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Take a cold, hard look at yourself



If you've ever thought about taking the plunge into postgraduate study, now's the perfect time to do some research while the country snoozes until the new year. With a huge number of courses available across almost any subject you can think of, and with flexible study options offered by many universities, it might be worth settling down with the last of the mince pies and discovering what's out there.

Although the mince pies might be an indulgence, adding a new qualification to your CV certainly isn't. According to Peter McCaffery, deputy vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, postgraduate education is becoming much more career relevant. "Employability is the key thing," he says. "As the labour market becomes more specialised, the demand for credentials has increased."

Monster spokesman Michael Gentle supports this view, but stresses that prospective candidates should be sure study is the right choice for them. "Postgraduate qualifications definitely have their place in terms of providing career opportunities, but with the job market more competitive than ever people need to think strategically about what the best path is for them."

There are a few useful questions to ask yourself, says Melissa Venables, postgraduate admissions tutor for the politics department at the University of Warwick. "The key things to think about are why you wish to undertake another degree, how the specific programme relates to both your interests and your career goals, and whether you have both the intellectual and financial commitment necessary to see the course through to completion."

Mark Smith worked through all these questions when deciding on his Masters in theatre writing, directing and performance at the University of York. After a degree in French and philosophy, he went abroad to teach languages. "I enjoyed teaching at university level and wanted to firm up my position. I felt that someone better qualified might come along, and I really wanted to stay in academia and make it more 'official'."

His Masters gave him expertise in a subject he was interested in, and Smith now teaches in the theatre department at the university while working on his PhD, for which he received a teaching scholarship. "Theatre is something I've always enjoyed, so the postgraduate courses seemed like a natural way of keeping the door open to teaching jobs as well as giving me a subject to teach."

Postgraduate courses may last one or two years, be assessed through exams, coursework or dissertations, and involve anything from technical project work to theatrical performances. There are also different study options, including part-time and distance learning, which some students find helpful when balancing an existing career or their budgets.

A further advantage is that some programmes have two intakes a year, rather than one, making them more flexibile. Venables points out that applying sooner rather than later can be beneficial, particularly for funding, adding that early applications may also help secure accommodation and course option choices "without any last-minute panics".

Venables and Smith say students should prepare for the workload and independent study involved. "Postgraduate students must quickly learn to be self-reliant and self-motivated," explains Venables. Smith agrees, adding: "The most difficult thing is you're always thinking about the course – there's always something you think you should be doing."

However, the potential benefits can make overcoming these challenges more than worthwhile. A postgraduate course will boost your knowledge in your chosen field, but it will also improve other areas. "Beyond what they learn, students develop in how they learn, and how they think," says Venables. "The development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills at a very high level is invaluable within the academy, on the job, and indeed in the situations presented to us in daily life."

The secret to success is picking the right course, Smith believes. "You need to be passionate about the subject. It has to be something you'll read about anyway, out of interest; there needs to be that level of enjoyment." Venables adds that would-be students should research their options carefully, and that "there is a whole world of advanced jobs that require the skills acquired at postgraduate level". So if you have a moment in the holidays, make your list of research questions, check it twice, and perhaps this time next year you'll be on the way to a valuable qualification.