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Will it be incredibly hard? Will I ever go outside? Will everyone else be cleverer than me? Will it even be worth it? Our Head of Content, Mark, looks at some of his assumptions about postgraduate study - and asks how correct they ended up being.
At the end of summer, not so many years ago, I was sat on the floor in my parents’ spare bedroom, surrounded by books and boxes.
The books had travelled back with me from my undergraduate university. The boxes were travelling with me to my postgraduate university. The memory sums up a lot of how it felt to be preparing for a Masters.
Some of those books were going in those boxes. After all, my undergraduate degree had prepared me for my Masters - and shaped some of my expectations of it.
But some of those books weren’t coming with me, and I knew that I’d soon be picking up more (many more, as it happens). My Masters wasn’t going to be a repeat of my Bachelors. And I couldn’t anticipate everything it would require of me.
This is all a fancy way of saying that, just like you will, I went into my Masters with some expectations. And, just like you will, I ended up with a few surprises.
I’ve picked out a few in this post. It isn’t an exhaustive guide to the differences between undergraduate and Masters degrees, but it might help you think about your own expectations of postgraduate study.
I’d already earned a degree in my subject. Surely that meant I should be an expert by now? And I’d signed up for a Masters. My tutors and fellow students would be expecting me to be good. I was certainly expecting them to expect me to be good.
But perhaps I wasn’t that good. Perhaps I’d just been lucky as an undergraduate. Perhaps I was about to be found out. Cue visions of seminars surrounded by incredibly articulate fellow students, with polite, but bemused, lecturers looking on as I struggled to say anything intelligent.
This is known as ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s something lots of postgraduates face so, if you’re one of them, you’re not alone. And you’re not an imposter.
No one goes into a Masters ready to graduate with a Masters. Like any other degree, this is a learning process, not a test.
The reality for my degree? I shared classes with friendly students who were just as new to postgraduate study as I was. Course leaders were prepared to challenge us, but they did so to develop our expertise – not to catch us out.
I knew a Masters would involve tackling more difficult material on a more advanced level. But how much extra work would that actually require?
Would I be able to approach it like another year of my undergraduate degree and rise to the level of more complex material? Or would I also have to spend more time studying each week?
Would I need to complete the full secondary reading list for each module just to understand the course? Or could I simply use it as a starting point for essay research?
The reality was somewhere in the middle.
Surprisingly, I actually had less timetable for my Masters than I’d had as an undergraduate – and the overall structure of my degree was roughly the same.
But the amount of preparation involved was certainly higher, with each class requiring plenty of independent, self-directed, study. I may not have read through the entire university library by week three, but I did become familiar with many of the key texts on my reading list.
Did it feel like working harder? Yes, sure, but I quickly adapted. More importantly, I felt the benefits early on. Preparing for classes meant I got more out of them (with no need to fear that dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’). And by the time my essays came around I had plenty of ideas to choose from.
I’d always managed to keep on top of my work as an undergraduate, but I’d done so by adopting the slightly manic approach to work-life balance that only really makes sense to students.
Which is to say that, whilst I’d indulge in a few late nights out around essay deadlines, I’d compensate with a few even later nights working. It more or less pulled together – even if I did start to forget what the day looked like before 10am.
But would that work for a Masters? Probably not. I expected to have a heavier workload and this turned out to be true (see above). As a result, my working days were going to be slightly more structured. They were also going to actually be ‘days’ rather than extended evenings and nights.
I’d assumed that this would mean sacrificing social activities and focussing more on my degree than making friendships at my new university. After all, the campus bar was for innocent young undergraduates, not Masters students who should know better. Right?
Well, not quite.
I actually ended up making several new friends during my degree, including some of the undergraduates living on my floor in halls. They definitely went out a bit more than I did, but we still got to know the local bars together.
I also got to know some of the students on my course – and the lecturers who delivered it. Attending talks by visiting academics or discussing research topics over coffee may not have been exactly what my undergraduate-self envisaged as a social life, but what did they know? Plus, the visiting talks were usually followed by wine receptions.
I had a few different reasons for studying a Masters. I enjoyed my subject and wanted the chance to study it in more detail. In the process I’d be able to try my hand at more advanced scholarly work and decide whether an academic career might be for me.
But I also wanted the experience to be useful, even if I didn’t use the qualification as a stepping stone to more advanced work.
My actual programme was in a specialised field of English Literature and History. Not the most vocational of subjects. Or so you might think.
In fact, I picked up far more transferrable skills than I expected – and my course was actually designed to deliver them.
As well as modules related to my academic subject I also completed a compulsory course on research methods. This included some fairly specialist content (I can still keep a mean bibliography and my expertise in MLA-citation is nothing to be sniffed at). But it also covered more general areas including presentation skills, professional writing and project management. You can judge at least one of those from this blog post.
The value of a Masters to you will depend on your plans as much as your course. Mine did end up preparing me for a PhD, but it also developed many of the skills I use professionally.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog was first published on 03/08/2016. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
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