Master’s degree: what you need to know and how to apply

Studying for a Master’s can be enormously rewarding

Whether you’re doing it because you love your subject or because it’s part of a planned route into work, it can be a brilliantly positive, proactive experience. But let’s be honest – it’s also likely to mean more tuition fees, more student loan, and another year without a full-time wage. There’s plenty to balance.

How is a Master’s different from undergraduate study?

In its most simplistic form, a Master’s is more in-depth than undergraduate study. It is more focussed, often runs over a year (longer if you’re part time) and in most cases, students are required to work more independently than they may have done previously. 

What it might cost?

Tuition fees should always be set out on the university websites, though the true cost of a Master’s is more complicated than just that. In some careers having that extra level of education can lead to better pay. In 2018 the median postgraduate salary was £40,000. That’s £6,000 more than the median graduate salary of £34,000.

On the flip side, it’s at least another year of tuition fees and potentially paying for student halls or housing. You are also likely to put off having a full-time job for about a year. These are all things that you will need to weigh up when you are making your decision.

In 2016 the government introduced postgraduate Master’s loans of up to £10,000. This led to a fairly sizable increase in entrants, and it is relatively straightforward to access.

Can it boost your employment prospects?

Choosing a Master’s to improve your job prospects can be a bit of a gamble and our TSR forums are full of opinions regarding their worth. TSR member Lprach writes: “I don’t want to do it just because others have, but they will also be my future competition either in job interviews or working self-employed.” 

In another post, Baron of Sealand writes: “If the job ad says having a Master's is desirable, then having one will help. Not only will it make it more likely for you to be interviewed and given offers, but your salary may be higher.”

Certainly this seems to ring true in some so-called ‘highly skilled areas’ (think managers, professional and technical occupations). According to the Annual Employment Rates for 2018 the proportion of postgraduates employed in high-skilled roles in 2018 was 76.5%, which exceeds that of graduates (65.4%) and non-graduates (22.9%).

But there are plenty of other industries where networking and learning on the job can be just as valuable. Do your research, speak to people in your chosen profession and know that if you’re not sure about doing a Master’s right now, it is something you can revisit a few years down the line.

What qualifications do you need?

Application requirements will be listed on your course description and they vary from subject to subject.

A degree level qualification is almost universally a must, and depending on the competition for places, universities can set some quite stringent grade requirements. But there are also alternative routes available, in which different qualifications and experience will be considered.

What is the difference between taught and research Master’s?

If you opt for a taught Master’s then the teaching style is likely to echo that of your undergrad. You’ll have lessons and seminars, a variety of modules and probably a few different lecturers.

Research Master’s are more independent. There won’t be much on your formal timetable so instead you’ll focus on extended research projects, probably under the watchful eyes of an expert academic, who will help you through. In short, it’s a bit like a mini PhD.

Maskofsanity puts it simply on our forum: “The general distinction is that a research Master’s will have mostly research methodology modules, whereas a taught Master’s will have mostly subject-specific modules.”

Are there options for part-time or remote study?

Many courses offer the option to go part time, as well as the choice of how many years you would like your course to run over (from two to six years for example). TSR member Hakz was on our forum weighing up the choice of a Master’s, a job offer at Deloitte, or juggling both at the same time. “Are there any feasible solutions to make this all work?” he asks.

In truth, yes – but it requires a lot of hard work. If you want to work full time alongside a Master’s then look for a university that offers evening and weekend classes, or remote study options. 

Online courses are offered at a number of top institutions including The University of Edinburgh, The University of Birmingham, and  The Open University. This type of learning often involves group chatrooms, online learning portals and live or recorded lectures, for you to watch in your own time, from anywhere in the world.

How and when do you apply?

Check the details for your specific course because application deadlines and methods vary. Generally there is the option to apply directly through the university, or via UCAS. The process is likely to require a personal statement, two good references, and potentially an interview.

Some courses will have set deadlines, which will be listed online. Others will remain open until they have enough eligible candidates. If it’s unclear then never be afraid to ask.