Postgraduate+: So you want to carry on studying ...

A master's degree or a PhD will delay the start of your earning life - so make sure you choose the right course for any future plans you have, writes Philip Schofield
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There are four main reasons why people take postgraduate courses. Many want to pursue an intellectual interest that has fired their imagination. Some want to enter a career where a postgraduate qualification is mandatory - such as schoolteaching - or virtually essential - such as research and development (R&D) or university teaching. Some want to enter a specialist area of science or technology. And others want to improve their general employability.

A minority opt to continue into postgraduate study because they want to defer making a career decision or entry into the employment market. However, these reasons impress neither postgraduate admissions officers nor employers.

There are two main types of postgraduate courses: those achieved by instruction and those that involve research. Taught courses usually last a year full time and lead to a master's degree or postgraduate diploma. Some master's degrees are awarded after one or two years' research and the submission of a thesis. Doctorates (PhD or DPhil) courses take a minimum of three years and involve carrying out some original research.

If you primarily want to pursue an intellectual interest, your choice between a taught or a research programme will depend on the nature of your interest. Do you want to spend an intensive year with others, to bring yourself abreast of current knowledge in your specialist area of interest? Or would you prefer to take three or four years to seek a solution to some hitherto unanswered question?

If you hope to work in R&D, a PhD is normally the preferred option. A doctorate is also an asset if you wish to enter university teaching, although a master's degree is normally acceptable. If you want to enter a specialist area of science or technology, or improve your general employability, you should normally opt for a taught course. It is also sensible to choose a programme with a strong vocational bias, or one that imparts skills which can clearly be applied in the workplace.

Outside academe and R&D, not only are there few opportunities for a PhD, but many industrial and commercial employers are wary of them.

Some universities now train PhD students in some basic, work-related skills. But most employers still think that PhDs lack commercial awareness, are poor team players, and lack practical skills and decisiveness. This may be because, unlike people working in a commercial business, they have been trained not to make decisions on incomplete data.

Having chosen the type of course for you, you need to choose a particular course to study. This is not easy. There are as many as 11,000-plus postgraduate courses on offer, at more than 200 British institutions.

An obvious temptation if you are a new graduate is to choose a course at your existing institution, and probably in the same department. However, your choice will be limited, and none of the courses on offer may be as suitable as others elsewhere. Moreover, you will lose the benefit of going to another institution and being exposed to new faces and fresh ideas. You should avoid joining a course at your current university until you have first compared it with those on offer elsewhere - and found that it suits you better than any of the alternatives.

Your starting point should be The Directory of Graduate Studies 1998, published by CRAC/ Hobson at pounds 99.99. This gives a 120-word description of every UK postgraduate course. You should be able to consult a copy in your university or college careers service library. A condensed version, giving a one-line listing of each course, should be available free of charge from your careers service. Postgraduate courses are also listed on the Internet at www.postgrad.co.uk

From this, you prepare a short-list of courses to look at further. You should then get postgraduate prospectuses for the universities that interest you, together with departmental/ course brochures giving details of courses. These will be accompanied by application forms, and possibly notes describing the application procedure, sources of financial grants and other helpful information. This will be more detailed than that provided for your first degree course, but is unlikely to be enough.

It is sometimes helpful to know whether a course is new or well established. Some new courses are well thought out; others have been introduced in great haste. You sometimes hear of courses where the staff are only a week or two ahead of their students.

It is also important to find out whether a particular course or research place carries any awards, and, if so, how many. Only the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) attracts mandatory grants. For all other courses there may be fewer grants than places. If information about grants is not in the brochure, you should ask the admissions tutor.

You should try to find out what existing postgraduate students think of any course you are considering, and the standards of teaching and supervision. People from your university may be on the courses that interest you, and may have passed their views back to their old tutors or to your careers service. Always make use of your careers service; it is there to help you and others going into postgraduate study - not just for those seeking work.

Your careers service may also know how employers view any course you are considering. If you plan to enter a professional institution, it is also worth consulting that institution about its preferred postgraduate courses.

If you propose to take a research degree, is there formal training in research techniques? Does the department have a good reputation for the quality of its research? And what are the research interests of your prospective supervisor?

The Higher Education Funding Council publishes assessments on the quality of teaching and the quality of research by individual university department. These should be available from your careers service or in your academic library.

Finally, research students sometimes find that their supervisor is away for days or even weeks on end. Does the institution that interests you have a code of practice which ensures that if a principal supervisor is absent, research students have a subsidiary supervisor? That could make all the difference to your eventual success.

Researching a postgraduate course is a good investment in your future.

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