How to choose the right Master's programme

Choosing a Master's is a whole different game

Once you’re convinced you want to study at postgraduate level, you’ll need to commit to in-depth research of your options – choosing a masters is very different from the undergraduate degree you selected back in your sixth form days. 

What subject should I study?

Choosing the right course, as most academics will tell you, is more important than choosing a university.

“There are three main reasons students choose a course,” says Ian Turner, Professor of learning and teaching at the University of Derby. “You want to take a subject in greater depth – go to the next level. Or you want to expand your breadth of knowledge. What part of your degree was it that gripped you? What was the book you couldn’t put down, or the lecture that inspired you?

That passion is important. Or you want to side-step – from biology to bioengineering say, or philosophy to history.”

All are valid reasons, he says.

If it’s a subject you love – and this why many go on to postgraduate study - the course decision almost makes itself. But if you are side stepping, then it’s worth looking for common elements with your undergraduate degree – research methodology for instance. Changing direction is one of the benefits of postgraduate study, says Terry O’Donnell, senior postgraduate liaison officer at the University of Sussex. “A third or student who stay with us for a masters will do so in a different subject to their undergraduate degree.” And postgraduate conversion courses can prepare you to work in different professions, from teaching, law, social work and psychology. 

“Masters are where you begin to specialise and where you tend to spend more time with academics,” says Gigi Hennessy, research student and co-host of Planet PhD podcast at the University of Sussex. To compare courses, FindaMasters offers easy links to university websites, while UCAS has a dedicated postgraduate section, with subject summaries. But try and speak to alumni of the course and academics themselves to get the lowdown on the subject. 

What will you get from your course?

Put league tables aside and concentrate on a course’s strengths, and try to find out about reputation of courses and tutors by asking around. How much time do tutors spend teaching, or at the university? Do they also work in their sector? How long have they been in their field and what research have they published? 

Courses with similar titles vary hugely, says Emily Stevens, senior admissions officer at the University of Winchester, so go beyond the landing page to understand what individual modules offer – and check they’re not covering the same ground you’ve already been over as an undergraduate. 

Check for relevance, says Professor Heather Dicther, who runs the masters in sports management at de Montfort University in Leicester. “In my area, if you’re interested in the marketing and events side of sports, and the course covers ethics and governance, it won’t be a match, and you won’t get the most out of it.”

Look at optional elements and check with the university they’ll still be running the following year – some are dependent on numbers. Find out student profiles of previous years, how many usually join a course, how long it’s been running and whether there’s a strong research tradition in that field.

“Some students don’t realise the high expectations of postgraduate work and might be slower off the bat with what they submit,” says Dichter. “It’s a short course – around 15 months – they do have to realise they have to step up and that our expectations are higher.”

What type of course will you take?

Taught masters – MAs and MScs - are the most popular postgraduate option, and last a full year rather than the traditional academic year – writing a dissertation in the summer often catches students out.

Masters in research – MRes - are good for students considering a research career. Taught masters offer more seminars, lectures and workshops, while research masters require independent research. The postgraduate research experience survey asks research masters students about their experiences – but there’s no taught postgraduate equivalent. 

Will you get a job?

Most students take a postgraduate course to bolster their job prospects. You can quiz university staff - where do postgraduates go on to find work? 

“Ask for comparative figures for outcomes for high skilled employment and unemployment rates for their undergraduate and postgraduate courses,” says Charlie Ball, head of higher education intelligence at Graduate Prospects. “Be absolutely clear what outcomes you could reasonably expect to get form a postgraduate course.” 

If you know where you want to work, you could ask relevant businesses whether they’d value a particular postgraduate degree, and their thoughts on course reputation. Look at job adverts – some will specify what qualifications employers want. But remember that even if employers are noncommittal, taught courses often offer networking with guest professional lecturers, sometimes placements, and course leaders often have good links with prospective employers. 

Try to understand what skills the course will develop beyond your academic prowess – will creative masters for instance teach you how to be self-employed, or will you learn basic business skills?

“Many vocational masters courses are good investments in the current labour market, particularly things in health such as specialist nursing, radiography and occupational therapy which are all in serious shortage,” says Ball. Surveying and social care sectors are also short of skilled applicants. “Most established courses in these areas will have decent outcomes.”