Masters study is an exciting proposition, but it's also an incredibly challenging one - investigating courses and universities to make an informed decision is therefore vital
Most students pursue postgraduate study to enhance their career prospects, whether they're looking to enter a profession or accelerate progression.
For this reason, you should look beyond your period of study and subject, and 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 university will help you to develop the real-world skills and knowledge that you'll need to master your profession or, if you're looking for a career in academia, that the degree could lead to a PhD.
If you've a particular employer in mind, contact them to confirm that the qualification would 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.
Find out about qualifications and training for your chosen career at job profiles.
Some Masters programmes will suit you more than others - especially if you're interested in something particularly niche. Courses with similar titles can vary significantly in terms of content, so you must look well beyond the summary to understand exactly what is covered. It must match your main interests, and this becomes particularly 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, you should 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.
Fees and funding
Compare fees, taking into consideration what exactly each course and university is offering. Ensure that you can afford to pay; if not, prioritise researching additional postgraduate funding options.
Most institutions offer scholarships and bursaries for Masters students, which are awarded for academic excellence and demonstrable potential for outstanding research, and discounts for continuing or returning students. 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 grants.
Modes of study
Advantages of part-time study while working include:
- annual tuition fees are usually lower;
- having a salary will help you to finance your living costs;
- your employer is more likely to fully or partially fund your course;
- you can implement your newfound skills and knowledge immediately in the workplace;
- you can network with fellow students and develop essential employability skills;
- you won't have to search for a job after graduation;
- future recruiters will admire your time management, lack of employment gaps, and commitment to personal and professional development.
Disadvantages of part-time study while working include:
- finding funding can be more difficult, with your options often restricted;
- balancing work, study and your family life can be extremely stressful and requires discipline, resilience, enthusiasm and dedication;
- remaining focused for longer can be difficult, especially if your personal circumstances change;
- employers and academics may not appreciate your conflicting demands;
- your job could take precedence in terms of quality and time, meaning that you leave assignments until the last minute - or even require extensions or module deferrals;
- you may require additional leave for exam preparation;
- you may not become as involved in university life, nor fully experience the benefits of societies, academic staff, the library and the careers service.
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 very important things to think about.
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.
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 often based on undergraduate courses - so may not be applicable to the Masters experience.
What's more, while some employers do take into account the overall reputation of the university, it's often less significant at this level. 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.
However, you're not looking for departments that can provide undergraduate-style general knowledge of an academic field. Therefore it's important to attend a university that focuses on your specific area, and you can immediately narrow your options by targeting 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 especially important if you're considering doing a PhD at some point in the future, as you must strive to build strong relationships with experts.
Find your perfect institution by attending open days or browsing our universities and departments.
You'll spend plenty of time at your chosen institution, so feeling safe and comfortable with its physical environment is vital. This makes open day attendance essential.
Consider whether you prefer big 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-£11,000 every year on living costs, with costs in London and the south-east of England 25% higher than in the rest of the UK. You should also remember that some universities don't provide specialist housing for Masters students, so you may have to find your own accommodation.
It's important to keep your mind and body healthy through sports and other social activities. You should therefore 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. If you're used to a campus university, it can seem inconvenient to move to a city campus that can require more travel, rather than having the luxury of facilities on your doorstep.
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. Alternatively, as something completely different, you could consider studying abroad.
Facilities and support
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, such as developing your presentation and interview skills, and networking with past graduates.
Finally, ensure that the university offers support to postgraduates to maintain their wellbeing. This could include counselling provision or a personal tutor system.