Postgraduate study is the study of any course for which you normally need an undergraduate degree prior to entry on to the course. In some cases extensive work experience may be enough for entry in place of a degree. The subjects you can study as a postgraduate student are vast and often very specialised. There are also a large number of different types of course, varying in length from a few months to several years.
Postgraduate education is becoming an increasing popular option for both those just about to leave university and people who have already begun their careers.
There are many reasons for this and perhaps the most obvious is the rising numbers of graduates in the UK. In an age in which more people than ever before hold a first degree, simply being a degree holder is no longer considered as special as it once may have been. If everyone has at least one higher education qualification perhaps two might give me a competitive advantage over them in the job market? But don't count on it. Do your research on how much, if at all, a postgraduate qualification may increase your employability. This is especially so if you will be paying out of pocket for a course. Don't take the assertions of the university about the increased employability of graduates at face value. They have a financial interest in persuading you to take the course. In most cases work experience is more useful than higher degrees.
However, increasing job prospects are not the only reasons for taking on postgraduate courses, many postgraduates choose to do their courses simply for the love of their subject. For others, it is not simply a luxury, but a necessity for their desired career. If you have already started a career, a postgraduate qualification can help to improve your chances of getting that elusive promotion, or perhaps your current job no longer excites you and you are seeking new challenges.
Whatever the reason, and everyone will have their own, this guide will hopefully provide some thought provoking insights into postgraduate education.
There are three general categories of postgraduate qualification:
(1) Postgraduate Diploma/Certificate
Typically postgraduate diplomas/certificates are awards given to students who have completed a conversion or vocation-specific course (e.g. a PGCE). They may also be awarded to those have completed part of a Masters course, this option is popular for those who are taking postgraduate courses part-time.
(2) Masters (MSc, MA, MPhil, MSt etc.)
A Masters course typically requires 1-2 years' full time study and provides advanced training in a subject field beyond what is achieved at undergraduate level. The course structure can vary quite considerably but typically involve some combination of both taught and research elements. For some subject areas, a Masters degree is a prerequisite in order to gain funding from appropriate funding bodies for PhD study.
A postgraduate masters courses should not be confused with an undergraduate masters course leading to the degrees of, for example, MEng, MPhys, MChem etc. Postgraduate masters operate outside of the UK undergraduate funding framework. In terms of content, the differences between the fourth year of an undergraduate masters and a postgraduate masters course will vary depending on course and institution.
(3) Doctorate (PhD, DPhil, EngD etc.)
Most doctorates are research-based degrees and lead to the award of the title of "Doctor of Philosophy" and the opportunity to wear the letters "Dr" in front of your name. Doctorates typically require 3-5 years' full time study during which one must complete a substantial body of work that demonstrates novelty and original thought in their chosen field of research. Obtaining a doctorate is a typical first step in a career in academia or industrial research.
Recently, new types of doctorates, such as the Doctorate in Nursing, have been introduced. Unlike traditional doctorates, these are very high level professional qualifications, which require the completion of both taught and research elements. These are usually undertaken by those who already have significant expertise in their field.
Take a look at the 'Types of Postgraduate Course' article for more detials on the different coruses available, including some of the more specicalist courses.
Where can I study?
Many UK universities which accept students for undergraduate study will also have postgraduate courses available, in addition, there are also many options available abroad. Check university websites and look for their postgraduate prospectuses. In addition, advertisements for courses and studentships can be found on websites such as jobs.ac.uk  and findaphd.com  and in general and specialist publications (e.g. New Scientist ).
Choosing a university
There are no hard rules for selecting a suitable university for "your" postgraduate education. The "your" has been emphasised as postgraduate students often have very mixed backgrounds, unlike at undergraduate level, where the majority of entrants will be recent school leavers. However, there are a number of general criteria which are commonly utilised:
Availability of course
Postgraduate courses offer advanced training in a particular field of study but not every university will be able to offer the course of study you want. In fact, the number of universities offering postgraduate study or research options in certain fields maybe extremely limited, due to the expense and availability of teaching and physical resources.
League tables rankings, reputation and prestige, rightly or wrongly, these are now common criteria for those applying for undergraduate study. Do these still apply at postgraduate level? Yes and no.
It would be naive to say that a Masters or PhD from an Oxford or Cambridge would not look attractive on a persons CV. There is always a certain glamour attached to having a degree from a "prestigious" university. However, one must take care at postgraduate level, as there are many great opportunities to be found outside of the "top" universities. For example, the University of Bradford would probably not list in most peoples top ten universities for undergraduate study, but if you are interested in obtaining a doctorate in international politics, Bradford's Department for Peace Studies is one of the most reputable departments of its kind in the world. The reputation of your supervisor(s) is a more important factor than the institution per se at postgraduate level.
A common criterion for many prospective postgraduates is to find universities or university departments that are able to provide funding support for graduate study. Postgraduate education can be an expensive business and there is no government backed loan system to support postgraduates. The availability of financial support could therefore be very attractive.
Flexibility and Location
For many people, postgraduate education must be managed alongside other commitments (e.g. employment, family, etc). Therefore factors such as the location of a university, the availability of part-time options, etc maybe important and totally legitimate criteria for selecting a suitable university.
All universities offer scholarships which cover the full cost of fees and a stipend for living costs (any student can get one of these if they are available), but for most home students the most common form of funding is through the research councils (www.rcuk.ac.uk) also industrial sponsorship can be available for certain projects. For EU students there is money available from the EU itself and possibly from your own country. International students have more limited choices but there may be money available from your own country. There are obviously no concrete rules about funding and many different subjects have different funding options and funding levels so it is best to talk to someone with expertise in the particular area you wish to research in.
Got postgrad questions which aren't covered above? Then visit the Postgraduate Forum to get your answers.
- Postgraduate Education
- Postgraduate Student Profiles:
- Types of Postgraduate Course
- Application tips and advice for:
- Funding Postgraduate Study
- Getting into Oxbridge for Postgraduate Study
- Pros and cons of pursuing Postgraduate study
- Routes into Teaching
- Writing a Teaching Personal Statement
- Postgraduate and Teaching Personal Statements
- GTTR Application Guide