Research vs taught

Student studying alone next to busy lecture theatre
One of the key differences between postgraduate programmes is whether you choose to do a taught course, or study for a degree by research.

Before deciding which postgraduate route to take, ask yourself whether a taught or research course would suit you. You will need to think about what motivates you most and what subject area you are most interested in.

Taught degrees

Taught postgraduate programmes usually result in a Master of Science (MSc) or Master of Arts (MA). Sometimes you can take a limited part of a masters degree course, which can be credited as a postgraduate diploma.

Taught masters are usually 12 months full-time (or 24 months part-time) in duration and are similar to bachelors degrees in that they are delivered and assessed through a series of taught modules and may include independent research in the specialised subject area. Taught masters may include continuous assessment, examinations and the final assessment for a masters degree is often based on the submission of a dissertation, usually of between 10,000–20,000 words.

Entry requirements and application deadlines for taught masters vary from college to college, but it is strongly recommended that you aim for a 2.1 degree (although a 2.2 may be acceptable) and research your postgraduate study opportunities early in your final year to ensure you do not miss any important deadlines.

Research degrees

If you prefer the idea of intensive research and a more independent approach to working towards your masters degree without the constraints of attending timetabled lectures, then you may prefer to study for a research degree, usually known as a Masters of Philosophy (MPhil).

The research MPhil takes 18–36 months full-time and 36–48 months part-time and is achieved through the critical investigation and evaluation of an approved topic. You will also need to demonstrate an understanding of research methods appropriate to the chosen field.

The starting point is a research proposal and you will work under supervision (usually by a senior academic) and carry out extensive research, using detailed research methods. You will analyse your results and publish findings. Research degrees are usually assessed entirely by a piece of individual research and an oral examination (a 'viva').

Again, you should aim for a 2.1 degree (a 2.2 may be acceptable, depending on the college). Closing dates vary from early in academic year to right through the summer months, depending on funding. Regularly check the various institution websites for research masters on offer and if you have a research proposal make contact with a suitable department in the college where you would like to carry out your research.

If you are interested in a masters by research, explore what aspects of your undergraduate studies you enjoyed the most and which areas you would have loved to study further. You should also ask yourself whether you would like to be involved in extensive research working on your own initiative under supervision for at least 18 months. Another incentive for completing an MPhil is the possibility of furthering your research studies and completing a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD).

While taught masters largely follow a structured timetable and a series of lectures, tutorials and seminars with your peers, research students will be self motivated to assert themselves to carry out their investigations, analyse their results and meet regularly with their supervisor.