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Taking the Step from Undergraduate to Postgraduate Study

by Mark Bennett

Why should you consider studying a Masters course?

There are all sorts of good reasons to consider further study and search for a postgraduate course once you've completed your undergraduate degree.

For some students the decision to pursue a Masters degree (or its equivalent) stems from a wish to become an academic expert in their subject area. The advanced knowledge and research training developed through a Masters course is excellent preparation for study at PhD level and is usually the first step towards taking up a successful career in higher education.

For others postgraduate study represents an opportunity to distinguish themselves in non-academic careers. The advanced knowledge, dedication and capacity for independent learning demonstrated by higher level qualifications can help you stand out in a competitive job market. A specialised Masters degree can also be used to bridge the gap between more general academic subjects and specific career paths. A Masters degree in journalism, for example, might offer professional training that builds well upon the skills acquired through an undergraduate degree in humanities subjects such as History or Literature. The same might be true of a Masters in accounting and finance, drawing upon undergraduate study in general mathematics.

Of course, whilst the ability to enhance your career prospects is an important part of the economic benefit of a Masters degree, there's also something to be said for the value of learning for its own sake. As a postgraduate student you'll have the chance to spend more time pursuing a subject you love at the same time as you enhance your CV.

How do undergraduate and postgraduate courses differ?

The key differences

Whatever your reason for pursuing a Masters degree, the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study might seem a little daunting. Preparatory reading lists are likely to be much more extensive and advanced, and the dissertation that concludes most Masters programmes may already loom large as you look at the outline for your prospective course.

The organisation and assessment of your degree may also be different. You'll probably find that large-group teaching is less frequent and that a much greater emphasis is placed on self-directed study. In order to support this, your programme will probably include components designed to meet training needs in research methodology and effective scholarship.

Finally, your relationship with tutors and peers will also differ as you take the step from being an undergraduate student of your subject to becoming an expert in your own right.

Don't worry though: this article offers answers to the questions you're likely to have as you take the next exciting step in your student career. There's also plenty of other helpful advice elsewhere on the FindAMasters website, including a comprehensive list of Frequently Asked Questions about Masters level study.

Specialisation and variety

Postgraduate courses are very similar to their undergraduate equivalents in one respect: programmes in different subject areas or at different institutions vary greatly! This isn't surprising, really. After all, part of the attraction of a Masters degree is the chance to specialise in one of the huge range of topics and sub-fields within a parent discipline. Whereas an undergraduate might study a broad course in a subject like English literature, a Masters degree in the same field might focus upon a particular specialism, such as the writing associated with particular historical contexts, or in selected genres. Similarly, a student in the sciences might go from acquiring a general competence in one of the natural or physical sciences at undergraduate level to an MSc programme designed to develop expertise in very specific areas such as quantum mechanics or forensic chemistry.

This specialisation and the variety that results from it mean that, whilst some key components are common to most programmes (you'll almost always have to produce a dissertation, for example) there isn't really such a thing as a 'typical' Masters course. The advice that follows highlights some of the broader differences between taught undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, but you should be aware that any particular Masters degree may differ in various ways. To get a more specific sense of the way courses are organised in your field, you can search and compare programmes in the FindAMasters database.

It's also worth bearing in mind that this guide is most relevant to UK programmes. Masters courses in other countries can vary quite widely in length, content and examination methods. If you're interested in studying abroad as a postgraduate student you can find guides to Masters courses around the world elsewhere on the FindAMasters website.

What are the course components and study expectations on a Masters programme?

In the UK, progress and achievement in higher education is measured in credit values set out by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The QAA calculates that an individual credit is broadly equivalent to ten hours of learning. A year of full-time undergraduate study is usually worth 120 credits - a third of the 360 credit total required to qualify for a Bachelors degree. A Masters degree, on the other hand, typically runs for one year of full-time study, but requires the attainment of 180 credits in that time. These figures make the difference between the annual workload of an undergraduate and a postgraduate student quite explicit! However, they also reflect two of the key differences between these levels of study: the greater expectation of self-directed study on the part of Masters students and the importance of the Masters dissertation.

The importance of self-directed study

One of the first things you'll notice about Masters programmes is that they tend to include far fewer concurrent units of study or 'modules' than undergraduate courses. On a Masters course you may find yourself only studying two modules per semester, for a total of four across an entire degree. This will usually be reflected in your timetable, which might only feature a few hours of formal contact time with tutors and peers each week. Each full-time semester of your programme will still account for 60 credits though - a third of your degree's total value. So, where are all those credits - and their associated hours of learning - coming from? The answer, of course, is 'self-directed study'.

As a Masters student you'll be required to do a lot more on each module of your programme, but - with the exception of highly practical subject areas - this won't necessarily involve attending more timetabled classes. Instead you'll be expected to read around highlighted materials for each stage of your course, identifying important themes and issues and thinking critically about these in advance of scheduled meetings with your tutors and peers. Even though the majority of Masters courses are classified as 'taught postgraduate' programmes (the exceptions are research degrees such as the MRes) you'll be expected to come to seminars or workshop sessions having already engaged with the subject under discussion and ideally identified and critiqued some relevant scholarship. Your course tutor will introduce complex ideas and explain key issues, but teaching and discussion sessions will function much more as a forum in which yours and your peers' ideas can be discussed, reflected upon and developed.

Assessment and feedback on Masters level modules

The focus upon self-directed study ahead of group discussion and reflection on a Masters course means that you will frequently be required to present and justify your own ideas. On some programmes you may also be asked to maintain a record of your independent study activity or to present short written reports on it (perhaps through contributions to a module website or other digital platform). This is an important part of postgraduate study and constitutes a form of regular formative assessment and feedback. Even if no regular submissions are required, your course tutor will look to gauge your progress based on their assessment of your contributions to class, offering guidance as necessary.

Summative assessment will usually take place at the end of a module. In fact, it's not uncommon for Masters level courses to be examined through a single piece of coursework produced once their timetabled content has been completed. This will provide an opportunity for you to follow through on the interests that have developed and the ideas that have occurred to you during the course, building directly on the independent research and analysis you've undertaken so far. As such, it's likely that you won't be given a list of pre-defined essay topics or analytical tasks of the kind used to assess undergraduates. Courses in fields that are reliant on key practical knowledge may still test you in specific areas (particularly on programmes meeting standards set by professional accreditation) but in other cases you will be asked to identify an area you would like to investigate, agree it with your tutor and get stuck in! This kind of assessment is another important part of what defines postgraduate study. It draws upon the self-directed learning required of you across your course and also provides a series of smaller scale research and writing tasks that prepare you to undertake your Masters dissertation.

What kinds of advanced skills and training do Masters degrees offer?

Most taught Masters programmes include some type of dedicated research training component. This can take the form of specific modules setting and assessing a range of research tasks, or it might occur through additional sessions organised by relevant support and liaison staff based in your university's libraries and research facilities.

Identifying and accessing material

Different subject areas will require specific skills and methodological training (in operating laboratory equipment, for example, or using specialist software for data collection and analysis) but all disciplines will require you to identify and access published material in your field. At postgraduate level this will usually require more thorough and targeted engagement with existing scholarship than can be achieved by simply searching the collections and journal subscriptions in your university library. As a result you will probably receive guidance in searching for material on different subjects using specialist research databases or repositories. Having identified potentially useful material, you will need to know how to access it. This may involve making inter-library loan requests through your institution or applying to visit external libraries and archives.

Evaluating existing scholarship and establishing methodological awareness

It will also be important for you to assess and critique material once you have procured it, as well as keeping accurate records of your research findings in order to attribute data and ideas correctly in any work you submit. For this reason you may be tasked with producing an annotated research bibliography (recording and evaluating material for a given subject) or with writing a review essay on one or more published pieces of work.

Programmes in subjects with variant methodological approaches may also include more theoretical training, ensuring that you comprehend the different (and sometimes competing) perspectives and philosophies that inform research in your field.

Research training as a set of transferrable skills

Training in the above areas will be designed to help support you during your Masters programme and ultimately prepare you to effectively research and write your dissertation. That said, it will also provide you with transferrable skills that will helpful to you beyond postgraduate study. The ability to identify, record and assess information before presenting your findings effectively is valuable in many professions outside academic research.

The Masters dissertation

Taught Masters courses usually conclude with an extended individual research project. This is similar in some respects to the dissertations produced in the final year of some undergraduate programmes, but involves a much more complex and extensive piece of work. To produce a successful Masters dissertation you will need to identify a substantial topic, employ a rigorous scholarly methodology to research it and offer a convincing analysis of a range of material that collectively develops and supports a broader argument. You will also need to demonstrate a sophisticated awareness of existing scholarship in areas relevant to your topic and make a case for the value of your contribution to those ongoing debates.

This may sound like a daunting task, but it's exactly what the rest of your Masters programme will have prepared you to do. The dissertation is an opportunity to draw upon the aptitude for self-directed study and critical thinking you've developed, together with the research training you'll have received. It's your first chance to really assert yourself as a scholar in your own right and a challenge you should be proud of taking on.

You can find more detailed information on the Masters dissertation and the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate research work here. We've also put together some useful advice to help give you a sense of what's involved in researching and writing a Masters dissertation, together with some tips for how best to go about it.

Other types of Masters level qualification

The most common types of degree programme following undergraduate study are taught Masters courses. These are usually named and abbreviated according to their discipline and commonly divide into the MA ('Master of Arts' or Magister Artium) and MSc ('Master of Science' or Magister Scientiae), though other varieties also exist. It is these taught courses that the advice on this page applies to most directly.

Other varieties of Masters course, such as the MBA, are generally taken with very specific aims and outcomes in mind. Masters degree programmes focussing much more upon research also exist, such as the MRes. You can find out more about these degrees, as well as other types of postgraduate qualification, here.

Finding your ideal Masters course

For more information on taught postgraduate study, take a look at the other advice articles on the FindAMasters website. If you're ready to start looking for your perfect Masters programme, you can start searching!

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