Postgraduate Study: Should I undertake a Master’s? Is it all that it’s cracked up to be?

For the first five years of my career, I worked closely with students, universities and employers to ensure students were prepared for the world of work. Yet, if ever I was asked my opinion on undertaking a master’s degree, it was strongly a… ‘don’t do it’.

Now I find myself feeling rather hypocritical as I have recently embarked on an MSc in order to change my career. Yet still, I come across young people pursuing a master’s just for the hell of it. So I wanted to write a blog to really help those considering what to do next and what a master’s degree can potentially offer if chosen wisely.

What do you want to do with it?

This is the ultimate question. If the practical experience is more important in your chosen field than the academic principles, then you are better to spend a year interning or volunteering than wasting thousands of pounds on another qualification.

Depending on the academic subject, a master’s programme is an invaluable asset for bringing intellectual skills to an industry, for instance, most engineering roles have MEng as a minimum requirement, not to mention Law and Teaching, where further specific qualifications are absolutely necessary. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of careers, however.

Once you’ve done your course, it’s likely that you will be asked to justify your decision in interviews as to why you chose to do your master’s. Could you do this? It takes more than a qualification to improve ’employability’, so understand all the possible outcomes the course will offer and really consider the job you want it to lead to, working backwards from this ideal job can often help in determining the best route to get to it.

Reason #1: To get ahead of the rest

For most undergraduates, a master’s degree is often an opportunity to extend life at university, or an avenue to offer more time to decide what to do with their career. For some, it is the genuine belief that a higher level qualification could bag them a better job or more prospects.

BUT… For most employers, a postgraduate degree does not set you out from the rest. You are entered into the same pool as the recent graduates and often at a disadvantage because the year you took to gain a further qualification, your peers were out in the world gaining hands-on work experience. Work experience can be far more valuable than further education. So if you think taking on an advanced degree will help you get ahead, I would be inclined to challenge you and make you think again.

Reason #2: To develop your maturity

A master’s is completely different to an undergraduate degree. You often have a much busier workload, tighter deadlines, more complex research requirements and you’re expected to be far more independent in your time management. This definitely requires you to up your game from being the laid-back socialite you once were.

However, that said they are all great skills in the eyes of an employer should you be able to pull it off, giving you a different edge of experience and maturity from others potential applicants. It’s also expected that you build solid relationships with your peers, supporting one another with projects, developing team skills, communication, public speaking and your overall confidence.

Reason #3: To change your career

More often than not people use it a later in their life as an avenue to change their path and career. Okay, Okay. So, as I said above, I’m a bit of a hypocrite by telling people not to do a postgraduate qualification. Because, in the end, I decided to study an MSc in Conservation Ecology.

For me, the decision was long and drawn out, with extensive research and a tough choice on work experience VS academia, not to mention cost, location, funding, etc. The ultimate goal was to switch my career from talent management back onto an ecological pathway. This industry definitely values experience more, but with most work experience being gained over the spring and summer months, I decided the MSc (classes running October-May) would be a good way to maximise my time during the autumn and winter months. The MSc helped me build up my academic knowledge to apply in the field after a long spell away from dreaded statistics, essays and report writing. The course also assisted me in exploring new technologies that the university had available and to dig around and find what subject areas really interested me, not to mention assist me in developing a professional network of contacts in the right circles.

As a career changer, a master’s could be a fantastic option to prove you are just as fresh as you were 10 years ago and able to compete in a young job market.

Reason #4: to do something you love

This reason is an additional insert after receiving some wise words after I published from a dear friend who works in research… something that I simply didn’t consider from his perspective. I believe in passion wholeheartedly as something that far outshines experience and skills, so I can’t believe it slipped off my radar that, quite frankly, you may want to do a Master’s because you just bloody love the subject and don’t give a damn about the career it may offer you or your long-term future!

My friend said to me:

It seems as if you might be missing the most important reason to do advanced degrees – and the clearest indicator whether you should: Genuine interest in and and passion for your subject.

The (very small sample of) people who studied with me (and did well) generally didn’t care about career perspectives. They simply thought that physics or maths was really cool.

…if you put in the hours into anything that really excites you, some opportunity will come up.

’nuff said.

Checklist of things to consider:

Below I have listed a few things you need to research or consider before lunging head deep into a master’s programme. These will help ensure you’re making the right choice for you.

#1. The purpose

  • Research the industry you are looking to progress your career in. I find prospects.ac.uk an invaluable tool and great for outlining career options, requirements and opportunities. They will also list postgraduate courses and practical information on finding a job in that chosen area.
  • Look up jobs you aspire to and look at the requirements. Do they need a postgraduate qualification? Or are you better off gaining the skills and experience required on their specification?

#2. Full or part-time

  • Deciding whether or not to go all out and do it full time is likely to depend on your current life and financial situation. It’s important to discuss this carefully with the people closest to you and who it may affect. Partner, children, parents, boss.
    The money
  • This isn’t just the upfront fees, this is also your living costs (food, accommodation, socialising) as well as book and equipment costs (a new laptop maybe?). How are you going to fund it?
  • Look up career development loans from the Government, you can get up to £10,000.
  • There is also a new postgraduate loan scheme launched in early 2016.
  • Check if there are grants available – your undergraduate university will often offer alumni discount.

It’s an expensive business and something that needs careful consideration. Is it better to spend thousands on the qualification, or earn little for a year to gain experience but not have the debt to consider?

#3. The University

  • Do your research on the university, its reputation, league tables, campus facilities etc. The availability of computers on campus makes a huge impact at busy deadline periods when every Tom, Dick and Harry has moved into the library.
  • Where is it located? Convenient to commute or will you have to relocate? This can be costly either way so you will need to factor this into your figures.
  • If you’re looking to move, most universities will provide special postgraduate accommodation in halls, but there won’t be many spaces. So you may need to look privately, which could mean sharing with younger undergraduates or older professionals.
  • Sounds daft but what of the coffee and food situation? Many campuses have had swanky upgrades that look great, but have lost sight of the fact that their target audience is usually short on cash, charging high-end prices for top-notch gourmet foods. Which is great, if you can afford it.

#4. The course

  • This is the important bit. What do they actually teach you? If you are continuing straight from undergrad, are you going to learn any more than you already have?
  • What modules are compulsory, what are optional? How many optional ones can you take and how are they scheduled? It’s likely some will clash causing you to choose between two very important subjects.
  • Is it accredited? The biggest reason for me choosing Oxford Brookes is due to the course being accredited by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).
  • Always call the department to check the likelihood that the course will be running and the number of students typically on the course. Smaller numbers mean you are likely to get more support.
  • Look up the lecturers to find out their background, they are most probably going to reflect upon their own research when teaching. For example, a lecturer with a marine background wouldn’t necessarily be of interest to me as a terrestrial ecologist.

#5. YOUR PASSION

  • [Add on] So you’ve checked out the course, the lecturers and the modules… does it make a fire burn in your belly with excitement? Or are you second guessing if you’ll like it or not?
  • Are you already telling all your friends about this fantastic course you’ve found and chomping at the bit to start the course, like, RIGHT NOW!?
  • As I was politely reminded by a friend that passion for your subject was one of the clearest indicators of whether you should or should not go for the course.

#6. Draw a shortlist

  • Get about 5-6 universities maximum on your shortlist.
  • Do a ‘Friends’ style pros and cons list of each course/university on your shortlist.
  • Which factors are most important to you? Add them to essentials and work through your list accordingly.
  • Once you’ve narrowed it down to 2-3, find out when their next open day is and attend. Much of it will be about the gut feel of the place. Regardless of how it ranks, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t apply. If you love it, get onto UCAS right away and apply.

Even if this article only helps one person to decide if a master’s is, or indeed isn’t right for them, then I have achieved my objective. It isn’t and shouldn’t be an easy decision to make. Even now as I’ve completed my MSc, secured a fantastic new job for over 6 months and won awards for my postgraduate thesis, I still consider if I made the right choice. Only time will tell, but I know I’ve made the very most of it regardless of where it takes me or how long it takes to get there.

Maybe I’ll rewrite this post in a few years with a touch of hindsight.

[This post was updated from it’s original in July 2015]

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