Universities offer a variety of postgraduate open days. They help you to get to know more about the postgraduate courses they are offering and introduce you to the wider experience of being one of their students.
There are three major types of open day: general (which is an open day for the entire university), subject specific (where only departments related to a certain discipline participate), and departmental (open days operated by individual departments within a university).
Open days usually provide a wide range of activities including talks on career prospects, how to apply, funding your course plus details of the library and IT facilities. Sometimes the Students' Union is also involved.
So how can you approach these events to optimise your experience?
1. Gather information
Before you attend always read the university's postgraduate prospectus. If you are interested in a particular department examine their website in detail before attending. Get some knowledge of the courses they run and their content. Use these documents to generate a list of questions that you would like to ask members of staff and students when you are there.
2 Decided or Uncertain?
If you are firmly decided on the subject you wish to study you will get the most benefit by visiting on a departmental open day (as opposed to a general open day). Better to talk with someone who lectures in the department about the intricacies of their course.
Discuss your study needs and ambitions with a current student rather than converse with a person offering general information about the university or faculty.
Alternatively, if you are undecided about your choice of course it is better to start with events that provide a range of options from which you can choose and follow these up later with departmental visits. Move gradually from indecision to being more specific about what you want to study.
3 Investigate costs
Take the opportunity to discover what the course will cost. It is not just the fees that you have to pay. There will be some costs associated with external visits, weekend workshops off campus, books and other equipment. Naturally the distance from home and the cost of local accommodation are also important factors.
4 Scholarships, Bursaries and sponsorship
While on the subject of money, it pays to enquire about grants offered by the department or university. In some cases, a firm may sponsor students to study a particular course. It is also worth asking about any funding the department receives from the relevant Research Council.
5 Detail the course structure
Talk to the lecturers about the structure of the course. Most courses have a core of compulsory lectures but allow participants to follow their own particular interests by providing options or electives. These can often have important career implications. If, for example, you are studying a Legal Practice Course to become a solicitor and want to work on Family Law your options should be in that specific field. If you are studying mathematics and want to be an actuary, options in statistics are vitally important.
6 Talk to current and ex-students
Discuss the course with students and, if possible, ex-students. Be aware that any former students in attendance will probably be among the most successful, but nevertheless listen to what they have to say. How many students usually take the course? Do they have previous relevant experience or not? What is the mix in terms of age, international students, and part-time/full-time participants?
7 Discover their approach to research
If you are considering studies for a PhD talk with the research students about their projects. Also ask about their funding, relationships with supervisors and typical time taken to complete the research and write a thesis. Some universities insist that you first register for a master's degree and subsequently transfer to the status of PhD student (providing you are of PhD standard). Check what this means in practice.
Most academic departments are organised in research groups that cover different aspects of a subject. A physics department may be organised into astronomy, nuclear physics, astrophysics etc. Investigate how your target department is organised and take a look at their research facilities.
8 Investigate assessment policies
Try to discover how the postgraduate course of interest to you is assessed. Many of us prefer to have projects and essays assessed as we go along rather than being judged on how we perform in an exam on one particular day. What is the department's policy on this and what percentage of your final mark will rely on the exam?
9 Talk with other prospective students
Take the opportunity to discuss the courses you are seeking with other prospective students who are attending the open day. Use them as a tool to gather information, especially for comparing the department being visited with departments in other universities offering similar courses. Have they attended other open days or similar events? What was their experience? Which university department did they prefer and why? How have they prioritised them? How does this one compare with the others they have seen?
10 Does it feel right?
The course is fine, the people are interesting but will you enjoy living there? Do you like the place? Will you feel at home? Does the idea of spending at least a year of your life in that location attract you? Do you know anyone who lives there already or do you have a network of friends you can just plug into?
When you come to the final decision it's not just about the course.
It's about having a gut feeling that you would get a great deal out of being there. If you go for no other reason, open days do help you to get an answer to this vital question.