In an increasingly competitive jobs market, a Masters degree has many benefits and can set you apart from other candidates - as well as increase your earning potential

Why do a Masters?

Studying for a Masters degree is an exciting prospect and there are many valid reasons to consider taking a postgraduate course. According to the Higher Education Academy's Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey 2017, the most popular reasons for undertaking a Masters were to

  • progress in a current career path (58%)
  • improve employment prospects (54%)
  • develop a personal interest (46%)
  • enable progression to a higher level qualification (21%)
  • enter a particular profession (21%)
  • meet the requirements of a current job (9%).

A Masters degree can also aid a career change, help you to gain chartership and provide you with useful industry contacts and connections.

However, Masters study is intense and often comes with a hefty price tag. In most cases, you'll also need some relevant work experience for entry onto a programme. In order to make the most of postgraduate study it's vital to have a solid reason for committing to a course.

Will a Masters help me get a job?

Masters degrees in the UK are highly regarded by employers. They are also popular among international students, indicating the UK's globally-recognised strength in this area.

Holding a Masters qualification won't guarantee you a job on graduation, but the government's Graduate labour market statistics: 2017 show that graduates and postgraduates had higher employment rates than non-graduates.

Postgraduates were also more likely to be in high-skilled employment (professional or managerial roles). For example, 77% of all working-age postgraduates were in high-skilled employment, compared with 65% of all working age graduates. Indeed, 73% of young postgraduates - those under the age of 30 - were in high-skilled employment in 2017, compared with just 57% of young undergraduates.

For some roles, such as clinical psychologist, lawyer, librarian, social worker or teacher, a Masters degree is an essential entry requirement, while for many others it is highly beneficial. To check the entry requirements for particular roles, see job profiles. To find out how a Masters-level qualification can aid career progression see conversion courses and professional qualifications.

Having a relevant Masters degree under your belt could give you a crucial competitive edge in a crowded jobs market - employers are increasingly looking for ways to distinguish between candidates, and this extra higher-level qualification shows your ability to commit to an intense period of work. Masters study may also be extremely useful if you're looking to change career.

If you're already working in your preferred industry, a Masters degree could lead to rapid career progression. It could emphasise your drive, determination and willingness to increase your ability in a chosen area. What's more, your employer may support you financially through sponsorship.

You will only benefit fully from a Masters if it's complemented by relevant work experience. Without this, your employability will be weaker and you run the risk of getting into unnecessary debt.

Is it worth the cost?

Obtaining a Masters degree can be expensive, time-consuming and emotionally draining. Therefore you need to weigh up your reasons for studying a course carefully.

As a rule, Masters study is cheaper than doing an undergraduate degree, although fees vary widely. In the majority of cases, international students pay more for courses. The exception to this rule is the MBA, which is one of the most expensive qualifications out there. To find out more about the financial cost of postgraduate study see what is a Masters degree?

On a positive note, postgraduates earn considerably more than their undergraduate counterparts. Graduate labour market statistics: 2017 reports that full-time employed, working-age postgraduates had a median salary of £39,000 in 2017, compared with £33,000 for working-age undergraduates. What's more, full-time employed postgraduates under 30 years of age had a median salary of £28,500 in 2017, compared with £25,000 for young undergraduates.

Despite this, you must think deeply about why you want to pursue Masters study before committing. Many applicants wrongly believe that a Masters degree will automatically enhance their career and allow them to earn more - yet this is only true if the qualification genuinely gets them closer to fulfilling their ambitions. To be certain that Masters study will meet your expectations, and be worth the hard work and high costs, you should:

  • be passionate about your subject
  • browse relevant job advertisements to identify what employers value most, as industry certifications and accreditations are important for certain roles
  • consider everything in the context of your overall career plan, ensuring that the qualification offers the best way of achieving your ultimate career goals
  • consider whether Masters study will boost your credentials significantly above your existing undergraduate education
  • contact careers services, professional bodies or individual employers for further advice.

There are situations where you should avoid Masters study. If you can't convince yourself it's the right move, you'll almost certainly lack the commitment to ensure that it's a worthwhile investment.

If you're looking to study immediately after completing your undergraduate degree, you may want to reconsider. You shouldn't pursue a Masters in the naïve hope that it'll automatically add to your CV or simply because you need more time to think about your career. Unless your goals are crystal clear, spending some time in the workplace - or researching your options while taking a gap year - may be more beneficial at this point.

To learn more about your options, see what can I do with my degree?

Can I do a Masters with a 2:2 or a third?

You'll usually need at least a 2:1 at Bachelors level, or an equivalent qualification, to be accepted onto a Masters degree. If English isn't your first language it's likely that you’ll also need to prove your proficiency with a recognised language test, such as:

  • International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
  • Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic)
  • Cambridge English Language Assessment.

Language requirements will differ between institutions and depending on your subject of study.

However, those with a 2:2, a third, or no undergraduate degree at all may be considered provided they have appropriate professional experience. You should contact the admissions department directly if you don't quite meet the criteria to ask if you could be admitted onto a course.

If you're worried that your lower-class degree may affect your chances of gaining postgraduate funding, this won't always be the case. You'll be out of the running for any merit-based funding such as university scholarships and bursaries, but needs-based funding and postgraduate loans aren't awarded based on academic merit so you should still be eligible to apply.

To check the entry requirements of a particular course, search for a Masters degree.

International students can find more information about how their qualifications compare to those in the UK at UK NARIC (National Recognition Information Centre for the United Kingdom).

Will I have time to do a Masters?

Masters study must fit around your lifestyle, so identifying the mode of study that's right for you is essential.

Full-time study is the most common, and especially suits continuing students. You'll work intensively for the duration of your programme, achieving your qualification as quickly as possible. Contact hours vary from course to course, but full-time study generally involves several lectures and seminars every week.

However, it could alternatively require you to attend university from 9am to 5pm every weekday. Business, law and science courses generally require more contact time than programmes in arts and humanities. Regardless, you'll be expected to dedicate six to seven hours per day to self-study.

Part-time study, meanwhile, is primarily aimed at students with family commitments and/or in full-time employment, as you'll usually study for around 20 hours every week. While qualification takes longer - often two to four years - teaching is flexible, and lectures and seminars may take place during the daytime or evening. Sessions are commonly hosted during the weekends or even recorded for students to access online. Full-time work and part-time study is particularly popular with those who are self-funding their course.

There are three other modes of study worth consideration. These are:

  • Blended learning - this combines face-to-face classroom time with online learning. You can interact with lecturers, tutors and fellow students, while also working from home.
  • Block mode learning - this involves intense face-to-face study over a fixed period, often weekends or consecutive days, therefore allowing students to book time off work in advance.
  • Distance learning - This involves learning from home in your own time. You'll still get resources and support from a personal tutor, and can usually take as long as you need to complete the course.

Search for a part-time or distance learning Masters.

Can I do a PhD without a Masters?

To be accepted onto a PhD, which is the highest qualification that a student can achieve, students often need a relevant Masters degree.

This is because students cannot attain the requisite level of in-depth knowledge about a particular area without Masters study. Those looking to progress onto a PhD from Masters study can benefit from making contacts for future reference, and surrounding themselves with students and colleagues who share their aims and interests.

However, the minimum entry requirement for most PhDs is an upper second class Bachelors degree, so it's possible for those without a Masters to gain entry onto a Doctoral programme. It's more common for science students to progress directly to a PhD from an undergraduate course, while those studying the arts and humanities will generally need a Masters.

PhD entry requirements vary so to check specific requirements, search for a PhD.

Am I ready to do a Masters?

Before committing to a Masters degree, ask yourself:

  • Am I fully aware of the level of commitment required to undertake Masters study?
  • Am I prepared to do more studying and less partying than at undergraduate level?
  • If applicable, am I excited by the opportunity to write another, even longer dissertation or research project?
  • Can I afford Masters study, in terms of tuition fees and living costs?
  • Am I willing to accrue more graduate debt, or alternatively make potentially lengthy applications for funding?
  • If applicable, am I willing to live on a budget in order to cover living expenses, while my friends are in full-time employment?
  • Will the postgraduate qualification definitely improve my career prospects?
  • Is the qualification rated highly by key employers within my ideal industry?
  • Does the qualification require me to possess specific skills?
  • Will the qualification equip me with the specific skills needed for my ideal career?
  • If applicable, will my studies allow me to qualify as a professional?
  • Am I genuinely passionate about the qualification and subject?
  • Am I certain that the courses that I'm looking at are right for me?

If you're ready to take the plunge, begin your search for a Masters degree.

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