Choosing a postgraduate course: the basics

Five factors to consider when deciding what type of postgraduate course would suit you.
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Research and taught courses

Research-based postgraduate courses are almost all masters and doctorate programmes. Typically they last longer than one year, normally between one and two years (full time).

A doctorate (PhD) takes a minimum of three years. The topic to be studied is hugely determined by your own interest areas and those of your supervisor. If choosing a research-based course, you should consider the reputation of the institution within your research area and the quality of the supervision, as these factors will be key to your longer term success.

Taught courses usually result in certificate, diploma or masters qualifications. Certificate courses are normally shorter than diploma and masters courses. The latter two usually last one year – either one academic year (Sept–June) or 12 months (Sept-Sept). This allows for the taught component and the completion of a short dissertation or project. Some masters programmes facilitate transfer onto a PhD. Taught postgraduate courses can be a continuation of your area of study or a conversion into a new area – conversion courses are increasing in popularity and availability.

Modes of study

There are postgraduate courses in almost every discipline available in almost every mode of study – full time, part time and distance learning. Deciding which format you want really depends on your personal circumstances. Questions you should ask yourself include:

  • Do I want to work while studying? A part-time course will facilitate this and if you get relevant work experience your CV will be hugely enhanced by the combination of the two.
  • Am I disciplined enough to do a distance learning course?
  • Am I able to take on a full time course – do I have other commitments (family, work etc)?

Reasons for study

The main reasons why people choose to study further are:

  • To further their knowledge in a given area, ie because they are interested in the topic.
  • To achieve career progression or to move faster within their chosen profession.
  • To facilitate career change – conversion courses are particularly relevant here.

Job prospects

The postgraduate student has more specialist knowledge, thus they are differentiating themselves. Employers may target graduates with a postgrad qualification and, relatively, there are fewer students with the equivalent qualification. All courses provide an opportunity to network, to increase the number of contacts you have – this is key to your job search. Further study usually results in students gaining work-related, transferable skills, eg time management, research and presentation skills.

Other issues

To pursue any further study, you should have a natural aptitude for the subject. Ideally, you should also be quite sure you want to work in a related field after the course. Remember, completing a postgraduate qualification isn't a carte blanche into a given area – there will still be a lot of competition after you've finished.