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Pathway with multiple routes

 by Chantelle Francis
, posted on 14 Sep '16

Choosing a Different Kind of Masters Degree – Going Vocational

Choosing a Masters that differs from your undergraduate degree is a sure fire way to learning something new. But that doesn’t just mean picking a new subject.

For me, it was an opportunity to go vocational, while still being in the safety of the student bubble.

As Masters study becomes more popular, the variety of courses available is widening. This means that ‘non-traditional’ subjects are paving the way for lots of universities.

One thing I have found though, is that choosing a Masters degree that strays from the norm can often mean you have to justify your choice to study it a little bit more – or spend a good 15 minutes trying to get across what it is you actually do.

Nonetheless, greater autonomy in how I study and what I study has been a huge bonus on my MA. Below you can read about the hitches and benefits I’ve encountered when studying a more vocational Masters.

Going vocational - what are the benefits?

So, what’s it actually like to study a vocational Masters degree? Your experience may vary, but I’d pick out the following highlights.

Less people = value for money

Knowing there was going to be a lower number of people on my course isn’t what attracted me to my MA, but I know it’s quite common for vocational Masters. On my degree, there is myself and one other student. Yep, just two of us.

But this is by no means a negative. In fact, it has meant a complete change in the way I studied. Seminars were much more informal (often held over coffee), as well as being much more focused. With only one other student present, it was almost like having a private tutor all year. That’s definitely value for money. It also means that individual ideas go a long, long way.

More autonomy

As mentioned above, undertaking a vocational Masters degree meant having a lot more control over what I wanted to study. There were still set modules with set themes, but when it came to essays, straying from those themes wasn’t a problem. Sometimes it was even encouraged.

In my second semester I undertook a project in partnership with Sheffield Archives, alongside my fellow course mate. We chose the topic, how to research it, and how to present it to the public. This was also the case for my dissertation: find a topic, research it, present it to the public.

Both these projects have allowed me to pursue my interest in Sheffield’s local history, researching issues which a normal curriculum might overlook.

You (probably) won’t need to read as much

Well, I’m not making any promises. But as the year progressed, there was much less set reading involved. Instead, much more of my research involved going out, meeting people, and learning from my experiences.

My Masters has focused largely on processes, and reflecting on those processes. So, rather than just re-evaluating somebody else’s thoughts, I am in charge of what I think about a certain subject.

You (probably) won’t need to write as much

Again, no promises. The average dissertation length for ‘regular’ taught MAs is around 20,000 words. Typical dissertation lengths for most vocational MAs is between 5,000-10,000 words lower. Mine is 10,000.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this means less work. It is simply a different kind of work. As my MA includes a project management component with a final self-curated exhibition, this contributes to the dissertation as a practical element. Similarly with Masters that have an integrated work placement, these may contribute as a practical element to your dissertation, reducing the necessary word count.

Are there any difficulties when studying an alternative Masters degree?

Choosing a different kind of degree can be a great way to make the most of postgraduate study, but it isn’t without its challenges. Here are a few I’ve experienced – together with some tips for getting around them.

#1 - Describing your degree as something which it totally isn’t

My Masters is in ‘Public Humanities’. It is interdisciplinary, and it sits within the faculty of Arts and Humanities. For most people, Arts and Humanities equates to History and English. So when somebody hears the name of my degree, the response is “oh, so you do a mix of English and History?” - erm, kind of, but not really.

Other than three of my modules which were specifically archaeology or modern languages, the rest of my course centred on ‘public engagement’ – undertaking academic research with the public, and presenting it to the public (to put it simply).

So the easiest way for me to describe my degree is “a bit like events management, but centred on heritage studies”. It gets a few nods.

#2 - The worry that your Masters doesn’t sound as ‘legit’

When I first told my parents about the course I’d chosen to study, they shook their heads and swore blind it was a made up course.

“So you’re studying PR?” No. It could lead to PR, but no.

“You’re finding an excuse to still be a student”. The second point wasn’t a complete lie – I wasn’t quite ready to be a proper adult yet – but my degree definitely has an academic grounding. And engaging the public with research is definitely something universities are trying to do more of.

“So what’s your dissertation about?” This is the only question fellow students will be asking you from March onwards. I couldn’t sum up the topic as easily as saying ‘it’s on the Battle of the Somme’, but when I tell you it’s about ‘The Forgotten Flood’*, it does at least sound pretty cool.

My dissertation is an academic report, which reflects on the processes of formulating my own public engagement event. The exhibition has now passed, but you can read a little bit more about it here

#3 - Choosing a career path – so many options!

Last October, I’d started my MA, but still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after I’d finished it. At this, my Dad was horrified. “But why would you do a Masters if you didn’t see it going anywhere?” Firstly, I’d been awarded a £10,000 scholarship – who would turn that down? Secondly, it wasn’t that I didn’t see my degree going anywhere, it was just that I hadn’t decided what to do with it yet. In all fairness, I was only a month in.

But choosing a degree that isn’t specific to one subject can mean having lots more options to choose from. In some ways, this can be more stressful. If you could see yourself doing several things, how do you choose one of them? Should you choose one of them?

A vocational degree certainly provides you with an opportunity to explore some of the different things you’re interested in, and perhaps even undertake a related work placement.

So, does choosing a subject which is different to your undergraduate degree make it harder?

Well, even if you opt to stick with the same subject you did at undergrad, chances are your Masters will feel very different.

But for me, choosing an MA that differed from my BA was exciting and exhilarating – it showed me that I could learn something new and be more independent. And because I enjoy it so much, it hardly ever feels like work. So, don’t let a change in subject put you off. If you like the sound of it, go for it!

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