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A Masters is an advanced academic degree that takes place at postgraduate, or 'second-cycle', level, building on existing undergraduate qualifications or professional experience.
This page presents an introduction to postgraduate study at Masters level. You can read answers to basic questions and learn where to look for more detailed information elsewhere in our guides.
Whatever your undergraduate subject, your experience probably wasn’t that different from other students at your university.
You probably studied for three years full-time and lived near (or on) your campus.
Your degree was probably made up of taught units, ranging across an entire subject area. Most of your study time was probably spent attending classes and completing assessments.
The qualification you received was probably called a BA (Bachelor of Arts) or a BSc (Bachelor of Science).
Postgraduate study is much more varied – particularly at Masters level:
This is all part of what makes studying a Master such a valuable opportunity.
You’ll have the chance to select from a variety of different degree types and pick the right qualification for you. As part of this, you’ll have the opportunity to really specialise, with subject-specific degrees, or other highly focussed courses.
|Type||Taught and research|
|Length||1-2 years full-time|
|Credits value||180 CATS / 90 ECTS|
|Qualification level||7 (NQF)|
(Almost) all Masters degrees are postgraduate qualifications, but not all postgraduate qualifications are Masters degrees.
In fact, a wide range of other courses are available. These include shorter 'Masters-level' courses such as Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas as well as even more advanced degrees such as PhDs and other doctorates.
Here's a quick summary of the different 'levels of postgraduate study':
|Qualification||Type||UK level||Bologna level||Length|
|Masters||Taught or research||7||Second-cycle||1-2 years|
|Postgraduate Diploma||Taught||7||Second-cycle||2 semesters|
|Postgraduate Certificate||Taught||7||Second-cycle||1 semester|
|* This information is a general guideline and is based on full-time courses. See our guides to postgraduate qualification types for more information.|
Unlike undergraduate degrees, Masters courses can be ‘taught’ or ‘research’ based:
As a general rule, taught degrees are best for students who wish to expand upon their subject knowledge. Research programmes are designed for postgraduates who wish to spend more time on their own independent scholarship or project work.
Masters programmes in the UK are usually graded as a Distinction, Merit or Pass. This system works different to Bachelors degrees, which receive a 1st, 2.1, 2.2. or 3rd. You can find out more about how it works in our guide to Masters degree grades.
If you’re beginning to consider postgraduate study, you may also be wandering about the difference between a Masters and a PhD.
Put simply, the PhD is a fully independent research degree. A Masters still involves acquiring existing subject knowledge through teaching and mentoring. But a PhD consists entirely of original scholarship.
In fact, the core requirement for a PhD is that a student makes an ‘original contribution to knowledge’.
You might say that a Masters gives you a ‘Mastery’ of your subject as it’s currently understood. A PhD, on the other hand, is your chance to expand that understanding.
Some students use a Masters to prepare for a PhD by gaining additional knowledge, expertise and research skills.
But a Masters isn’t always a prerequisite for a PhD. In some subjects (such as Science and Engineering) students may go straight to doctoral study after an undergraduate degree.
Masters-level study is becoming more popular as students and professionals react to a changing employment landscape.
The growth of a more highly skilled workforce has identified the value of advanced skills and training provided by more advanced qualifications.
Existing employees are also increasingly likely to switch roles (or even careers). Many return to postgraduate study for additional training or ‘continuing professional development’.
Official data from the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals that there were 472,915 Masters-level students in the UK in 2018-19. This includes students on shorter postgraduate courses such as Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas as well as those studying Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) qualifications.
International study is especially popular at postgraduate level. Many students head abroad to seek specialist facilities and expert training.
Data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics indicates that the number of people studying abroad probably exceeds 4 million. This is double the figure for the beginning of the 21st century and includes many international postgraduates.
In most cases you'll begin a Masters (or other postgraduate degree) having already completed a Bachelors (or other undergraduate degree). The entry requirements for postgraduate study take account of this, with most courses requiring a 2.1 or higher in a related subject (though lower class degrees may be accepted).
Not all postgraduate programmes need an undergraduate degree. If you have relevant skills and experience you may be admitted to an appropriate postgraduate programme without a bachelors.
This is more likely for professional courses, however. Most Masters programmes will expect applicants to hold an appropriate Bachelors degree (and will be difficult to complete without this existing subject knowledge).
Even if your course does require a Bachelors degree, you don’t need to continue to postgraduate study immediately.
In fact, many students return to university after a period in work and gain qualifications that help them advance in existing careers – or change career path.
Some also choose to study a postgraduate course part-time, whilst maintaining their existing employment. Many universities offer flexible study options such as distance learning to help students do this.
Masters degrees don't normally use UCAS (or a similar centralised application system). Instead students apply directly to universities, with each institution setting its own requirements and deadlines. Don't worry though: these are likely to be quite similar in practice.
Until relatively recently, higher education systems around the world took different approaches to postgraduate study.
In Europe this has been addressed as part of a system known as the Bologna Process. This organises degrees into three ‘cycles’ (Bachelors, Masters and PhD). Qualifications at each level have the same recognised academic value.
As a result, ‘long cycle’ Masters programmes (which often began at undergraduate level) have been phased out. Their replacements are modern postgraduate degrees.
There are still some differences between different countries though.
In the UK, for example, a full-time Masters tends to run for a full calendar year. Most European countries offer two-year programmes (with a summer break).
Research Masters are also less common outside the UK. European (and US) universities are more likely to restrict independent research to PhD level work.
You can read all about Masters degrees in different higher education systems in our international study guides.
In the UK the term ‘postgraduate’ refers to training that takes place ‘post’ (after) graduation from a Bachelors degree (or equivalent). In countries like the US, the term ‘graduate’ is used instead to refer to training at the level of a ‘graduate’ – someone who has graduated from a previous degree program. The two terms mean the same thing as far as students are concerned.
Last updated - 23/07/20