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Masters Study – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Postgraduate study is just one of the many options available to you after finishing 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 significant 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 guide 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.

You can also read our page on the reasons why you might want to study a Masters.

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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 the form of integrated Masters courses such as the four-year programmes that undergraduate students in Scotland pursue. 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. Similarly, the four-year MEng qualification awards a professional degree in Engineering.

MA, MSc, MRes, MPhil, MBA – 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.

Master of Business Administration

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 several years of professional experience. For this reason they don’t tend to follow straight from undergraduate study.

One alternative to the MBA for students without significant professional experience is the Masters in Management (MiM). These courses are typically designed for recent graduates from a range of background, giving them a rigorous grounding in economics, accounting and organizational theory.

Types of Masters

Find out more about the different kinds of Masters qualification, from the MA and the MSc to the research-based MRes.

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.

Bachelors vs Masters

Want to find out more about the differences between a Bachelors and a Masters? Read our guide to the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study.

What is the application process for a Masters?

In most cases, you apply directly to the university, rather than though a centralised application portal like UCAS. However, UCAS does run a postgraduate application service called UCAS Postgraduate, which is used by some universities.

Certain vocational subjects (in fields such as education or law, for example) may require you to apply through a centralised application system of their own.

Different universities set their own criteria and deadlines, but the application process usually starts in the academic year before your Masters programme is set to commence. Even if there is no strict deadline for applications, you should try and begin the process as soon as possible.

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, and you may need to:

  • Submit a personal statement
  • Get references from undergraduate tutors or employers
  • Provide academic transcripts and a CV
  • Attend an interview

The criteria and deadlines for different programmes 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 might have about their programmes.

The time it takes individual institutions to make a decision on Masters applications will vary according to their requirements and procedures and how long it takes supporting materials such as references to arrive.

In general, 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 haven’t received your Bachelors degree yet: 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 lots of other reference requests to fulfil.

Postgraduate entry requirements

Our guide to Masters entry requirements covers academic qualifications, relevant experience and language proficiency.

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 focused 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 or 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 focuses on forensic analysis or nanomaterials.

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

Why not start by taking a look at the thousands of Masters programmes listed on our website?

How can I study?

Because postgraduate students are often older, with additional commitments, there is a greater incentive for universities to provide more flexible modes of study. As a result, many Masters programmes offer part-time options. 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.

Flexible study

Read more about different modes of study for Masters programmes.

How many credits for a Masters?

You’ll need to complete a total of 180 CATS 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.

European universities use the European Credit and Transfer System (ECTS), where one ECTS point is the equivalent of two UK points. So, 180 UK credits is the same as 90 ECTS credits. However, most Masters programmes in Europe are worth either 60 or 120 ECTS points.

How long does a taught Masters degree take?

Most Masters degrees are shorter than undergraduate degrees, lasting one to two years. The exact length of a Masters depends on the type of course you study and how intensively you study it.

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.

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.

What if I have an unrelated undergraduate degree?

It depends on the course and university you’re applying to. If you have an undergraduate degree in History, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to apply for a Masters in Computational Physics, for example – and vice versa.

However, if you have substantial extracurricular experience in the topic you want to study, it’s possible that your prospective university will take this into account when assessing your application.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that many postgraduate programmes are designed as ‘conversion courses’, which means you don’t need prior undergraduate experience in the subject. Popular examples of these include the Graduate Diploma in Law, the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and the MSc in Psychology.

Do I need an undergraduate degree to apply for a Masters?

In some circumstances, you may be able to study a Masters without a Bachelors degree. If you’re coming to university after a period of employment in which you’ve gained substantial, relevant professional experience, your university might be willing to take this into account.

Please note that it’s more likely that you’ll have to complete an admissions interview if you don’t have an undergraduate degree.

Another possibility if you don’t have a Bachelors degree is to apply for an integrated Masters programme. Integrated Masters can take a few different forms, but the one we’re concerned with is also known as an ‘undergraduate Masters’.

These programmes typically involve three years of undergraduate-level study, then a fourth year of Masters-level study. The most popular examples include the Master of Engineering (MEng) and the Master in Science (MSci). Not to be confused with the Master of Science (MSc), the MSci is more common in regulated professional fields such as Psychology and applied sciences like Industrial Chemistry.

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 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.

Graduate entry tests

Read our guide to graduate entry tests, including the GRE, GMAT and various international entry tests.

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 understand course materials and complete assessment tasks.

The most common tests are IELTS (International Language Testing System) and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), but others also exist.

The same goes for programmes taught in other languages that aren’t your ‘first’ – we’ve written a guide to some of the most common tests, including French, German and Spanish.

English language tests

Find out more about English language tests for postgraduates, including typical entry scores and helpful practice tips.

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 £6,842.

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 or by reading our guide to the cost of a Masters.

How can I fund my Masters degree?

Postgraduate Masters loans are available for Masters programmes in the UK, for students from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. EU students can also have access to these loans, depending on their circumstances and where they’re studying.

A range of other organisations provide 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 certain areas. If you’re an international student, our funding guide for the UK explains the best options open to you.

It’s also worth knowing that every year we offer several FindAMasters scholarships of our own!

Postgraduate funding

Want to find out more about postgraduate funding? Our guide covers the essentials, from postgraduate loans and Erasmus funding through to how much a Masters actually costs and options for international students.

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.

This is how overall grades correspond to different classifications on most taught Masters:

  • 50% and above – Pass
  • 60% and above – Merit
  • 70% and above – Distinction

Variations do exist, with some universities awarding a ‘Passing’ grade at 40% and others raising the requirement for ‘Distinction’ to 80%.

The process for determining an overall grade on a taught Masters programme is similar to that used for undergraduate courses.

Assessments associated with individual modules collectively determine your final result and are weighted according to their credit value.

The only significant difference concerns 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 writing 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.

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. You’ll then agree a schedule of targets and progress meetings with your supervisor, after which you’ll be ready to start researching and writing!

Masters dissertations

Find out more about researching and writing a Masters dissertation.

Do I need to write a dissertation during a Masters?

You’ll almost always have to write a dissertation if you’re studying a full academic Masters. However, there are plenty of postgraduate qualifications that don’t require a dissertation.

For example, the postgraduate diploma (PGDip) and the postgraduate certificate (PGCert) both involve Masters-level content, without the dissertation element of a full Masters. They’re also shorter than a standard Masters: the PGDip consists of 60 CATS credits and the PGCE 120 credits, compared to a Masters with 180 credits.

So, if you’re interested in a postgraduate qualification but for whatever reason don’t want to write a dissertation, there are options out there for you!

Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas

Find out more about PGDip and PGCert qualifications, including entry requirements, subjects and course structure.

Will a Masters degree make me more employable?

Research from several sources suggests that those with a Masters are more likely to be employed, to hold a senior professional position and to earn a higher salary than people without such a qualification.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that a Masters won’t automatically mean that you’ll walk into the perfect job. You’ll need to think about your reasons for postgraduate study and make sure that you can demonstrate the value of your qualification to any potential employers.

Masters employability

Using official government data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), our guide to Masters employability summarises the facts and figures relating to postgraduate employment.

Will I need a Masters to do a PhD?

A Masters degree can provide a great pathway to further study at doctoral (PhD) level. The advanced subject knowledge you’ll acquire will provide a great platform for further postgraduate research, whilst the practical skills you’ll gain during your dissertation will help prepare you to carry out a more substantial independent project.

For this reason, many students choose to study for a Masters before going on to a PhD.

However, you don’t necessarily have to follow this route. Some PhD projects and programmes will accept students with a good Bachelors degree, though this is more common in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects than in Arts and Humanities.

If you aren’t sure which degree is right for you, consider discussing your options with a current tutor – or potential PhD supervisor. You can also read more about doctoral study at FindAPhD.

Search for a Masters

Ready to find your perfect Masters degree? Take a look at the thousands of Masters listed on our website!

Last updated - 07/03/2019

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