Choose that second degree very carefully

Postgraduate studies can be a challenging and rewarding experience. But only if you find the right course.
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The Independent Online

Postgraduate study certainly has a lot to recommend it - intellectual challenge at the sharp end of your subject, more opportunity to savour student life, better qualifications and the possibility of finding work in the academic world. For those uncertain about career direction, it also gives you a few more years to make your mind up where you're going.

Postgraduate study certainly has a lot to recommend it - intellectual challenge at the sharp end of your subject, more opportunity to savour student life, better qualifications and the possibility of finding work in the academic world. For those uncertain about career direction, it also gives you a few more years to make your mind up where you're going.

But as any postgraduate qualification involves a large commitment in terms of time, money and energy, you need to choose your course or research topic very carefully. If you plan to stay in the subject, institution and department where you did your first degree, your options are obviously much more limited, and therefore easier to manage. However, if you want a change finding exactly the right place for you will be a lot harder.

So how to go about it? Picking a second degree can be a lot more complex than the first - the possibilities are a lot wider, particularly in the case of doctorates where what you study is largely your decision. And with no equivalent to the UCAS system for postgraduate qualifications, you have to apply direct to each institution, providing the necessary documentary evidence of your academic achievements and at least two references. Universities and departments also vary as to whether they require an interview or detailed outline of the research project.

Luckily, the Internet has taken much of the pain out of the whole process. Most universities and other institutions offer extensive web pages for prospective postgraduates, which make the whole process of finding out what's available and how to go about applying much easier. Bristol University (www.bristol.ac.uk) is typical, in that it allows you to access information by faculty where you will find an introduction to your postgraduate options in that school, a list of the various departments and the courses they offer, and a chance to search by keywords on areas of research.

Bristol's online postgraduate prospectus and research directory also gives you details on how to apply, accommodation, term dates, contact details, students facilities and services. There is a good section on research ratings, which has a concise explanation of how the grading system works and what it means in terms of the faculty's quality.

Many of the postgraduate or research pages at university websites follow a similar format, although there will be a lot of variation in the detail. At the University of Strathclyde, for instance, the research profile pages (www.strathclyde.ac.uk/research/index.html) offers a snapshot of active research projects by allowing you to click on a faculty and department to the range of postgraduate opportunities offered, details of areas like the numbers of staff and students, and an e-mail address for more information.

The University of the West of England, on the other hand, supplements details of research with information on its research centres (www.uwe.ac.uk/research/centres.shtml). As well as giving information on courses and faculty, many schools also list their research students, along with their thesis title and name of supervisor, or perhaps a brief description of the area they are working on.

Meanwhile, at the Oxford Research Online website (wwsearch.ox.ac.uk/hgsearch.html), for example, you can search for any topic in experimental and medical science by entering a key word. You can use such lists or search facilities as a useful indicator of what type of research might meet with a department's approval.

Being accepted by an institution is just the first hurdle, however; it is almost always easier to get a place than obtain funding, especially in humanities and social sciences. In England, you may receive a grant from one of the six research councils or British Academy; in Scotland and Northern Ireland, government education departments fulfil the same role. Unfortunately, applications from well-qualified candidates exceed funds, especially in the arts and humanities. Aware of these common difficulties in financing postgraduate studies, many universities offer information and advice on finances on their web pages.

At Manchester (www.man.ac.uk/research/rgsu.html) you can find out about its research and graduate support unit, which identifies funding sources and helps secure the money, and assists in exploiting commercially viable ideas that might come out of your research. Sussex University's research grants and contracts office home page, (www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/research/index.html) provides a list of useful links to information and funding bodies, along with details of their deadlines and online grant forms, a handy guide to sponsors and types of funding, and details of applying for research funding, while at the University of York's graduatestudy web page (www.york.ac.uk/admin/gso/gsp/) you'll get details of its millennium scholarships for masters students, as well as an overview of its university research and masters awards for 2000/2001.

But there are plenty of other places to find out about funding, not least of all the various research councils. The Economic and Social Research Council website (www.esrc.ac.uk), for example, offers a guide to funding.

Another useful site is Refund (www.refund.ncl.ac.uk), a web-based funding information system designed for the academic research community, produced by the research services unit at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Describing itself as a one-stop shop for academics and students, it offers links to other funding sites and background on sponsors, including research councils, government departments and charities.

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