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Why study a Masters degree?

Different students have different reasons for studying a Masters. But most do so in the hope that postgraduate study will improve their career prospects.

You might have a specific job in mind – such as an academic role, for which a Masters degree is often the next step. Others return to postgraduate study to boost their career progress or switch career paths.

Of course, employability isn’t the only reason to study a postgraduate degree. Many students enjoy the chance to pursue their undergraduate subject at a more advanced level. There’s also nothing to say you can’t follow a subject you love and enhance your job prospects.

This page presents an overview of some of the main uses for a Masters degree, both professional and academic. It also offers some advice on evaluating your own reasons for postgraduate study – and making sure your decision is the right one.

Studying a Masters for the right reasons

Whatever your goals, it’s important is that you consider your reasons for postgraduate study carefully.

Spending another year at university can seem appealing if you’re not yet sure what you want to do after you graduate. But don’t assume that you’ll automatically make yourself more employable by doing so.

Equally, you should remember that following an academic career path can be challenging. You’ll need to complete a PhD after your Masters, meaning at least four years more study. In most cases you’ll also need to spend time on a postdoctoral research project (a ‘Postdoc’) before securing a permanent job.

Reflecting on your decision making

There are plenty of people out there who can help you evaluate your postgraduate plans. You could (and should) consult your current university’s careers advisory service. You can also take advice from your lecturers or talk to friends, family and fellow students.

But the person who really knows the most about your decision, is you. So take some time to reflect on your own decision and your reasoning.

Should you study a Masters?

Here are some good questions to ask yourself before you commit to a Masters.

  • Are you passionate enough about your subject?

    A Masters won’t just ask you to tackle more complex material. It will also challenge you to take more responsibility for the way in which you do so. Even a taught program will involve lots of independent reading and preparation. This means that you’ll need to be self-motivated and enthusiastic about what you’re studying.

    If you’re considering postgraduate study as a ‘stopgap’ or ‘plan b’, think carefully about how you’ll cope with these expectations of you.

  • Are you ready for another year (or more) of university study?

    If you’ve just finished three years of undergraduate work, you might have some understandable ‘study fatigue’. Remember that you don’t have to begin your Masters immediately after your Bachelors.

    A period in work could help you take a break from studying and reflect on your goals. You might even put yourself in a better position to afford a Masters. (You can always come back and study part-time, or via distance learning).

  • Can you afford it?

    The cost of a Masters varies. Some subjects are more expensive than others. Some courses don’t charge fees. But, whatever and wherever you study, you’ll need to pay living costs. You may able to cover these through funding or work. But you should still bear in mind that postgraduate study represents at least another year of ‘missed’ full-time earnings.

    A Masters can have value, but it’s never entirely ‘free’. Make sure you know how you’re going to cover your costs in the short term and that your qualification will be worth it in the long term.

  • Are you studying the right qualification?

    Postgraduate study is very varied, with various types of Masters degree and other qualifications. Some develop academic expertise. Others have more obvious professional and vocational applications. Some include lots of research. Others are much more applied.

    Review all the options available to you and pick a course that fits your interests and goals.

  • Are you putting off a bigger decision about your future?

    This one calls for some honesty. Choosing to stay on for a Masters because you aren’t yet sure what you want to do for a career isn’t actually the worst thing you can do. (Provided you’ve thought about the questions above). You’ll pick up an additional qualification, develop transferable skills and potentially open the door to further academic training.

    But you should be clear with yourself if this is part of your reason for studying a Masters. Don’t try to convince yourself a Masters in medieval history is vital to your professional aspirations if it isn’t. And don’t coast into training for an academic career when, deep down, you know you really hate writing essays.

Asking these questions should help you reflect on your decision making and think about what you hope to get out of a Masters degree.

But you shouldn’t take the self-interrogation too far. Masters degrees have lots to offer. We should know – we’ve been helping students find them for over a decade.

If you’re satisfied with your answers, you can be confident that a Masters degree could be a great choice for you too.

Speak to other students

One of the best ways to reflect on your reasons for postgraduate study is to speak to other students about their own decisions. Why not ask some of the postgraduates at your university about their plans? You can also get in touch with current postgraduate students via communities like the postgraduate forum.

Postgraduate study for employment

Evidence suggests that a Masters degree may increase your employability and lifetime earnings.

Completing a postgraduate course is also an impressive achievement in itself. It demonstrates your ability to tackle complex material and complete more challenging assessment tasks.

Some Masters courses also enhance academic undergraduate degrees and ‘focus’ them towards specific professions. For example, a Masters in Marketing or Journalism could be an excellent way to capitalise on your skills as an English or History graduate.

But don’t assume a postgraduate qualification will automatically make you more attractive to employers.

Unless your degree relates to a specific career path, you‘ll need to consider how you’ll 'sell' your Masters to employers.

‘Improving’ bad results

A postgraduate qualification can help enhance an existing degree, but it won’t necessarily compensate for or ‘hide’ a poor undergraduate result. Prospective employers will look at all your relevant qualifications and experience, not just the most recent.

Do some jobs require a postgraduate qualification?

Some professions will only admit candidates with very specific qualifications. These are often earned through specialised postgraduate study.

In Education, for example, many prospective teachers study a postgraduate teaching qualification after their undergraduate degree. Other candidates qualify through other routes, including vocational training.

International qualifications

If studying abroad, make sure you investigate employment criteria in the country you plan to work in. Professional qualifications gained in one country may not automatically be recognised elsewhere, though options may exist to convert or accredit your existing training.

In other subjects, such as Law, specific Masters programs exist to help candidates gain advanced skills and specialisations. However, these will not necessarily replace the normal professional training and qualification process.

The best way to find out if a postgraduate qualification will help you enter a specific profession is to speak to careers advisors. Or, if possible, contact relevant recruiters and employers. You will usually find that many pathways exist into a profession. These may include postgraduate study, but won't necessarily be limited to it.

Will a Masters make you more employable?

Research suggests that postgraduate qualifications can improve your job prospects and earnings. For more information, see our guide to Masters study and employability.

Postgraduate study as professional development

Not all students begin a postgraduate course immediately after an undergraduate degree. Many return to university later in their careers to gain new skills or retrain for a different job.

Masters study is particularly suited to this approach, with opportunities to study part-time or even do so remotely.

Many postgraduate courses are also specifically designed for professional training.

Some are conversion courses that open doors to new vocations such as teaching or law.

Others focus on specialised skills such as digital marketing and graphic design. These can help established professionals ‘upskill’ as their role evolves.

When to consider postraguate professional development

Returning to university may seem like an odd decision if you’re already in work. But postgraduate study can be an excellent ‘career move’.

Here are some situations in which studying a Masters (or similar qualification) might be useful to you:

  • You want to switch careers

    If you’re looking for a new professional challenge, you’re probably not alone. It’s increasingly common for people to change careers during their working lives. You might be responding to changes in your current field, or looking to fulfil a longstanding professional goal.

    If so, a postgraduate course could help you retrain. Some programmes are designed for exactly this purpose. Conversion courses are popular with applicants applying to work in law without existing training. Various teacher training courses also exist for people wishing to enter education.

  • You want to boost your current care

    If you’re working in a fast-moving, high-skilled profession, you may want to update your training from time to time. This will help you stay abreast of new developments or technologies that can impact or enhance your role. A digital marketer, for example, might want to develop skills in social media management.

    Lots of postgraduate courses exist to provide this kind of training. Many are shorter PGDip or PGCert programs that can be studied part-time or through distance learning. This means you may be able to enhance your career without taking a break from it.

  • You want to move into a management role

    Postgraduate training can be a great way to prepare yourself for a more senior role in your current organisation or profession. This doesn’t always mean studying a dedicated management programme (such as an MBA). A postgraduate course could simply help enhance your practical expertise and be the final thing your CV needs to really shine.

    Taking the time for further study in your profession or field also demonstrates the seriousness of your aspirations – and your commitment to them.

  • You want to move into an academic role

    Not all university academics spend their entire careers within the ‘ivory tower’. Many actually come from professional backgrounds, such as business or journalism. Your first-hand experience in one of these fields could make you a great teacher and researcher. But you’ll also benefit from understanding your subject from an academic perspective.

    A Masters will help you do this – and perhaps even prepare you for a PhD.

Interested in returning to postgraduate study?

You can read more about courses designed for professionals in our guides to different types of Masters degree. Or, if you’re specifically interested in continuing professional development why not visit our sister-site, FindCPD.com?

Masters study as preparation for a PhD

A taught Masters can provide an excellent bridge between undergraduate study and PhD research. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that PhD programs will expect applicants to have a Masters degree.

Requirements may differ between subject areas and between different research projects. Studying a Masters degree before a PhD is more common in Arts and Humanities subjects than in Science disciplines. There’s no hard and fast rule though.

The best way to find out if a specific PhD program requires a Masters is to contact the university in question. They may be able to tell you whether a Masters would help prepare you for a program or improve your chances of acquiring a funded position.

The benefits of studying a Masters before a PhD

If you are considering a PhD, it’s better to think about the possible benefits of a Masters, rather than simply viewing the degree as a possible obligation.

Studying a Masters will enhance your general subject knowledge and provide you with the chance to tackle advanced independent research-projects on a smaller scale. This can help make the transition into a PhD research project easier and more enjoyable.

A Masters degree can also help you ‘test the waters’ before you commit to further postgraduate training. If you decide that an academic career probably isn’t for you, it’s better to find that out on a Masters (and come away with a worthwhile qualification) rather than realise it after you’ve already begun a PhD.

Want to know more about PhD study?

If you’d like to know more about postgraduate study at PhD-level (including admissions requirements) you can take a look at the PhD study guides on our sister-site, FindAPhD.com.

Last updated - 23/02/2016

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