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Masters Study – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is a Masters for Me?

Further study at postgraduate level is just one of the many options available to you upon completing your undergraduate degree. For some students, a Masters is the next step towards a PhD programme and eventually an academic career. For others, specialised postgraduate training helps link their undergraduate experience to specific career goals. In some cases a postgraduate programme can also offer time to reflect on different options and ‘try out’ more specialised academic study or professional training whilst gaining an additional qualification.

Whatever your aims, you should keep in mind that postgraduate study represents a further investment of your time and money and won’t automatically be relevant to all of your possible future career goals. The advice in this FAQ is designed to help you make an informed decision, but you should also consider getting in touch with the careers advisory service at your current university and talking your ideas through with them.

What is a Masters degree?

This may seem like a silly question, but in fact there are many types of postgraduate course and qualification available, not all of which are ‘Masters’ level degrees.

In general, Masters programmes are self-contained courses of study with at least some substantial independent research component. They are typically offered as ‘second-cycle’ qualifications, taking place after undergraduate (‘first-cycle’) study and preparing students for more advanced ‘third-cycle’ work at PhD level. This is the terminology employed within Europe (following the Bologna Process), but it reflects a global movement towards equivalence in higher education. Partial exceptions to this system exist in some countries where undergraduate students can pursue four-year programmes that award a Masters (this is the case at some universities in Scotland, for example). The status and content of the Masters qualification remains the same, however, with the final year of such programmes consisting of advanced units of study and a dissertation.

MA, MSc, MRes, MPhil – what’s the difference?

One of the first things you’ll notice about Masters programmes is the range of titles they fall under. In fact, many courses with different names are actually similar in terms of structure and level. The most significant divide in Masters programmes is between taught degrees and research qualifications.

Taught programmes

Most Masters degrees are taught programmes. They usually involve completing a series of timetabled units across two semesters before undertaking an extended individual research project or dissertation.

The most common are the MA (‘Master of Arts’) and the MSc (‘Master of Science’). As their names suggest, these are similar to undergraduate BA and BSc degrees. Their content and organisation will reflect the requirements of different fields, but they award degrees at an equivalent level. Specific subjects (particularly those in vocational fields such as Law, Architecture or Education) sometimes use their own titles and abbreviations (such as LLM, MArch or MEd). They are Masters degrees much like the MA and MSc, but their content and assessment may be professionally accredited.

Research programmes

Other Masters degrees focus much more on a student’s ability to undertake independent research tasks. The most common are the MRes (‘Master of Research’) and the MPhil (‘Master of Philosophy’).

An MRes will usually commence with some taught components, but quickly move on to a series of research assignments. You might think of this kind of degree as a Masters with extra dissertation tasks taking the place of some taught modules. An MRes programme may suit students seeking professional careers in which research ability is valuable, but a PhD is unnecessary. Alternatively, an MRes may offer an early opportunity to develop additional research experience with the intention of subsequently completing a PhD.

An MPhil is usually entirely research-based and involves similar work to a PhD. The difference is that MPhil projects are shorter, do not necessarily need to produce a substantial new contribution to scholarship in their field and do not award the title ‘Doctor’. Many students are registered at MPhil level when they begin a PhD, before being upgraded. However, some choose to study specifically for the MPhil if they believe a full PhD is not required for their career goals.

What about an MBA?

The MBA (or ‘Master of Business Administration’) is a qualification designed for business professionals seeking to enhance their career progression. MBA courses are usually only considered by students with very specific goals and generally require a number of years of professional experience. For this reason they don’t tend to follow straight from undergraduate study. You can read more about MBA programmes and search for your ideal course at FindAnMBA.com.

How does postgraduate study differ from undergraduate study?

At first glance, a typical taught Masters programme can look very similar to its undergraduate equivalent. For most of your course you’ll select course units delivered by faculty members with relevant expertise and complete them in designated semesters of study. This familiar structure makes the initial transition from undergraduate to taught postgraduate work relatively manageable. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why so many students choose to study for a Masters degree before taking on a more independent PhD research project.

The real differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study may not be obvious until you investigate course materials and assessment criteria more closely. As you do you’ll find that a much greater emphasis is placed on your ability to undertake independent, self-directed study. This isn’t just true of the dissertation project that concludes a typical Masters programme; it’s also the case for taught units, which will expect you to prepare more comprehensively for timetabled classes and may also ask you to identify your own assessment topics. A good Masters programme won’t just leave you with a greater level of subject knowledge; it will also guide the development of your own critical voice.

What can I study on a Masters degree?

You can study for a Masters degree in a huge range of subjects, including all of those offered at undergraduate level, plus many new specialisms that may not have been available to you before. This is where postgraduate study becomes really exciting as you’ll have the opportunity to pursue entire degree courses focussed on your particular interests.

For example, whilst you might study a general undergraduate programme in Literature, an equivalent postgraduate course may allow you to explore writing associated with very specific genres of cultural contexts. In the sciences, meanwhile, you might go from acquiring a broad understanding of Chemistry on a BSc degree to an MSc programme that just focusses on forensic analysis or nanomaterials.

Even if you choose a more general Masters course – as many students do in order to develop their broader subject knowledge at a higher level – you’ll still be able to specialise at the dissertation stage of your programme.

How can I study?

Because postgraduate students are often older, with additional commitments, there is a greater incentive for universities to offer more flexible modes of study. As a result many Masters programmes offer part-time options and some will even allow you to enrol as an off-campus student and complete a course through distance learning. The emphasis on self-directed study on Masters programmes also suits them well to blended-learning approaches, taking advantage of new technology and e-learning platforms. This means that you may be able to find programmes that include options to attend timetabled classes or follow course content and contribute to discussion online, depending on your circumstances. You can search the FindAMasters database for courses with part-time or distance learning options.

How long does a taught Masters degree take?

In the UK, most taught Masters programmes run for one year full-time and two years part-time. Be aware, however, that full-time courses run for a full twelve month period, with independent dissertation work usually commencing after the first two semesters and continuing during the summer.

However you choose to study, you will be required to complete a total of 180 credits in order to receive your degree from a university in the UK. This credit system helps support more flexible modes of study as part-time students can gradually accumulate the taught credits necessary to reach the dissertation stage.

What about course lengths for research Masters?

Course lengths are often more flexible for research programmes. An MRes , which combines a small taught component with multiple independent research tasks, will usually take between one and two years to complete depending on your mode of study. An MPhil, which involves producing a longer thesis and often transitions into PhD-level work, generally requires the equivalent of at least two years of full-time study.

What qualifications do I need?

The minimum entry requirement for a UK Masters programme is usually a Bachelors degree (or its equivalent) in an appropriate field, awarded at 2.1 level or higher. Application with a lower grade may be possible (particularly if you can demonstrate aptitude and enthusiasm for the specific subject of your Masters degree), but your chances of gaining a place on a more competitive programme could be limited.

Recognition of international qualifications is increasing and is unlikely to pose a problem within the European Higher Education Area. If in doubt, you should contact your prospective university in advance.

Will I need to submit a GRE result or a GMAT score?

As a rule, you are unlikely to need to submit additional test scores in order to apply to a Masters programme in the UK. Exceptions may include applications to business schools or other particularly competitive programmes. In these cases additional graduate aptitude tests may be requested or may help distinguish you from other applicants. Two of the most common tests used in postgraduate admissions are the GRE and the GMAT.

The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is not typically used by universities in the UK, though it may be useful in some cases if you are applying to study abroad.

The GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) is designed specifically for business programmes. You may find a good GMAT score is valuable when applying to a competitive MBA programme, but it is not always stipulated.

What about language tests?

If English is not your first language, you may be asked to submit a language test score to confirm that you will be able to successfully comprehend course materials and complete assessment tasks. The most common tests are the IELTS (International Language Testing System) and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), but others also exist.

How much will a Masters degree cost me?

Postgraduate courses in the UK tend to be cheaper than equivalent Bachelors degrees. This is due to a combination of lower fees per year and shorter overall duration. As a guide, the average cost for a one-year full-time Masters programme in the UK is around £6,000. However, there is no government cap on postgraduate tuition fees and this means that costs in some subjects can be much higher. You can get a sense of the cost for programmes in your specific field and compare courses by searching the FindAMasters database.

How can I fund my Masters degree?

With the exception of some teaching qualifications, student loans are not usually available to fund postgraduate programmes in the UK. Do not worry though: a range of organisations offer funding to help support Masters students. A limited number of fully funded scholarships will be available from individual universities, or from UK Research Councils. Charitable bodies and private organisations also offer partial funding to support postgraduates in particular areas. In fact, in addition to helping you find your ideal course and understand the options available to you, FindAMasters offer eight Masters scholarships of our own! Click herefor more information.

However you go about funding your studies, you will need to be pro-active in identifying and applying for support. You can read more about funding for Masters study on the FindAMasters website or visit our PostgraduateFunding website, which lists a large number of grants available to postgraduate students around the world.

How do I decide where and what to study?

Various factors may influence your decision when you come to choose a university for postgraduate study. There may be a programme available at your current institution, building directly on the material you’ve studied at undergraduate level and delivered by faculty you’re familiar with in a location where you may already be settled. Alternatively, you may have developed a particular interest that aligns more closely with the research expertise and facilities available at another institution. Studying at a new university may also help broaden your horizons and expose you to new ideas and possibilities in your field. It can be hard to gauge this without investigating possibilities elsewhere, so don’t completely discount moving institutions simply because there seems to be a suitable programme where you already are.

Your decision may also be influenced by financial factors, including the cost of different programmes and the availability of funding. Some universities offer fee waivers or full scholarships to a small number of suitable Masters students whilst others may already have Research Council funding in place for candidates who are likely to go on to PhD level work.

Whatever factors influence your decision, you should make sure you’re as well informed as possible about the range of options available to you. Search the FindAMasters database to identify and compare courses in your subject area.

What is the application process for a Masters?

There is no UCAS equivalent for postgraduate study in the UK. In academic subject areas you will usually apply directly to the institution you wish to study at. Some vocational subjects (in fields such as education or law, for example) may require you to apply through a centralised application system.

Different universities will set their own criteria and deadlines, but the application process will usually commence in the academic year before your Masters programme is set to begin. Even if there is no strict deadline for applications, you should try and begin the process as soon as you are able. This will leave you more time to investigate funding.

There is no restriction on the number of Masters courses you can apply for simultaneously, but you should be wary of overstretching yourself. Applications for a Masters programme are likely to be more involved than those for undergraduate study; you may need to submit a personal statement, procure references from undergraduate tutors or even attend an interview. The criteria and deadlines for different programmes may also vary and this could leave you with a lot to juggle – particularly if you’re also completing the final year of an undergraduate programme! Of course, there’s nothing to stop you getting in touch with more than one institution and asking any questions you may have about their programmes - admissions tutors will be more than happy to answer enquiries from prospective students. You can find contact details for all of the courses in the FindAMasters database.

The time it takes individual institutions to make a decision on Masters applications will vary according to their requirements and procedures and the time it takes supporting materials such as references to arrive. In general though you should expect a decision to be made relatively quickly once the application deadline has passed – universities know that students need time to investigate funding and organise any accommodation requirements. The admissions tutor for your course should be able to offer you more specific information.

How should I prepare my personal statement and references?

Exact criteria for different courses will vary, but at the very least you will need to confirm the result of your undergraduate programme. Don’t worry if you’ve yet to receive your Bachelors degree: your current university should be able to calculate a projected result for you. Common supporting materials for Masters applications include personal statements and references.

See your personal statement as an opportunity to communicate your interest in a course and your particular suitability for it. Refer to specific parts of your undergraduate work (or other experiences) that demonstrate aptitude and interests appropriate to the programme in question. Highlight relevant elective module choices and be sure to mention any final year dissertation or research project.

References function to validate and balance your personal statement. Try and include at least one referee with experience of your undergraduate work (such as a personal tutor or dissertation supervisor). Make sure you ask their permission and, if possible, chat with them in advance about your interests and aspirations. Be respectful of their other commitments and leave them plenty of time to meet your application deadline. The likelihood is that they will have a large number of other reference requests to fulfil.

How are Masters degrees graded?

Masters degrees in the UK are usually awarded with ‘Merit’ or ‘Distinction’ to distinguish levels of performance above a basic ‘Passing’ requirement. In practice, the grade bands for these results are similar to those used to award third class, second class and first class honours on Bachelors programmes. On most taught Masters an overall mark of 50% or above is sufficient to ‘Pass’, whilst 60% and 70% are required to award a ‘Merit’ and ‘Distinction’ respectively. Variations do exist, with some universities awarding a ‘Passing’ grade at 40% whilst others may raise the requirement for ‘Distinction’ to 80%. The process for determining an overall grade on a taught Masters programme is also similar to that used for undergraduate courses. Assessments associated with individual modules will collectively determine your final result and will be weighted according to their credit value. The only significant difference may concern your dissertation, which might need to fall within a given grade-band in order for that result to be awarded overall. For example, you may not be deemed eligible to pass with ‘Distinction’ if your dissertation received a mark substantially below the 70% usually required for this level.

What’s involved in a Masters dissertation?

The dissertation is what really makes a Masters. This is where you’ll use all of the skills you’ve developed across your course, drawing upon specialist research training and the experience of undertaking independent self-directed study as part of the preparation and assessment required by your taught modules. It’s also where you’ll get to pursue your own research interests at an advanced level, developing your own critical voice and offering a new and unique contribution to the scholarship in your field. All in all, it’s exciting, challenging and something to be incredibly proud of doing!

On most programmes the dissertation process commences in the third semester (after Easter) and runs right through the summer. You will identify a sufficiently complex research topic and be assigned a supervisor with appropriate experience and expertise. A schedule of targets and progress meetings will then be agreed, after which you’ll be ready to start researching and writing!

Where can I find advice on researching and writing a Masters dissertation?

You’ll receive plenty of guidance and advice from tutors as you approach the dissertation stage of your programme. In many cases there will be workshops and other sessions dedicated to helping students choose a suitable topic and allowing them to ask questions about the dissertation process. It can also be helpful to chat to other Masters students – past and present – about their experiences. A great place to do this is our postgraduate forum, which is home to a helpful community of postgraduates, many of whom will be happy to answer any questions. Finally, we’ve also put together a set of useful tips for students new to the Masters dissertation process.

Can I study for a Masters degree abroad?

Yes, and many students do! The comparatively short length of most Masters programmes makes them ideal for studying abroad. You won’t need to secure accommodation for extensive periods and visa requirements may also be more relaxed for students on shorter courses.

Studying in another country can also add a lot to the academic and vocational value of a postgraduate course. If you’re interested in pursuing a more specialised subject-area you may benefit from the research expertise at foreign universities, holdings in overseas archives or opportunities for data collection in specific regions. Spending a year or two working in a foreign country can also demonstrate your adaptability and develop additional language skills – both of which look great on your CV.

To find out more about studying a Masters degree abroad, you can look at our detailed guides to postgraduate study in individual countries. These have information on the way Masters programmes are organised and offered within different higher education systems, as well as guidance on application procedures and immigration requirements for foreign students. We also offer more general guides to living as a postgraduate student in a range of countries. These cover everything from local customs and living costs to tips on making the most of your time abroad.

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