• Pros and cons of pursuing Postgraduate study

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General pros and benefits

  • The obvious: employability. It's oft-cited that having further degrees enhances your employability. Whilst this is not always the case (many graduate entry schemes for example attribute no particular significance to further degrees beyond the undergraduate qualification - usually a 2.1 - necessary to be considered) in many fields, particularly vocational or financial, further training can make your CV stand out. [NB: While the original author thinks this is "obvious" it is not necessarily true at all, and some data shows that PhDs even reduce expected future earnings.]


  • Opening career paths. Certain careers, such as research, are often difficult to access without dedicated research qualifications, most usually a PhD. This can make postgraduate study necessary to enable you to apply for specific posts - and the careers that require further study are often very intellectually rewarding. There is also arguably an advantage presently in delaying entry into a fierce jobs market.


  • More money. Again, not always guaranteed, but particular qualifications in economic or financial disciplines can enhance your earning potential. Take this with a pinch of salt, however - simply having an MA/MSc doesn't automatically entitle you to more money, it simply makes it more likely that you will be able to access jobs that pay better.


  • Intellectual interest. For those that enjoyed undergraduate study, a masters is often a logical step. If you liked researching as an undergraduate, considering a PhD can be a wonderful opportunity to bury yourself in your discipline for 3 or 4 years. For those with the aptitude and commitment, research is highly rewarding.


  • Greater specialisation. If there were particular topics you especially enjoyed as an undergraduate, you may find a Masters programme specifically tailored towards those specialisations, allowing you to explore the topic at greater length and depth than at Bachelors level.


  • Bolstering a weak undergraduate performance. This is somewhat controversial as in many professions, a Masters will not 'make up' for a 2.2 or worse. That said, achieving enrollment on, and performing better at, Masters level is unlikely to do any harm. Be wary however about forking out potentially thousands in the anticipation that this will dramatically improve the chances of employment in a competitive profession, since it may simply not be enough to justify the cost.

General cons, costs and drawbacks

  • The cost: If you don't manage to secure funding, postgraduate study entails still further expense for you to pay back later on. Fees are enormously variable, but can be substantial: generally the more business- or finance- oriented the course is, the more expensive the fees (since universities are well aware that they can charge through the nose and still induce graduates to gamble on being more employable at the end of it). For some MBAs fees can be up to £30,000. However, this is an extreme example, and the majority of Masters programmes are in the £13,000 - £19,000 range. On top of this are living costs, for which you are likely to need at least £6-7,000 to cover the 12-month period. Check out the Funding Postgraduate Study article for more information. Also don't forget that many of the taught courses are a full year long (50 weeks) so make sure you budget for the cost of the longer length of the year. You are not entitled to money from the Student Loans Company either.


  • The course: Masters courses, in particular, are intended for graduates from many different universities, with different levels of experience. As such, they are forced to cram a lot of material into a short space of time, and often begin modules at a relatively introductory level and progress very quickly. In this respect, departments are in a Catch-22, with modules either too advanced for students without a sufficient grasp of the subject (many of whom are often paying very high fees to be there) or too easy for those who may have covered the topics at undergraduate. In this respect, Masters courses can be unfulfilling, so pick your course carefully.


  • Time taken: There was a rather salutary tale published in the Guardian higher education section about a PhD graduate who, at the age of 27 and rather jaded, decided to retrain (on a graduate scheme) as an accountant alongside lots of fresh-faced 21 year olds. Whilst for many the 4 or more years of additional education is a pleasure in itself, if you're not sure that you won't want to do something entirely different afterwards (which doesn't require the qualification) it can be a very long slog for not much gain.


  • Switching unis: It's not uncommon for students to change university for postgrad courses. However it can take a lot of time to adjust to a new system (or sometimes never fully), especially if you find the MA experience bad compared to UG. This can leave you uninspired, annoyed and fed up - all things that don't help when you have thousands of words to be writing. Also given the lonely nature of Arts postgrad courses, you will not have the fall back of a group of close knit friends to talk to, unlike at UG level. Tutors can also be funny about outside students and sometimes an outsider has to make more effort and made an impact in order to be recognised as a member of the course.


  • Resources: PICK YOUR UNI WISELY. Some universities will come highly respected for your subject area. However some do not always have the most basic of resources that you would expect to find that relate to your chosen topic. It gets VERY annoying when you cannot get a book from your uni library that is usually found on every UG reading list university wide. Search library catalogues to check they've got a good amount of texts relating to your course and research area. You do not want to be (or might not be able to afford to) commuting every week just to get hold of books.


  • Social side: It can be quite lonely given the self study nature of PG courses. Being lonely or even having a small year group (especially if you've been 1 of 200 at UG) does not bode well if you're having a crisis or just want to rant to someone.


  • Workload: Some PG courses will have far fewer essays and exams as required assessment. Instead the work you do do is longer and deeper. This can make the year seem long, dull and boring with the only periods of properly working appearing in the 6 weeks before deadlines. It's hard to adjust after the intensity of UG degrees. For example, a History MA may only have 6 essays and the dissertation for the entire year which isn't much at all.


  • Relationships with tutors: For those students switching unis and also hoping to apply for PhDs during their MA year. Do not expect the most brilliant of references within the first term and a half. Tutors will not know you well enough (and some may not even bother to read the work you've given them to create a more informed reference) and as a result, they will never be as detailed as UG refs.


  • Accommodation: As a PG student you will find accommodation in halls hard to come by unless the uni specifically states that they offer PG accommodation. Be prepared to have a back up plan before you even have accommodation applications confirmed or denied. UCL for example does not offer PG accommodation to its UK students. You also will not want to be living with UG students given their unsociable hours, late night drinking and general wasting of time. As a PG student you start to take life a bit more seriously and you don't find many other PG students out until 4am every night.

Delaying Entry to Postgraduate study

For many people, especially students who obtain liberal arts degrees, the next step after undergraduate is to enter directly into graduate school. The advantage to this are that you still know departmental staff and can get good references, and are still in the mindset of university. Nonetheless, the consequences of hasty entry into graduate school can be enormous if you are not entirely sure that the extra time and expense is worthwhile.

Pros of Delaying Entry

It takes a while to figure out who you are and what you really want to do with the degree you are obtaining. To do this often requires some real life experience outside the student arena, in order to work out whether:

1) Postgraduate study is the right place for you and 2) Whether you'd prefer a more theoretical or applied degree 3) Whether you wish to study a postgraduate degree to give you specific help with a particular career (such as, for example, a town planning Masters) 4) You can afford it - a year out to save up can make postgraduate study possible for many.

Personally, I went straight through from undergrad to graduate school and I burnt out really quickly and was never sure if I was in the right type of program. This is not the appropriate mindset to survive graduate school. Finally, after taking some time off I realized that I needed to be in a more applied field and have found the right program and career path.

Advice: Don't rush your schooling: if you feel you need it, take time off between undergrad and graduate school!

Cons

It can be extremely easy to get 'out of the habit' of academia. Writing essays during your undergraduate degree becomes like second nature, and returning to that particular, constrained form of assessment can feel rather daunting if you've become used to submitting job-specific work.

You may become rather too used to earning money! Nobody enjoys living off baked beans during their undergrad, and whilst you may take time off with the intention of coming back, it is perfectly possible to get so accustomed to working that you decide it's not financially worth it to go back to studying. This is particularly the case if you find yourself making good progress in your job - taking time out for, effectively, a career change can seem rather unappealing.

It's easier to work from the 'inside' of academia. Gaining support from lecturers and sussing out suitable programmes can be far easier if you're in regular contact with staff.


Also See

Got postgrad questions which aren't covered above? Then visit the Postgraduate Forum to get your answers.


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