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What is a Masters Degree?

This may seem a strange question to start with on a website listing thousands of Masters courses. Yet, as the options available to students become more varied, it’s actually a very good one to ask.

Put simply, postgraduate study involves a further period of education or training after completing an undergraduate degree.

The most familiar type of postgraduate program is a Masters:

  • A Masters degree is a postgraduate qualification that normally follows undergraduate study. It delivers advanced academic knowledge and develops independent scholarship and / or professional expertise. Most Masters programs last one or two years.

As you complete a Masters, you’ll go from being a learner to becoming a scholar, with your own specialism and expertise.

This page presents a simple 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.

Levels of postgraduate study

It’s helpful to think of postgraduate study as having two ‘levels’.

This helps make sense of the difference between more familiar Masters degrees and higher research qualifications such as the PhD.

It’s also the way in which most higher education systems in Europe organise postgraduate degrees. The system for this is called the Bologna Process. It divides degrees into three ‘cycles’ of study.

  • Masters degrees and other taught postgraduate programs are ‘second cycle’ qualifications. They build on undergraduate (‘first cycle’) courses and prepare for more advanced programs.
  • PhDs and other types of ‘doctorate’ are ‘third cycle’ qualifications. They are almost entirely based on independent academic research and are the highest level of academic degree someone can study for.

Of course, things aren’t always quite as simple as this.

Some students go straight from undergraduate study to a PhD. And some Masters degrees, such as the MPhil or MRes, are almost entirely research-based (and not that different, on paper, from a PhD).

There are also lots of types of Masters degree as well as other qualifications at the same level that don’t award a full Masters. Which brings us to…

Varieties of postgraduate study

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:

  • Whereas a Bachelors is always a taught degree and a PhD is always research-based, a Masters can be either.
  • Whereas a Bachelors normally awards a BA or a BSc, the MA and MSc are joined by a range of other Masters degrees. Some are only offered by specific institutions. Others are only offered in certain subjects.
  • And, whereas most undergraduate students study full-time, on campus, it’s much more common for Masters students to enrol part-time, combine work and study or even study by distance learning.

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.

Other Masters-level Qualifications

Not all taught postgraduate qualifications are full Masters degrees.

Many are shorter courses known as Postgraduate Certificates (PGCert) or Postgraduate Diplomas (PGDip). These include taught units at an advanced level. But they don’t require a final dissertation or carry the same number of academic credits as a full Masters.

PGCert and PGDip courses are idea if you want to acquire specific postgraduate training in a shorter timeframe. They are a popular way for returning professionals to expand or refresh their skills. Some also prepare students for specific professions (such as teaching or legal practice).

Which Masters qualification is right for you?

The range of options on offer at Masters-level doesn't have to be confusing. Our guide to postgraduate study covers all the common types of Masters degree (from the MA and MSc to the MFA and MLitt) as well as PGDip and PGCert courses.

Taught degrees and research degrees

Unlike undergraduate degrees, Masters courses can be ‘taught’ or ‘research’ based:

  • Taught Masters are a lot like undergraduate degrees. You’ll study a series of modules before going on to complete an extended dissertation.
  • Research Masters involve much more independent study. They can still include taught units, but you’ll spend more time on your own supervised research work.

As a general rule, taught degrees are best for students who wish to expand upon their subject knowledge. Research programs are designed for postgraduates who wish to spend more time on their own independent scholarship or project work.

Masters vs PhD

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.

Not sure where to take your postgraduate studies?

You can read more about using a Masters as a pathway to PhD study in our look at reasons for studying a Masters. Or, if you’re more interested in a PhD, check out the detailed advice over at FindAPhD.com.

How popular is postgraduate study?

Postgraduate 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 further study.

In fact, the UK chancellor has recently highlighted this demand when preparing a new system of postgraduate loans to boost the numbers of students on Masters degrees.

Existing employees are also increasingly likely to switch roles (or even careers). Many return to postgraduate study for additional training or ‘continuing professional development’.

Popularity of postgraduate study in the UK

In the UK, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) monitors the number of students on postgraduate courses.

Their most recent data (for 2013-14) indicates that:

  • The total number of postgraduates in the UK was 539,440. This is an annual increase of 1%.
    • 62% were UK students.
    • 9% were EU students.
    • 29% were international students. (non EU).
  • Just under half (44%) of postgraduates studied part-time programs.
  • In total, 27% of the qualifications awarded at UK universities in 2013-14 were at taught postgraduate level (including Masters degrees). A further 3% were PGCE (postgraduate teacher training) courses.

Note that these figures are approximate, based on data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. For more information, see the official HESA website.

Popularity of postgraduate study abroad

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.

Interested in studying a Masters abroad?

You can find out more in our series of detailed country guides. These cover popular postgraduate destinations in Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and Africa.

Do all postgraduate courses require an undergraduate degree?

Not all postgraduate programs need an undergraduate degree. If you have relevant skills and experience you may be admitted to an appropriate postgraduate program without a bachelors.

This is more likely for professional courses, however. Most Masters programs will expect applicants to hold an appropriate Bachelors degree (and will be difficult to complete without this existing subject knowledge).

Some integrated Masters degrees also begin at the undergraduate level.

Do I have to begin my postgraduate course as soon as I graduate?

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.

Are Masters Degrees The Same In Different Countries?

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 programs (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 programs (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.

‘Postgraduate’ vs ‘Graduate’

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 - 23/02/2016

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