Everything you need to know about postgraduate study
(Last updated: 10 May 2021)
So, you are thinking about becoming a postgraduate? How exciting! Postgraduate study (often just referred to as graduate study in North America) is the process of studying for academic or professional degrees after the completion of a bachelor’s degree. Postgraduate study is often linked to master’s and PhDs, but could potentially also include certificates or diplomas.
While postgraduate study can be really rewarding, it is important to understand what you are truly committing to before embarking on this significant undertaking. In this post, we provide an introduction to postgraduate study, looking at the different options available and the expectations that your professors will have for you as you undertake postgraduate work.
Why are you considering postgraduate study?
There are many reasons to take on postgraduate work. While all should be acknowledged, you’d be wise to remember that postgraduate is anything but easy. Before you jump into postgraduate work, it may be useful to ask why you feel this is a good option for you.
Some people know what they want to pursue as a career. They are aware that having a master’s degree is necessary for their field, or that it will offer a fast-track to a management or upper-level position. These people know that postgraduate study is right for them because it is necessary for their future employment.
Other people take on postgraduate study because they want to stay in academia. Whether it is in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities, students who want to work in universities or post-secondary contexts often require a master’s degree at a minimum. They also often progress to a PhD. Because these people know that postgraduate work is necessary to continue with their academic aspirations, postgraduate study makes sense.
There is another group of students, however, who choose to pursue postgraduate study. Students who aren’t sure which career path to take, or what their future holds, or if they’re really ready to go out into the world and find a job. Let’s face it, being a student is a safe option. For many, being a student is familiar and something that has been part of their identity since a very young age.
Yet, undertaking postgraduate study for this group of students can lead to problems. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid postgraduate study altogether if you fall into this category. But if you’re the unsure type, then we do advise being honest with yourself about why postgraduate study appeals to you. Postgraduate courses are expensive – there are tuition, housing, food, and textbook costs to pay. If you are not taking postgraduate study to get a better job at the end, you might be left with significant loans that can haunt you later in life.
This may all sound a little grim, but an upfront approach to studying at postgraduate level is really important. Thinking seriously about your reasons for becoming a postgraduate student will ensure you’re making the right choices for the right reasons, and will set you on a path to real success, whatever you choose.
Differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study
Where undergraduate study is the transition from secondary school to university; postgraduate study is the transition from university to the wider academic community. Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between postgraduate and undergraduate study, and some things you should know before embarking on your postgrad journey.
1. Your professor becomes your peer
As a postgraduate, you are becoming a colleague to people who were once your professors, so the hierarchy that you might have experienced in undergraduate is diminished. You should expect to openly contribute your own ideas to a topic.
2. You’ll be expected to collaborate on research
In postgraduate work, the professor isn’t telling you what to do, but instead is asking you to collaborate with them to solve an issue. This transition can be tricky for some, and might take a bit of practice before you are comfortable thinking of your professor as your colleague.
3. Good time management and organisation are essential
When you started as an undergraduate, you might have been surprised with the level of freedom you had. There weren’t any teachers reminding you of homework assignments and it was your responsibility to submit things on time. With postgraduate work, this level of freedom expands even further. The professor might tell you about the assignment in the first week of term and expect you to complete it by the last week. It is your job to manage your time, be organised, and not leave everything to the last minute.
4. You’re responsible for communication and leading your own development
So, we just said that the professor might give you the assignment in the first week and have it due in the last class. That means that you might have only one (or two!) assignments in a class. If you are a research student (see below!), you might be assigned one or two tasks per term. That means that the days of getting ‘participation marks’ for showing up to the lectures are gone. If you want high marks in postgraduate study, you are going to have to work for them.
Do not despair! If you are able to take some initiative, there is lots of help available for you (but, you have to ask for it). Often, course instructors will read your drafts and give you feedback. Because there are fewer students, more attention can be given to each one. While not every professor will provide this option, there is always room to get support (which might include a trip to your university’s writing or math help centre).
Postgraduate study is the place where you begin to emerge as a scholar, which means that you are responsible for leading your own development and communicating what you need in order to be successful.
5. You’ll need to learn professional email etiquette
You are probably going to communicate with your professors (and your supervisor) a lot more than you did as an undergraduate. Undergraduate classes can have hundreds of students, and so you might get very little attention. As a postgraduate, your classes might have less than 20 students, or if you are pursuing a research project, it might just be you by yourself (see details below!). Address your emails in the way that the professor asks you to, this might mean ‘Dear Professor,’ but it might also mean listening to what the instructor is telling you. It may be that the professor wants you to refer to them by their first name. If they tell you this, do it.
After the salutation, make your statement and get to the point. Omit any emojis, smiley faces, or other colloquial language. Sign your message with your name and student number. When awaiting a response, two business days is generally seen as an appropriate length of time to wait for a response. If you haven’t heard back within two days, write a (respectful) follow up.
6. You’ll use your university library even more
You know how when you did your undergraduate projects, Google was your best friend? You can kind of forget about Google altogether, as a postgraduate. Every discipline has its own areas of focus, which means that there are corresponding journals for these disciplines. There are also specific search engines that will focus on pulling journal articles from this specialised set of options.
While you may not need to have a familiarity with all of the journals in your field (you will probably learn many of these by the time you are finished your postgraduate study), you are going to need to learn how to identify scholarly sources that are relevant to your assignments, projects, and tests. You are going to need to know which ones are peer-reviewed and use a critical eye when evaluating the merits of the published literature. If you do not know how to do this, university libraries often run tutorial sessions where they introduce you to different methods of searching. Take advantage of this as soon as you can.
7. You’ll be held to a higher academic standard than undergrad
Postgraduate students are held to a higher academic standard than undergraduate students. This means that academic integrity is taken very seriously. In your undergraduate courses, you might have taken a wide variety of courses and were, thus, exposed to a number of referencing styles (e.g. MLA, APA, ASA, Harvard, Chicago, etc.). In your postgraduate work, you will typically only use one style (the one that is most commonly used in your field). You need to make sure that you get this right. Once you get started in your postgraduate programme, learn the referencing style clearly and then learn how to apply it both in the text and in the reference list/bibliography.
Choosing your postgraduate degree
Which university should you apply to?
When considering postgraduate study, there are lots of universities that provide similar options, so it can be difficult to decide where to apply, and then later, which offer to accept. The UK has one of the best university systems in the world. You may initially feel like it is desirable to choose an institution from the prestigious Russell Group (i.e. Cambridge, Oxford and the Red Brick institutions). Yet, these universities can be super competitive and you might get a better offer from a smaller, less notable institution with a great programme.
In some programmes, you might be offered a stipend to participate, making the costs of attending much more reasonable. This will reduce your out-of-pocket expenses and could bring down your debt by the end. You should also consider living expenses. Living in London is going to be more expensive than other parts of the country, so if you plan to study in an urban centre, the costs are going to be higher.
It’s also worth considering which supervisor you want to work with. It may be that there is a person who works at a smaller university but is a leader in your field. In this situation, the smaller university might be the preferable option. This is not to say that prestige isn’t important (it is!), but it is worth thinking about all of the factors (apart from the name of the university) before making a decision for postgraduate study.
What postgraduate study options are available?
A master’s programme is typically the next stage after a bachelor’s degree has been completed. They typically take between 1-2 years and vary significantly in scope. While some might be completely based in a classroom, others might have a laboratory, internship, placement, or co-op programme as a requirement.
Direct entry PhD
In some programmes, it is possible to skip the master’s degree altogether and move directly into a PhD. These are not particularly common because a master’s is an important step in the learning process, but it is possible in some circumstances to move directly into a PhD.
Master’s to PhD
In some programmes you can apply to do a Master’s and PhD programme all at once in a sort of combined venture. In this case, the programme is usually connected in some way. For example, in this scenario, the master’s thesis project might target some small element as the pilot study with the PhD focusing on a wider piece of research forming the main study.
What different types of postgraduate programmes are there?
Not all postgraduate study is the same; there are a wide range of options. Those options might vary between disciplines, but they will also vary between programmes, so a Master’s of Education from one university might have different requirements than a Master’s of Education at another. It is your job, when considering postgraduate study, to select the programme that you think is best for you.
Taught programmes in postgraduate study are course-based. This means that each term, you are responsible for taking a few courses each term until you have met the requirements for graduation. Taught programmes are really great if you have poor time management skills, as everything is broken up into smaller course assignments, which are due at specific intervals.
Research based programmes can be associated with a master’s or with a PhD. They have virtually no course work, though some programmes might have you take one initial course (perhaps a research methods course). It is then your responsibility to undertake a thesis-based research project. Research programmes are really useful if you want to make an original contribution to research or to your field. If you know what you want to study, a research based programme will allow you to focus on your priorities. You have to be very organised with this type of programme, as it is really easy to fall behind.
Some research based programmes are focused around work that a supervisor is already doing (perhaps more common at the master’s level). In this type of situation, you would use your supervisor’s work as the foundation, and then study something related or connected for your own project. If undertaking a master’s, but you are thinking about a PhD, a research based programme can help you to determine if you actually like research (something that is important when you take on a bigger PhD project).
Research at the PhD level is even more significant (virtually all PhD programmes are research based). While a master’s project is typically small in scope, a PhD project will span several years. It requires time management and organisation, good communication skills, an ability to think critically, and a problem solving mentality.
Combined (taught + thesis)
Some programmes have realised that a balance can be struck between taught programmes and research programmes. These options offer one or two terms of taught course work and then a mini thesis/dissertation (which often occurs in the summer months). These combined programmes offer a nice transition from the undergraduate experiences starting out with coursework and then slowly building up to a research project. In these combined courses, you will be assigned a supervisor and will get a small sample of what a PhD research programme might be like.
When considering what type of programme is right for you, choose a programme that caters best to your strengths. If you have excellent time management skills, a research programme would offer the most flexibility and you won’t be limited by the requirement to be organised and punctual. If you perform better with more structure in place, a taught postgraduate programme will probably suit you well.
However you look at it, planning postgraduate study is exciting. You’re taking your first steps into – as the name suggests – education that goes beyond initial graduate study. There’s a whole world of knowledge out there to be gleaned.
There are, however, many things to consider carefully. And whether you are choosing a one-year master’s or a multi-year PhD, you will need to put a lot of work and effort in, to ensure your course is a success.
But, if you do your research and make sensible choices, then we assure you that being a postgrad student can be a really rewarding and valuable experience. And there are always people around who are willing to help, so make sure you take advantage of your university postgraduate resources, including the library and the writing centre. If you ever find yourself in a bind, Oxbridge Essays is always happy to consult on postgraduate projects you have taken on. Good luck!