How your master’s study differs to undergraduate
(Last updated: 17 June 2020)
From Undergraduate to Master's: Observations from a First-Class Graduate
As you’re fighting through those last few painful months of exams, coursework and general study, it may be a lingering worry at the back of your mind - “where do I go from here?”. Split between further education, a teaching career, and a near-infinite supply of creative pipe dreams I wanted to pursue, it’s a feeling I distinctly recall some years later and of course, as it did for me, you’ll likely feel decision time comes far more quickly than you might want it to.
Of these options, going into a master’s degree may well have popped into your head. In many ways, it might feel more comfortable to continue with what feels like a similar lifestyle to that you’ve been living the last few years. Study hard, party hard. Rinse and repeat. By contrast, maybe undergrad has worn you down as it has so many others. The number of university drop-outs in the UK continues to rise, according to The Times, and even those that remain find themselves worn down and stressed.
So the question remains: is a master’s degree right for you? For many, a master's degree is hugely rewarding, despite its challenges. We explore some observations below, which might help you get a sense of whether this is a road you’d like to walk.
1. More autonomy
One of the most startling realisations master's students may come to is how hands-off the experience feels in comparison to their undergraduate studies. This can vary depending on your degree or course. But the general rule is that now you’ve gained a good framework for understanding of your field, it’s time to cut the cord from a regimented guide of study – you’re on your own… somewhat. Obviously any decent course will still ensure you’re on the right track and provide you key texts in most areas, but master's study will mean a lot more investigation into the subjects you believe will help you on your academic path.
It could be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you’ve been studying up to this point. Speaking from my own perspective, I found great value in this stronger emphasis on independent study. Though the assigned research was still something I had to keep up with, it felt less like I was just chasing after texts decided by the faculty to be important. This is, of course, in no way an attempt to excuse particularly lazy professors and course leaders - but it’s important to remember that their aim is to see you develop into a well-rounded academic. Independent research is a crucial part of that.
2. Venturing deeper
Did I say independent research? Because I really mean independent research. The principle goes that undergraduate degrees are designed to help you form a solid general awareness of your subject. But master’s is where your fieldwork starts to get more specialised and this means venturing a little further than the first few links at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.
My own English Literature studies into hyper-specific fields such as re-translations of ancient apocalyptic texts sent me all over London, to assorted libraries with dusty old references. Your mileage may vary, but a master’s course definitely means getting into the particulars of your subject. As with the above, this has its perks and down-sides – just as with choosing your master's discipline, it will force you to consider what line of study you wish to focus on, and perhaps help inform your post-education decisions about your career.
3. More intimacy
With the occasional drop-outs over the years, you might have seen your undergraduate courses slowly dwindle in attendance as you finally approach the finish line. This is likely going to be nothing compared to a master’s degree, which will see far fewer filled-to-the-rafters lectures and a lot more one-on-one or small group activities.
It’s a fundamentally different dynamic, as even less of that secondary school teacher-classroom dynamic rears its head. Often, a seminar will feel more like a discussion between a couple of academics rather than a game of scrawling down notes as you’re being lectured to, which is precisely the point.
Life has changed, and your fellow students won’t just be a big swarm of faces but comrades among a highly select group. It’s a chance to make some solid study partners, and maybe even long-term friends. After all, you probably have pretty similar interests at this point!
To summarise... Work out what you want to do
There are other factors to consider when deciding to move into a master’s degree. Among them is timing, as you balance the freshness of your post-undergraduate mindset with a potential chance to take a short break and pursue alternative goals (a completely valid path, which many a contented academic has taken). There is, of course, a warranted financial concern, with many students wanting to work out if the additional cost of study would be worth further forgoing total focus on a career. Even if you do decide it’s right for you, there’s the question of where to go. Generally, it’s a good idea to remain in the same institution, as different universities teach subjects differently, but perhaps a change of setting is exactly what you need.
All of this, ultimately, is about figuring out what feels right to you as an individual. Here’s hoping that, by reading this, you’ve gained some personal insight into exactly where you want to go next.
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