ll get the most out of it if you do throw yourself into the various opportunities of university life as well as into the academic side of things.

  • Go to any evening lectures that sound cool, no matter the department, and go to the post lecture drinks too - even if you don’t drink; you’ll get to chat to some fascinating people

  • Join a sports club or any other in-person activity/society if you can - not only will this be cheaper than in the non-academic world, it’s a great way to stay engaged with physical reality and make friends

  • Picked a university with some quirky traditions like spraying each-other with shaving foam, having a massive breakfast at midnight during exam times, or getting into a big overhyped sporting event? Consider making time to join in. You’ll only get to do it once

Above all else, indulge your curiosity and try to squeeze every ounce of value from the resources being a member of the university puts at your disposal.

This is so much information, how do I make a decision?

It can be useful to take all of your possible degrees and universities and make a comparison table, with columns for everything that’s important to you. From talking about access needs, student life, to accommodation. Then you can see it all side by side and ask productive questions.

We’ve made a helpful template here that you can use if you like! Visiting universities and towns is also really great, but if it’s out of your budget then have a snoop on Google Street View and even Tripadvisor (for the good coffee shop gossip).

Ultimately, if you have a good gut feeling and all the important stuff - costs, requirements, and housing seem like they can be figured out - then you're probably ready to take the plunge.