Choosing a course can be overwhelming and it's hard to know which Masters is best for you - to make an informed decision, consider the following…
Most students pursue postgraduate study to enhance their career prospects, whether they're looking to enter a profession or accelerate progression.
Therefore, one of the first questions you should ask yourself when considering a Masters is 'is a Masters degree necessary for my career?' For example, most science careers in the UK require a postgraduate qualification, while many aspiring teachers qualify by studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Lawyers also need to complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
Looking ahead, if you've a particular employer in mind, contact them to confirm whether the qualification will improve your future application. Industry certifications from professional bodies are important for certain subject areas - look at relevant job adverts to identify what employers are looking for, and speak to potential employers at careers events to get an understanding of how they view the options that you're considering. You should also discover the employability rate of graduates of the course you're considering.
With career prospects in mind, ensure that the university has consistently produced successful graduates who've made a positive impact on both industry and society. You should be confident that the institution will help you to develop the real-world skills and knowledge that you'll need to master your profession. Alternatively, if you're looking for a career in academia, the degree should lead to a PhD.
You'll need to consider an institution's reputation before deciding on which Masters is right for you.
While overall league tables compiled by organisations like the Guardian and The Times can provide an indication of an institution's strengths and student satisfaction, these are usually based on undergraduate courses - so may not be applicable to the Masters experience.
You'll need to do your own research, but don't focus on the university's overall reputation, as this can vary depending on what subject you choose. A university's subject-specific strength is a much more valid concern - an institution may be strongest for your area of study even if it doesn't score so highly overall.
Find out about course reputation and student satisfaction rates (for particular programmes and with the wider department), how well courses are run and the reputation of tutors. What is the quality of teaching like? How much time do well-known lecturers spend teaching at the university? Try and speak to past students of your favoured course as they are well placed to answer these questions and can provided 'inside' information.
To immediately narrow your options when choosing a Masters target programmes and institutions that satisfy your interest. To do this, scrutinise your potential department and its research reputation. You should also browse the academic profiles of lecturers to ensure that they're specialists in your particular field. This is important if you're considering a PhD, as you must strive to build strong relationships with experts.
Taught or research Masters
Another important decision that you need to make when choosing a Masters concerns the type of programme you wish to study.
Should you opt for a taught or research programme? They have several similarities. For example, both take one to two years to complete, are generally worth the same number of credits and include, to some extent, a taught and research element.
However, differences include:
- Taught Masters courses follow a similar structure to undergraduate study, while research Masters are based more independent learning.
- The majority of Masters programmes are taught courses and these mainly consist of Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc) subjects. Research courses include the MRes and MPhil.
- Taught Masters are made up of core and optional modules delivered through seminars, workshops and lectures. Research Masters involve one or more independent research projects, with little to no timetabled hours.
To aid your decision, consider what you enjoyed about your undergraduate degree. If you preferred studying set modules, maybe a taught course is for you. If you enjoyed writing your dissertation and the freedom this afforded you, perhaps you're more suited to a research programme.
Your career goals should also help you make a choice. Those working toward a particular profession usually opt for a taught Masters, while those who'd like to enter academia or move on to a PhD choose a research Masters.
Some Masters programmes will suit you more than others - especially if you're interested in something particularly niche. Courses with similar titles vary significantly in terms of content, so you must look well beyond the summary to understand what is covered. It must match your main interests, and this becomes important when applying, as you'll be required to demonstrate your knowledge of the programme.
Ensure that compulsory modules aren't too generic or replicate what you've learned at undergraduate level. Scrutinising optional modules is equally essential - confirm that your specialist interest will be covered in your academic year, and ensure that the department won't cancel modules if only a small number of students select the option. Similarly, find out whether the course is exam-based, continually assessed or both, plus check that the teaching methods and style suit your preferences.
To achieve all of this, study course literature carefully, check the programme's graduate employment rate and investigate alumni more closely. Most university websites profile graduates, so discover what jobs they're doing and where, and how they've used the qualification to further their career.
You can find out more about specific courses by searching for a Masters degree.
Links with industry
Strong industry links are paramount - access to mentoring schemes, opportunities to work with businesses, and the chance to network with employers and alumni are all important things to think about. Not all institutions offer the same opportunities, so be sure to check before making your decision.
Work shadowing, work experience and placement opportunities can greatly boost your CV and lead to a graduate job, while your course may offer opportunities to conduct research with an employer as part of a dissertation, project or other work-based learning experience. Many institutions even invite industry professionals to inspire students by delivering guest lectures.
Links with industry are often determined by location. Discover whether the industry that you're hoping to break into - and the type of employer you're hoping to attract - has a presence within the region.
You'll spend plenty of time at your chosen institution, so feeling safe and comfortable with your surroundings is vital. This makes open day attendance essential.
Consider whether you prefer city life or something more rural. This can also affect your financial considerations, especially if you don't fancy staying at home. UCAS estimates that the average postgraduate spends £8,000 to £11,000 every year on living costs, with costs in London and the southeast being considerably more. Remember that some universities don't provide specialist housing for Masters students, so you may have to find your own accommodation.
Because it's so important to keep your mind and body healthy through sports and other social activities, ascertain that there's a good selection of gyms, bars, cafes and shops on offer. If leisure facilities are off-campus, consider whether the local transport infrastructure allows you to easily access them.
When making your choice you'll be able to choose either a campus or city university. A campus university has all its facilities, such as teaching locations, accommodation and leisure activities all on one site. A city university differs in that its facilities are usually spread out over a wider geographical area.
Unless you feel that a change of scenery would be beneficial, you may want to remain at (or return to) your undergraduate university - particularly if you've built a strong network of academics and friends there. You may get a discount on tuition fees. Alternatively, as something completely different, you could consider studying abroad.
Flexible study options
If the flexibility of study is important to you, you'll need to check which institutions offer Masters courses with distance learning options.
Those with work or family commitments should look into how courses are structured in order to plan your time effectively. Investigate programme timetables and discover how many days a week you need to dedicate to study, and how many lecturers and tutorials can you expect?
Find out about contact hours, class size and whether you'll be able to work part-time. Search for distance learning and online Masters.
Part-time study may also be an option, but be aware that this often doubles the length of study. Search for part-time Masters.
Fees and funding
The cost of study will factor in to your decision when choosing a Masters. Compare fees, taking into consideration what each course and university offers. Ensure that you can afford to pay - if not, prioritise researching postgraduate funding options.
Tuition fees vary widely depending on the subject you study and the university you choose. You'll need to research and compare the cost of courses that interest to you.
Most institutions offer scholarships and bursaries for Masters students, which are awarded for academic excellence and demonstrable potential for outstanding research. You can find out more by contacting the institution directly, or attending a postgraduate study fair or open day.
Studentships are awarded by the seven publicly-funded Research Councils - the UK's biggest source of PhD funding. However, they also provide provision for research Masters students. For more information on your personal eligibility, your course eligibility and how to apply, see Research Council funding.
Some universities offer a discount to students who have previously studied an undergraduate degree with them.
Support and facilities
Successful postgraduate study relies on having access to the latest academic facilities and resources, such as specialist workshops, up-to-date literature, modern teaching spaces and industry-standard equipment. It's therefore important that the university has a track record of investing in and improving its academic facilities.
Libraries and laboratories must be up-to-scratch, especially if you'll be using them regularly. If your chosen course is a stepping stone to academia, you must discover whether the institution has strong research links.
The strength of the university's careers service is also important. Consider how you can capitalise on any advice, support and training opportunities that it provides.
Finally, ensure that the university offers support to postgraduates to maintain their wellbeing. This could include counselling provision, mental health support, disability support or a personal tutor system.