Masters Degree FAQS – Common Questions About Postgraduate Study

Masters Degree FAQs – Common Questions About Postgraduate Study

Written by Mark Bennett

A Masters degree, or other postgraduate course, can feel like a big step. Whether you're applying straight from your undergraduate degree or coming back to university after a period in work, you probably have questions. So we've created this page to help you answer them.

Below you can find some of the most frequently asked questions about postgraduate study, covering everything from course types and costs to applications and funding.

We've divided them into sections introducing Masters study and postgraduate course types, explaining how to choose, apply for and fund your course, and looking at what you can do with a Masters.

Introducing postgraduate study

Not sure what postgraduate study involves and whether it's for you? The questions in this section can help explain how Masters degrees and other courses work.

You can find out more information about what a Masters degree is in our guide.

What is a Masters degree?

A Masters degree is a postgraduate university degree, usually studied after an undergraduate Bachelors degree. The most common types of Masters are the MA (Master of Arts) and the MSc (Master of Science).

How do you get a Masters degree?

A Masters degree involves at least one-year of full-time study, concluding with a dissertation or extended project. Masters programmes usually entail a combination of a taught modules with seminars and lectures, as well as individual research.

What's the difference between postgraduate and undergraduate?

Postgraduate is the study level above undergraduate so you would usually complete an undergraduate degree (such as a Bachelors) before moving onto a Masters. For example, if you completed a BA (Hons) in English Literature and you were really interested in the linguistical side of language you might decide to take a Masters in that particular specialism to increase your knowledge.

What's the difference between 'Masters' and 'postgraduate'?

A Masters is one type of postgraduate degree (more advanced courses, usually studied by people who already have undergraduate qualifications). Some other types of course, such as Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas, aren't full Masters degrees.

What's the difference between a Masters and a PhD?

Masters and PhDs are both postgraduate qualifications, but a PhD is more advanced. Masters degrees explore existing subject knowledge in greater detail. PhD study focusses on original research that adds significant new knowledge to a subject.

Is postgraduate study the same as graduate study?

'Postgraduate' and 'graduate' generally mean the same thing when used to descibe university degrees:

  • Postgraduate study is a British term for courses that begin after someone has already graduated from a Bachelors (a post-graduate degree)
  • Graduate study is a North American term for courses that begin once someone is a graduate (having finished a Bachelors degree)

So, basically, a Masters in the UK is referred to as a postgraduate degree, but a Masters in the USA is referred to as a graduate degree.

Is a Masters a graduate degree?

Yes. Masters degrees are classified as 'graduate' level degrees in the USA and North America, and are usually studied within universities' graduate schools, or graduate programs. In the UK and Europe, a Masters is commonly referred to as a 'postgraduate' degree instead.

What level is a Masters?

A Masters degree is a second-cycle degree, above a Bachelors but below a PhD (or other doctorate). Most people study a Masters as a postgraduate student, having already finished an undergraduate degree.

How many credits is a Masters?

A UK Masters degree is worth 180 credits. Elsewhere in Europe a Masters is worth 120 ECTS credits.

What's the difference between a taught and research Masters?

Most Masters degrees are taught courses, consisting of lectures and seminars followed by a dissertation project.

Research Masters involve much more independent work, but the exact difference between a taught and research Masters varies. An MRes (Master of Research) usually involves longer (or multiple) dissertation tasks. An MPhil (Master of Philosophy) is entirely research based and may form part of a PhD.

Research Masters are less common outside the UK.

What is a postgraduate student?

A postgraduate student is someone who is studying a postgraduate degree (such as a Masters or PhD). Postgraduate students have normally already completed an undergraduate degree (such as a Bachelors).

How long it takes to get a Masters degree

How long is a Masters degree, and when can you expect to graduate? This section answers these questions, as well as exploring the difference between a part-time and a full-time Masters.

For more information, see our guides to: international Masters study, studying a Masters part-time.

How long is a Masters degree?

A full-time Masters is usually 1-2 years long. Most Masters degrees in the UK take one year, but programmes in other countries are often longer.

A part-time Masters in the UK usually takes two years. However, you may be able to complete your Masters over up to six years, depending on your university and the pace you choose to work at.

When do Masters students graduate?

Masters students in the UK normally have their graduation ceremony in the winter after they’ve handed in their dissertation (typically between November and January). Technically speaking, you’ll count as having graduated after you’ve received your results and a passing grade.

When do Masters courses finish?

In the UK, if you begin a one-year taught Masters in the autumn, you’ll usually finish your modules at the end of spring, and then write your dissertation over the summer holidays.

What it's like to study a Masters

The section explains what's expected of you as a Masters student, including how many hours per week you'll be expected to work, whether you'll need to take exams and how many contact hours you'll have.

For more information, see our guide: what's postgraduate study like?

How many days a week is a Masters degree?

This depends on the subject and type of Masters you’re studying. The schedule for a laboratory-based Masters could be the equivalent of a full-time working week, with students expected to be on-campus Monday to Friday. If you’re studying a taught Masters, meanwhile, your contact hours might only require you to attend university two or three times a week. Of course, you’ll still be expected to do plenty of reading and independent research outside of seminars and lectures.

How many contact hours for a Masters?

For classroom-based taught Masters, students will usually have between five and 10 contact hours per week, through a combination of seminars, lectures and workshops. Laboratory-based Masters will have more contact hours – often around 20 hours a week.

How many hours do you need to work on a Masters?

It depends on your course, but you will need to spend more time working independently to be successful as a postgraduate student. You should be prepared to study for at least 20-25 hours per week, in addition to your timetable of classes and lectures.

How hard is a Masters?

Masters degrees tackle more advanced material than Bachelors degrees and students are expected to study more independently. But anyone who has completed an undergraduate degree should be prepared for postgraduate study.

Is postgraduate study harder than undergraduate study?

Masters degrees are more advanced, but you should be prepared if you've already done a Bachelors. The main difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study is the requirement to work more independently during your programme. You'll also need to produce a more substantial dissertation at the end of your degree.

Do you need to do a dissertation for a Masters?

Yes. All Masters degrees end with a dissertation, thesis or equivalent. This usually takes up the third semester of your course as well as part of the summer. Courses that don't include a dissertation are usually Postgraduate Diploma or Certificate level.

How long is a Masters dissertation?

A Masters dissertation (or thesis) is usually around 15,000-20,000 words. Most are divided into three to four individual chapters, plus an introduction, conclusion and bibliography.

Do Masters degrees have exams?

Assessments for Masters degrees vary by subject. Courses in Arts and Humanities will usually be assessed through essays and coursework. STEM subjects may also have formal exams to test knowledge of key concepts and practices.

Can you work during a Masters?

Some students do work part-time during a Masters. The limited contact time for some courses can make it easier to balance work and study, but you should resist the temptation to take on too many working hours: a Masters requires much more independent study time than a Bachelors.

International students should also check that working hours aren't restricted by their visas. A Student Route visa (previously known as the UK Tier 4 student visa) only allows 20 working hours per week in term time.

Can postgraduate students live in halls?

Some universities provide accommodation for Masters students. This might consist of dedicated postgraduate halls of residence, or rooms in standard student dormitories. Accommodation for postgraduates may be more limited than for undergraduates though, so it's a good idea to enquire early.

Postgraduate course types

There are far more courses available at postgraduate level than there are at undergraduate level, and lots of flexible ways to study. This section will help explain your options.

For more detailed information, see our guide: Types of Masters Degrees

What's the difference between an MA and an MSc?

An MA (Master of Arts) is normally awarded in Arts, Humanities and some Social Science subjects. An MSc (Master of Science) degree is normally awarded in Science, technology Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics subjects. They're both equivalent to each other, last for the same time and involve similar types of study; it's just the degree subject that's different.

Is an LLM a Masters?

An LLM (Master of Laws) is a specialised Masters degree in Law, offering advanced training in different legal topics. An LLM is generally worth the same as other Masters degrees, but some programmes also include a professional LPC (Legal Practice Course).

Is an MBA a Masters?

An MBA (Master of Business Administration) is a very prestigious professional Masters degree designed for experienced Business Management professionals.

MBAs are usually longer than other Masters and are often completed part-time. Alternative Business Masters degrees such as the MIM (Masters in Management) are available for people coming straight from an undergraduate degree.

Is a PGCE a Masters?

A PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) is a postgraduate teacher training qualification, for people who want to qualify to teach in UK schools. A PGCE is worth less credits than a Masters, though some students complete extra course components to earn a Masters with their PGCE.

What is a PGCert?

A PGCert (Postgraduate Certificate) is a short postgraduate course, worth 60 credits in the UK. PGCert courses usually include one term (or the equivalent) of Masters-level material, with no dissertation.

What is a PGDip?

A PGDip (Postgraduate Diploma) is a short postgraduate course, worth 120 credits in the UK. PGDip courses usually include two terms of study: roughly equivalent to a Masters degree without a final dissertation.

What is an integrated Masters?

An integrated Masters is an undergraduate degree that combines a Bachelors and a Masters. Students normally study the Bachelors portion of their course for three years before moving on to a final Masters year.

Some Masters such as the MEng (Master of Engineering) are routinely offered as integrated undergraduate degrees. Four-year Masters qualifications are also common at some Scottish universities.

What is a postgraduate conversion course?

A conversion course provides professional training for people who wish to change career or qualify for a job that isn't related to their existing qualifications. The GDL (graduate Diploma in Law) and PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) are examples of postgraduate conversion courses.

Can you study a Masters by distance learning?

Yes. Most universities offer distance learning Masters degrees (some specialise in this). Studying in this way means that you won't need to attend regular lectures or seminars, though you may still come to campus occasionally to meet tutors or use libraries and facilities.

Can you study a Masters online?

Yes. Some universities offer online Masters degrees. Unlike distance learning Masters, these courses are delivered entirely over the internet, with virtual discussion groups, electronic assessments and no need to attend a physical campus.

Choosing a Masters

Wondering what to look for in postgraduate study, or how to choose between different Masters degree qualifications? Here are some things to consider.

For more detailed information, see our guides to: Finding a Masters

The most popular postgraduate subjects in the UK are: Business Studies, Education, Nursing, Economics and Biological Sciences. There are a huge range of Masters degrees out there though, so take the time to find the right one for your interests and career plans.

Can you get a Masters in any subject?

Yes, you can study a Masters in pretty much any subject you can think of. In fact, the nature of a Masters means that it’s more common to specialise in a particular topic within a subject or discipline. As such, you can expect to find Masters programmes in more niche academia areas than would be available at Bachelors level.

Do rankings matter for Masters degrees?

Overall university rankings are based on broad metrics that don't necessarily say how good a university's Masters courses are. To use rankings for postgraduate study you should 'zoom in' on specific metrics or look at rankings for your subject (as these will say more about the quality of a Masters in that field).

Should you do your Masters at a different university?

You should choose postgraduate study at a university with the best Masters course for you. Staying at your current university can have advantages (you'll be familiar with the campus and teaching style) but you should always look at other Masters degrees too – you never know: there might be a great opportunity out there that you weren't aware of.

What is the best subject to study for a Masters?

The best postgraduate subject for you will depend on what you want to achieve with your Masters degree. Some professional Masters degrees can prepare you for specific careers, but more academic Masters degrees can also be a chance to spend more time studying a subject you love whilst learning to work more independently, think critically and tackle more complex ideas.

Can you take a gap year before postgraduate study?

Yes. Some students do take a postgraduate gap year between finishing a Bachelors and starting a Masters. This can be an opportunity to get a break from university, travel and save some money towards your postgraduate fees.

How do you choose a Masters degree?

There are lots of factors to consider when choosing a Masters:

  • Relevance – does the course cover the sorts of material you're looking for? Are the modules and dissertation options interesting?
  • University rankings – does the university have a good record and reputation in your subject?
  • Cost – fees for Masters degrees vary between universities and some are quite a bit more expensive than others

Is it worth going to a postgraduate study fair?

If you aren't sure what kind of course you're looking for, or have questions about Masters study, a postgraduate study fair or open day can be a great way to get more information. These events are free to attend and happen all year round.

Applying for a Masters

Applying for postgraduate study is a little different to going to university the first time around. Here are answers to some of the questions you might have.

For more detailed information, see our guides to: Masters Degree Applications

What grades do you need for a Masters?

You'll normally need a relevant undergraduate degree for admission to a Masters. A 2.1 or higher is the standard entry requirement, but it can be possible to do a Masters with a lower class degree.

What GPA do you need for a Masters?

Universities in the USA may look at your undergraduate GPA (grade point average) score when considering Masters degree applications. A GPA of 3.0 or higher is usually considered 'good' – and is roughly equivalent to a UK 2.1. Universities in the UK and Europe don't usually use the GPA system.

Can you apply for a Masters with a 2.2 or a third?

It can be possible to apply for a Masters with a lower class degree. You may need to explain how your skills, experience and enthusiasm have equipped you for postgraduate study (and make a stronger case for this in your personal statement). Having a 2.2 or third will probably make it harder to apply for more competitive postgraduate funding.

Can you do a Masters without a Bachelors degree?

Most universities expect applicants for Masters study to have an undergraduate degree in a related field. However, you may be able to apply without a Bachelors if you can demonstrate relevant experience and your overall postgraduate application is very strong.

Do you need an IELTS score for a Masters?

If you're applying to study a Masters abroad in English, and English isn't your first language, you may need to take an IELTS test for postgraduate study. Exceptions may be made for international students who have already completed a degree in English. Alternative language tests include the TOEFL (below).

Do you need a TOEFL score for a Masters?

If you're applying to study a Masters abroad in English, and English isn't your first language, you may need to take a TOEFL test for postgraduate study. Exceptions may be made for international students who have already completed a degree in English. Alternative language tests include the IELTS (above).

Do you need a GMAT for a Masters?

The GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) is a graduate entry test used for some applications to MBA programmes and other Business Masters degrees. It checks whether you have the right critical thinking skills and management knowledge to succeed on these courses.

The GMAT is often part of applications to more selective Business Schools in the UK and USA, but isn't required at all universities.

Do you need a GRE for a Masters?

The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is a graduate entry test used for a wide range of subjects (though the GMAT is more common for Business and Management programmes). It tests your critical thinking, literacy and numeracy skills to assess how prepared you are for postgraduate study.

The GRE isn't a common requirement in the UK and Europe, but is used at more selective universities in the USA and other countries.

What do you need for a Masters application?

Applications for postgraduate study are usually handled directly by universities and most will require some (or all) of the following:

Some universities interview applicants to check they have chosen the right course or to select from a shortlist of candidates for programmes with limited places.

How many Masters degrees can you apply for?

In most countries there's no limit on the number of Masters degrees you can apply for at the same time. That said, postgraduate applications do take time and you should make sure you tailor each one to the specific course (particularly when it comes to writing your personal statement).

Do you need to use UCAS for Masters applications?

No. A small number of UK universities use a UCAS postgraduate service for their Masters degrees, but the majority accept applications directly from students. Using UCAS is not compulsory for postgraduate study.

Is there a fee for postgraduate applications?

There is usually no fee to apply for Masters degree (or PhD) in the UK. Some other countries may charge small fees for postgraduate applications.

When should you apply for a Masters?

There isn't usually a set application deadline for Masters degrees in the UK. However, you should make sure you apply in plenty of time for the course start date which will usually be September. If you're applying to study in your home country you should usually start the process in the spring or summer. If you're applying to study a Masters abroad you should start earlier to allow time for your visa application.

Do you need to have an interview for a Masters application?

Most of the time formal interviews aren't required for Masters degree applications. However, some universities will use Masters interviews to select applications for more competitive courses. Others may also invite you to visit them more informally and check that the degree and university you've chosen are a good fit for you.

Can you start a Masters in January?

Most postgraduate courses in the UK begin in the autumn (September / October) but there are some Masters degree programmes with a January start date.

Funding a Masters

Masters fees vary and postgraduate student loans won't cover all of your costs. The following answers will help you make sense of funding.

For more detailed information, see our guides to: Masters Degree Funding

How much does a Masters degree cost?

Average UK Masters fees are between £7,000 and £9,000 per year (for full-time study), though clinical subjects and MBAs can be much more expensive. The cost of a Masters varies in other countries around the world.

Is it cheaper to study a Masters part-time?

Annual fees for part-time postgraduate programmes are usually cheaper. You'll probably pay around 50% of the rate of an equivalent full-time student.

Bear in mind though that you'll also study for longer and will probably pay the same fees in the long run. You'll also have to cover the cost of living whilst studying for longer.

Can you study a Masters for free?

Some countries charge no fees for Masters degrees. This isn't quite the same as studying for 'free' though – you'll still need to cover living costs and other expenses to do with your degree.

Can you get a student loan for a Masters?

Postgraduate loans are available across the UK, but the amount you can get depends on which part of the country you're from:

  • England offers postgraduate loans of up to £11,836
  • Scotland offers postgraduate loans of up to £10,000
  • Northern Ireland offers postgraduate loans of up to £5,500
  • Wales offers postgraduate loans and grants of up to £18,430

Some other countries also offer their own postgraduate funding.

Who funds Masters degrees?

Masters degree funding in the UK is available from several sources, including:

Some other countries also offer their own postgraduate funding.

What postgraduate funding can international students get?

International students aren't usually eligible for UK Masters degree loans, but international funding is available from universities, charities and government scholarship schemes.

Is it cheaper to study a Masters abroad?

Some countries charge relatively little (or nothing) for postgraduate study, so it's worth comparing different destinations. Bear in mind though that you'll still need to pay for accommodation and living costs during your degree.

Do postgraduate students pay Council Tax?

Full-time Masters students are exempt from paying Council Tax in the UK, just the same as undergraduate students. If everyone in your household is a full-time student, you won't pay any Council Tax. If you live with non-students your household will qualify for a Council Tax discount.

Does postgraduate study affect your benefits?

You can still claim some benefits as a postgraduate student in the UK. However, you should be aware that your entitlement to student loans can affect your income for any means-tested benefits.

Career prospects

Whatever your reason for considering a Masters degree, it's normal to have questions about career prospects, earnings and other potential outcomes. We've answered some of these below.

For more detailed information, see our guide to: Masters Degrees, Employment and Earnings

Are all Masters degrees worth the same?

All properly accredited and awarded Masters degrees are respected academic qualifications (an MA is worth the same as an MSc, and so on).

Will you earn more with a Masters?

There's good evidence to suggest that people with a Masters degree do earn more than other graduates. That said, there's no guarantee that a Masters will definitely boost your salary on its own.

Will you get a better job with a Masters?

There aren't many jobs that specifically require a Masters degree. That said, having a postgraduate qualification demonstrates that you can tackle more advanced material, can work more independently and will have a deeper knowledge of your subject. Evidence also suggests that some subjects so produce very employable (post)graduates.

Do you need a Masters degree to do a PhD?

You don't necessarily need to have a Masters to apply for a PhD, but it's often beneficial. Arts and Humanities subjects prefer students to have some experience of postgraduate-level work before starting a doctorate. STEM subjects are more likely to accept applications straight from undergraduate level, but having a Masters could increase your chances of winning a funded place.

Can a Masters degree leave you overqualified?

Employers will generally respect postgraduate qualifications (even if they aren't looking for them) and your Masters subject doesn't necessarily have to fit exactly with the job you apply for afterwards.

That said, you should always be able to explain why you chose to study a degree (at any level) and communicate what you got out of the experience.

How are Masters degrees graded?

The standard grades for a Masters in the UK are:

  • Distinction (equivalent to a 1st)
  • Merit (equivalent to a 2.1)
  • Pass (equivalent to a 2.2 or third)

Other countries use their own systems. Universities in the USA and Canada are more likely to calculate a GPA (Grade Point Average) score than award a set degree classification.

When do you graduate from a Masters?

Postgraduate students often graduate separately to undergraduates. This is because Masters degrees finish later (as you spend the summer doing your dissertation).

Is it 'Masters degree' or master's degree?

Strictly speaking, 'master's degree' is correct. The word 'master's' is a possessive noun (so it gets an apostrophe) but not a proper noun (so it doesn't need to be capitalised).

Here at FindAMasters we write Masters to make things easier to read and to fit with the title of our website (a URL with an apostrophe in it wouldn't really work).

Looking for more information?

Hopefully we've managed to cover some of the main questions you have about postgraduate study. You can check our advice, funding and study abroad sections for more detailed guides to all of these topics.

Don't forget that you can also subscribe to our free postgraduate study newsletter: we'll send you details of new Masters courses and open days, plus the best posts and latest news from our blog.

Find your perfect Masters!

Search from over 20,000 Masters degrees on our website to find one that is right for you

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Last updated: 17 August 2023