This guide explains how to find a postgraduate course in the UK.
It will cover:
- I want do a postgrad degree, what are my options?
- Can I get funding?
- Where to find details of courses
- How to apply
- Maximising your chances
- The interview/offer
I want to do a postgrad degree, what are my options?
You will no doubt be baffled by the array of acronyms relating to postgraduate courses, here are just a few of them:
- MA - Master of Arts
- MSc - Master of Science
- MLitt - Master of Literature
- DPhil - Doctor of Philosophy
- PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
- MPhil - Master of Philosophy
- LLM - Master of Laws
- MRes - Master of Research
However, depending on your field, you may have a narrower choice to make. You need to decide the number of years you will dedicate to study and your eventual career goal. You may want to choose a course that will naturally develop your career and provide you with skills to use in the workplace. These are the first variables to think about.
Some postgraduate courses offer ‘taught' programmes (i.e. you go to classes and produce assessed work throughout the course, as at undergraduate level). Make sure you are aware what assessment would be required of you before you sign up to the course. Others will be ‘research' degrees in which each student has much more autonomy and will design and undertake his or her research project, with support from a supervisor. There will be very few classes to attend and often no continuous assessment. Students undertaking research degrees will have to produce a large piece of written work, ranging from around 20,000 words for a research masters, to 90,000 words for a PhD.
If you are still confused, why not have a look at our case studies describing the experiences of real people on the courses that you might apply for.
Can I get funding?
For EU/UK applicants, many postgraduate opportunities offer bursaries or studentships, sometimes amounting to a few thousand pounds per year, or up to about £20,000 for the better funded positions. Unfortunately in many cases, overseas students are not eligible for these because of the requirements of the funding bodies. If unsure, contact the institution running the course.
Overseas students are also advised to contact the institution concerned to see if they have any advice on funding. Bear in mind that not all types of visa allow you to work in the UK, so make sure that you are aware of your situation before you spend any money coming to the UK.
If you are an undergraduate with an exceptional record it may be possible to secure external funding for a postgraduate course even if the university itself does not offer funding. The usual process is to be awarded a place by the university concerned, and then to apply for funding with the support of that institution. Who you approach will depend on your subject area. You might try applying to Research Councils, but their awards are very competitive. Some charities or private organisations offer funding to postgraduates, but your subject of study must fall within their remit. Ask your lecturers for advice!
Even if a course does not come with a bursary or studentship, the department or institution can sometimes offer fees-only assistance to strong candidates. There is also the possibility of supplementing your income by teaching in your department or doing administration work for permanent members of staff.
Doing a course part-time while working is something that you should consider very carefully. The course workload is spread over a greater number of years, so it represents a longer time commitment. Part-time students can also feel isolated and disconnected because their degree is not their only focus. Having said that, many people especially mature students, perform excellently doing a part-time degree while working and it should be considered if you are unable to study full- time for whatever reason.
Where to find details of courses?
The Prospects website (prospects.ac.uk) has lists of course places available, and information on what to expect from a particular course and the career path you may wish to follow afterwards.
If you would like to attend a particular university, have a look at their website. Each department usually has a webpage so you can investigate the courses offered and the lecturers that work there. You may want to send off for a paper prospectus, or alternatively get all the information you need from the website.
Visit postgraduate Open Days run at an individual institution or postgraduate fairs where many universities tell prospective students about what they have to offer.
How to Apply:
Find out the name of the lecturer who will be leading the course either from the website, prospectus or course advert. Contact them informally first to ask their advice.
You will then fill in a formal application form, which is sent through to a central department such as a Graduate School, but the lecturer may be able to tell you if anything else will help to boost your application. Some universities now prefer you to use an online application form, so it's useful if you have the IT capabilities to do this.
Maximising your chances:
If you're currently working towards an undergraduate degree, work really hard to achieve the best grades you can! You usually need at least a 2.1 to be accepted onto a Masters course, and to be awarded substantial funding nothing less than a First will do.
When filling in the application form read the instructions carefully: as with job applications, the number rejected due to the applicant providing the wrong information is high. If you are unsure, make informal contact with someone in the department and ask their advice.
It is important to make connections with lecturers in the department in which you hope to study. This will make it easier for you to fit in when you eventually arrive, but will also show that you are dedicated and enthusiastic.
Talk to as many people as you can who have done postgraduate work. Try to build up a picture of what it's like, because the atmosphere and expectations are very different from being an undergraduate. You will be expected to perform at a higher level and the jump can prove difficult for some students used to life as an undergraduate, or for those who have been out of formal education for a while.
Courses that offer a studentship or bursary will probably want to interview you. Prepare for this as you would a job interview. You will be asked questions about your future plans, what you can contribute to the life of the department and why you want to do that course. Dress conservatively and be well-prepared and confident. This gives you a chance to see whether you want to work there, whether you feel comfortable in the department and the academics seem approachable.
Some taught courses might make an offer without an interview, based on your academic record to date. If you are awarded a place, before accepting the offer make sure you definitely want to go to that part of the world and you know what is involved in the course. Student life is also important: some postgraduate communities are very active and inclusive, others much smaller. See whether your chosen institution provides the sort of support that you are looking for. Also confirm that you are financially able to do the course. And if everything seems OK, then go ahead, and good luck!
View a Case Study about someone who is currently studying for a PhD here.