There are many reasons why you might be considering postgraduate study:
1) You’re passionate about the subject you’ve studied at first-degree level (or another subject you’ve followed independently) and want to take it further – possibly even with an eye to going on to research. You’re probably looking at an academic master’s course.
If you can afford it, go ahead! You’ll almost certainly regret it if you don’t and you’ll develop useful skills along the way (even if you don’t yet know what you want to do afterwards). If you are thinking about research, check whether you need a master’s qualification first – some people go straight on to a PhD.
2) You need to acquire further knowledge or qualifications to pursue a particular career. This could be an academic or vocational master’s or a postgraduate certificate/diploma course.
Sounds as if you know where you’re heading, but it’s worth checking with professional bodies or employers that your chosen course is properly recognised. Course providers should also be able to supply destination information to show the success rates and give advice on sources of funding.
3) You’re having a great time at university and don’t want to leave.
Understandable, but think this one through. How many of your friends are staying on? Will you have the motivation for the course itself? You could consider getting a job and house-sharing with friends instead.
4) You’re unable (or afraid?) to make a decision about your future and want to buy some time.
Not the best of reasons for continuing your studies and unlikely to impress admissions tutors. Why not discuss your thoughts with a careers adviser? The answer might still be postgraduate study but you’re more likely to choose the most suitable course.
5) You think that an extra qualification will help you to stand out from the crowd of first-degree graduates and impress employers.
There’s an element of truth here but it’s not quite so simple. Employers are looking for a range of skills and attributes (academic ability certainly being very important among them) and you can therefore also impress them with relevant work experience, positions of responsibility, unusual achievements. Again, talk your ideas through with a careers adviser and sound out employers at careers fairs.
In summary, doing postgraduate study for positive reasons will usually yield positive results. You’ll increase your knowledge, skills and confidence and therefore your employability. However, it costs time and money and you need to be satisfied that you’ll get a reasonable return on your investment.
Choosing a course
This is where we come in! Research is key and close reading of the university prospectus and course syllabus is essential. Postgraduate study fairs are also a great way of meeting several providers in one day and getting answers to your questions. How did the university/department fare in the most recent assessment exercise? What have graduates from the course gone on to do?
To complement the information obtained in the above ways, you can also seek advice from the following:
- academics – talk to your own tutors and other relevant academics and use their knowledge and networks;
- your careers service – a careers adviser has no vested interest and will discuss the pros and cons of particular courses impartially and perhaps suggest other options;
- employers and professional bodies – talk to employers at fairs and presentations, write to professional bodies, use other contacts (your careers service may have a list of alumni working in relevant areas).
Funding postgraduate study
Funding for postgraduate study is more complex than for undergraduate courses, as, with the exception of PGCE courses, student loans are not available. Fees vary widely and funding is in short supply. There are, however, several potential sources of funding and these include: research council studentships, university scholarships, grants from educational trusts and charities. If these are not forthcoming, then you might be able to apply for a professional and career development loan or a specific professional loan scheme. Your starting-point should be your course provider, who will be able to tell you about any funding available through the department or institution and also which other sources of funding previous students have used.
Selling postgraduate study
Whatever your reasons for studying beyond first-degree level, you'll probably want to see some return on your investment of time and money – particularly if your main motive was to enhance your career prospects. Some courses are natural stepping-stones to specific careers and the qualification will be recognised as such. Others are more general and you'll need to reflect on the potential benefits to employers. Put simply, the course will not sell itself.
Employers value the skills and attributes developed through postgraduate study but they also value work experience, commercial awareness and broader interpersonal skills. They'll want to know why you chose another year (or more) of study rather than relevant work experience – in business terms, they'll want to see the 'added value'. So, think about the knowledge and skills you've gained and, crucially, how these could benefit the employer. You might think that your brilliant analytical skills can be safely assumed, but employers will want to see the evidence in the form of specific examples. As with all applications, you need to research the culture and needs of employers and show the contribution you could make to their success.