Over the last couple of decades, the number of people starting a postgraduate course in the UK has doubled: to almost 600,000 to be exact! And it’s not just the student population which has increased in number. There are more universities, more subject choices (an MSc in 5G Advanced Communications, anyone?), more degrees, and more ways to do it than ever before.

If you’re a university graduate, chances are that your main exposure to postgraduate study would have been the academic route: the Master’s (normally an MA or MSc) leading to the doctorate (the PhD or DPhil). However, there are many more options available, and the answer to “what is a postgraduate course?” is now much longer! Graduate or Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas exist for professional or vocational courses, and there are many routes to postgraduate study. You can study part-time, or even entirely online, and there is an increasing number of options for those who do not have a first degree, or do not come from the so-called ‘traditional’ academic background.

All this is great news. A postgraduate course does more than just enrich you intellectually. It can be the beginning of an academic career, the route to a prestigious profession such as accountancy or the law, and can advance your career. Even if your chosen career does not explicitly require a postgraduate degree, having one on your CV will help you to stand out from other applicants, and might even earn you a higher salary.

Here are the six most important things to think about when choosing which postgraduate course is right for you.

1. Time commitment: full-time vs. part-time

When choosing a postgraduate course, one early decision will be whether to pursue a full-time or part-time degree.

Full-time postgraduate courses

A full-time course really is what it says on the tin. Although it’s possible to do some part-time work, the expectation is that your course is your main commitment.

It’s true that you will have more freedom than you did as an undergraduate – there may be days or even weeks when you only have a few hours’ tuition. However, while the university will not be expecting you to sit in a classroom from 9 – 5, most full-time courses work to the same ‘office hours’ as any other job. Most classes will operate during the daytime, and you are likely to find it difficult to arrange meetings or tutorials at evenings or weekends.

The pros

  • Gets you your qualification more quickly: one year, for example, for a master’s.
  • Allows you to immerse yourself both in your studies and in broader university life.
  • Makes time management fairly straightforward.

The cons

  • It can be difficult to juggle family or other commitments, especially if you’re a mature student.
  • You only have time for a few hours’ paid work a week.

Part-time postgraduate courses

A part-time course can take many different forms, and it is sensible to look around how the course is timetabled before applying. Some are particularly designed to accommodate those with other commitments and will have classes in the evenings or at weekends. However, it’s important to remember that timetabled classes are only part of your total commitment. In a part-time Master’s course spread over two years, for example, you are expected to spend 20 hours a week studying. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can continue a 9 – 5 job whilst studying!

The pros

  • Gives you more time for your other commitments, particularly family or work.
  • Potentially makes financing more viable: the cost is spread out, and you can carry on working.
  • Allows you to continue to develop your career. You would have to be extremely lucky for your employer to allow you a career break for a full-time course, with a job guaranteed at the end of it. You are likely to have more success in asking to go part time for the duration of the course.

The cons

  • It takes twice as long (or even longer) to complete the postgrad course and get your qualification.
  • You don’t just need excellent time management skills: you need to be able to negotiate any clashes.

2. Fees and funding

The cost of a postgraduate course might seem daunting. For home students, a taught course will set you back around £5,000 per year. The prestigious MBA qualification may be up to £20,000. However, this should not put you off:

  • UK universities are much cheaper than, for example, the USA.
  • A part-time course both spreads the cost over more than one year, and allows you to work in order to fund it.
  • There are many sources of funding available.

There is also the long-term perspective. A postgrad course that leads directly into a career such as teaching or law will pay for itself in the end. The MBA fees may seem jaw-dropping, until you discover that, on average, MBA students may see their salary jump by up to 45% after graduation.

Taking the short-term view, there are plenty of ways to pay:

Postgraduate student loans: The Government offers student loans for postgraduate courses, at both Master’s and Doctoral level. They work the same way as your undergraduate student loan. You only start paying it back once you earn a certain amount.

Bursaries: The Government also offers bursaries for postgraduate courses in teacher training and social work. There is an NHS bursary for some medical courses.

Studentships and scholarships: If you have a particularly strong academic background, why not apply for a scholarship? These will pay your course fees, and many will even give you a grant to cover living expenses. Some of these are offered by UK Research and Innovation; others are offered by individual universities. Websites such as this one allow you to search for all the postgraduate studentships available.

Employer sponsorship: If your qualification is directly relevant to your job, your employer may well pay a proportion of your fees for you.

3. Which subject is right for you?

If you are applying to a postgraduate course on anything other than personal enrichment, this is important to consider. Even at master’s-level, a postgraduate course is often much more specific, and narrower in focus, than a first degree. This may be your first big decision about where to specialise.

Course structure: Most universities place full details of their course structure online, with details of each unit, its focus, and how it is assessed. If you are passionate about an area that might not fit rigidly into subject boundaries, you might be able to study it as part of several different courses. Similarly, you may prefer a course that gives you greater choice of modules.

Future prospects: Professional courses are offered or accredited by the university, but taught by industry experts. This is particularly the case for courses in business, engineering, and the sciences. The industry links, and prospects for employability, may make choosing a postgraduate course more straightforward. In more traditional academic courses, if you have further research in mind, you should think about which Master’s course would lead most obviously into doctoral study.

4. Qualifications and requirements

Each course has its own admissions requirements, which you should read carefully before applying. The standard requirement is, of course, a good degree in a relevant subject. Many courses will specify a particular subject or “related discipline”, which can be confusing, and it’s often worth contacting the university department directly if you are unsure.

There are also alternative routes. For many master’s-level courses, there are other accepted pathways, that take into account your experiences and accomplishments so far, particularly in employment. This could be any of the following:

Evidence of prior learning: You might need to provide a portfolio of evidence, demonstrating that you have achieved at a degree level in your chosen field.

Pre-Master’s: A pre-master’s course is designed to prepare students for the requirements of a postgraduate course. There is typically a minimum requirement, such as the number of years of formal education you must have completed. While some are designed for international students and might include intensive English language tuition, others welcome UK applicants.

Graduate Certificates and Diplomas: These are worthwhile qualifications in themselves, but also earn you credits that can be transferred into your master’s. They are often useful for those who have a degree in an unrelated field, and many people use them as a ‘conversion course’.

5. Online postgraduate course vs. traditional taught

The COVID-19 situation has resulted in a growth not only in working from home, but also studying from home. More universities now offer this option than ever before.

Studying online: the pros

  • It can save you money. There is no need to commute to the university, or arrange accommodation in an expensive student town.
  • It can be more flexible: you can fit work around your work or home commitments.
  • There are no geographical limits. As long as you have an internet connection, you can apply to any university you like. This massively increases the range of courses available to you.

The cons

  • It’s not for everyone. Some people thrived on working or learning from home in 2020; others found it very difficult. The same applies to online degrees.
  • It can be isolating. Although student clubs and socials may seem to be just a thing for undergraduates, postgraduates also have a lot of extra-curricular opportunities. This includes academic discussion groups, industry links, and networking opportunities. These may not work well for online-only students.
  • You may need to go in anyway. Not all course material is available online. Depending on your degree, you may well need to keep commuting to the university library.

6. Can I do two postgraduate degrees at once?

As a general rule, most universities strongly recommend against this. Doing two full-time courses is extremely demanding, and you are unlikely to be treated with sympathy if there are any clashes.

You can, however, combine two part-time courses more successfully. One reason you may wish to do this would be if you were combining a professional qualification with a more traditional academic course. However, it is difficult to gauge beforehand whether the workload would be realistic, and you do not want your performance to suffer – or, worse, have to drop out. A sensible strategy would be to do only one part-time course for the first year. All being well, you can then start Year 1 of your second course whilst completing Year 2 of the first.

The application process for postgraduate courses

Once you’ve considered the above points and are close to making a decision, make sure you research the application process for your preferred postgraduate course well in advance. You don’t want to find that you need a 1,500 word supporting essay the night before you plan to submit your application. If universities have different deadlines, make a list.

Think about the following:

  • Update your CV (if required): Some courses still require an old-fashioned CV. While the basic content is likely to remain the same, it may need re-focusing depending on your chosen course.
  • Choose a good application essay (if required): Many courses ask for a sample of your academic writing. If you are a current or recent undergraduate, it should be easy to find one that shows you at your best. However, you should certainly consider reviewing it.
  • Brush up the personal statement: Remember, if you’re applying separately to each university, you should write a statement tailored to each one.
  • Think carefully about references: Approach your referees as soon as possible.
  • Get in touch! When you applied to your undergraduate course, it is very likely that your only interactions would have been with the Admissions Office. As a postgraduate, however, you will have a totally different relationship to your tutors and supervisors compared to your undergraduate experience – and they are delighted to hear from prospective postgraduate applicants.

For some courses, the application process is similar to UCAS – you don’t apply directly to a particular university. Teacher training applications are handled via UCAS or Gov.UK, while the Graduate Diploma in Law is overseen by LawCab (the Central Application Board)

Key takeaway

There are plenty of questions to consider, but remember there are many people available to help you. If you are a graduate or current student, your university will be only too happy to offer advice (and no, they won’t try to pressure you into applying just for one of their own courses). Postgraduate tutors at your chosen college or university will also be able to give you more information.

Don’t forget too that the team at Oxbridge Essays is here every step of the way. Our experienced academics at Oxbridge Personal Statements will help you craft a statement that shows you at your best, whilst the Oxbridge Editing team can help with perfecting that all-important essay or dissertation once you’re there.