Dr Paul Greer. Careers Writers Association

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An Introduction To Postgraduate Study

Postgraduate qualifications are normally available only to people already holding a first (undergraduate) degree. They fall into two broad categories - academic and vocational: 

  • academic: a taught course or research project in a specific area, usually within (or close to) the discipline of the first degree. An example might be an MA in Victorian Literature.
  • vocational: typically constitutes training for an occupation, such as a Diploma or Certificate in Education for intending teachers.

Academic programmes normally include a substantial written report (thesis), whereas vocational courses are likely to be coursework and skills-assessed, with less of a written element. 

Course duration 

Most postgraduate qualifications are designated Diplomas, Master's Degrees, or Doctorates (often shortened to such titles as Dip., MA/MSC, or PhD/DPhil). 

  • Diplomas and Master's Degrees last 1 year full-time, 2 years part-time.
  • Doctorates are 3 years full-time, 5-6 years part-time.

Many would-be scientists embark on doctoral programmes straight after their first degree, but people in (or aspiring to) other fields may opt to begin advanced study years later, once their career direction is clearer, and/or the value of a higher qualification has become apparent. In arts and humanities, it is more usual to take a Master’s before beginning a PhD. 

Entry requirements 

Your son/daughter must do well in his/her first degree, since most postgraduate places attract strong competition: a First or 2.i is sometimes specified. He/she may also need to demonstrate deep interest in a particular area (e.g of literature, history) or occupation. Ways to achieve this: 

  • reading outside the undergraduate curriculum
  • undertaking relevant, high-quality work experience – often this is a prerequisite for acceptance.

If your son/daughter's career choice is unconnected to their first degree, specific further study may well be required, teaching and librarianship being examples. However, within some fields, even a relevant degree will need 'topping-up' to be eligible for specialised roles. This is very true of science, for which many undergraduates recognise the obligation to continue for MSc or PhD, in order to obtain top-notch jobs. 

Many students don't acquire a specialist academic or career interest until well into their first degree. Universities recognise this, and many undergraduate courses are structured to permit and encourage cultivation of new ideas through their menu of optional modules, allowing students to 'test the water' ahead of any postgraduate commitment. 

Money matters 

Postgraduate fees vary, but are normally less than undergraduate ones. Funding is not guaranteed and what is available is offered through: 

  • studentships (usually funded by government or the institution);
  • bursaries (to applicants in general);
  • awards (to particular applicants, often potentially or actually disadvantaged)
  • career development loans

The part-time route is often surprisingly feasible financially, especially if the student is earning a good salary, or their employer is paying for professional development. 


It is vital that a postgraduate qualification undertaken for occupational purposes is acceptable for the work intended. Consulting the appropriate professional body (e.g. British Psychological Society, British Medical Association, Law Society, etc.) will remove the risk of a course lacking the content or status for a licence to practise. 

Some people think that possessing any postgraduate qualification will make them more marketable. This is possible, though to some prospective employers it may convey indecision. However, a course related to say, broad business practices, may earn respect by its relevance to work applications generally. Practical experience to complement postgraduate study is encouraged by all recruiters. 

Obtaining advice 

University departmental staff are well-placed to advise on academic matters, but are less likely to be knowledgeable about vocational routes, or longer-term career planning. Your son/daughter should contact the Careers Advisory Service at their University before making any decision. Initial postgraduate study enquiries should begin at least 12 months before a possible start-date. 

© Paul Greer November, 2017

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