Further study: Could a postgraduate degree be a better choice for you?

If your degree made you hungry for more, postgraduate study is the way to go, says Peter Brown

Maryam Habibzay first encountered immunology as part of her undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences.

Intrigued, she went on to study respiratory inflammatory diseases at Imperial College London, where she is now in the third year of her doctorate. “A postgraduate research degree relies heavily on independent study and requires a lot more motivation,” she says.

It’s hard work, of course, but at Imperial she has the support of world-leading academics. International research seminars have replaced classroom-based lectures and she has presented her research at overseas conferences. After earning her PhD, she expects to either stay in academia or venture into the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industries.

Habibzay was fortunate enough to land a studentship to cover her £3,950 tuition fees, but others might not be quite so lucky. There is currently no universal student loan available for postgraduate students, as there is for undergraduates. Also, Research Council funding is drying up fast for taught Masters courses, which help prepare students for a PhD. This, along with the increase in tuition fees, may have been behind the recent decline in applications for such courses. Nevertheless, postgraduate students still comprise around a quarter of the whole student body, and the range of courses on offer remains extensive. Imperial alone has 2,773 Masters and 2,813 doctoral students, and offers more than 120 postgraduate-taught courses.

Work out what you want

Despite the tough financial climate, now is as good a time as any to embark on postgraduate study. To qualify, you usually need a first degree, not necessarily in the same subject. Birkbeck College, for example, offers three-year Masters courses to help with new subjects. Birkbeck has been a pioneer in part-time courses, which are becoming increasingly popular.

But before students embark on a Masters, they should find out exactly what it will do for them, says Martin Birchall of High Fliers Research, a specialist in graduate recruitment. “About half of them do it for genuine career reasons,” he says. “They may be prospective lawyers, engineers or research chemists, looking for a qualification directly relevant to a career path. The other half include what you might call career avoiders, people looking for more thinking time. Given how competitive it is to get a job, they may feel underqualified with just the one degree. But the people who really fall down are those who love history, do a postgrad in it, then expect a job as an investment banker. Their qualifications become irrelevant.”

One good reason to take a Masters degree is to join a professional body. Brunel University works closely with several – the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, for example – in developing and accrediting Masters courses. “It might be an MSc in energy engineering or wireless communications – any of the subjects that industry requires,” says Tassos Karayiannis, professor of engineering. “Students might want to specialise in renewables, oil and gas, communications, industrial design or engineering management. With a Masters in these subjects, you will compete in the same market as a graduate but you’ll be better qualified at the end of it, so it’s easier to get a job, and you can start on a better salary.”

Niche subjects

Like certain other universities, notably Warwick, Cranfield, Surrey and the London School of Economics, Brunel has a higher-than-average proportion of postgraduate students in certain disciplines: about 40 per cent in engineering and design, for example. Studying at such a university has several advantages, as Professor Karayiannis points out: “You are in an environment that is highly selective. The higher the level of the class, the more you drive yourself to compete and do well. Also, the resources follow the bigger numbers.”

A good example of a Masters tailored for industry is the MSc in tunnelling and underground space at the University of Warwick, now in its second year. “There is a demonstrable shortage of skilled people in tunnelling,” says Tony Price, deputy head of Warwick’s School of Engineering. “And there are lots of big projects coming up which have major tunnelling input – Crossrail, nuclear power stations, the new high-speed rail link.”

The course is run in collaboration with the British Tunnelling Society, which delivers about a quarter of the content, and almost all the students get financial support. Last year every graduating tunnelling student had a job to go to. Specialist Masters run in conjunction with businesses are becoming the norm. At Aberdeen University, several new Masters programmes in subjects such as safety and reliability engineering were developed at the request of the nearby energy industry.

Aberdeen is also involved with the Scottish Government’s Making the Most of Masters initiative, which favours work placements for Masters students over the traditional dissertation.

Which university?

The University of Reading, well known for its agricultural studies, runs an MSc in food security and development. It also has a Department of Meteorology, which offers an MSc in atmosphere, ocean and climate run by the Meteorological Office. A huge variety of Masters courses are aimed at health professionals, from nurses seeking to further their careers to research chemists. Among the new ones from the University of Leeds is the MSc in molecular medicine, starting in October. Students will learn the latest advancements in stem cell research and next-generation DNA sequencing, and might go on to be research scientists or laboratory workers.

Meanwhile, the London 2012 Olympic Games has given a boost to Masters courses connected with sport. These are usually related to physiotherapy, coaching or sports facilities management.

Education is another field where a Masters degree can provide a foot up the promotional ladder. The Institute of Education offers more than 50 taught Masters in education and related social sciences, as well as a range of researchfocused courses. All these courses have a vocational thrust – and even arts courses these days often have an entrepreneurial bias. The Masters in creative and media enterprises at Warwick promises to teach innovation and to provide the “skills necessary to commercialise your ideas”.

Demand for Masters in management (MiM) has also been mushrooming. Often taken without work experience, they are both shorter and cheaper than a Masters in business administration (MBA), although an MiM at a top institution such as London Business School still costs about £25,000.

Postgraduate courses are marketed heavily by universities but before enrolling on any of them, prospective students should ask employers what they think. For example, Amey, the infrastructure support company, does not specifically seek candidates with Masters degrees or doctorates when recruiting externally, says Valerie Hughes-d’Aeth, group HR director: “A number of employees do get support, both financially and in terms of time, to pursue a Masters degree and these tend to be in engineering, human resource management or environment.”

Julie Crofts, executive director of the Londonbased Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, echoes that attitude. “As an employer, I’d say that an MA is not something we’d consider essential for what are administrative, albeit specialist, jobs.

In practice, though, of 12 people directly employed by the Conservatoire, seven have MAs and two have doctorates.”

Branch out

Increasing numbers of graduates are being tempted by further study in Europe, where courses are much cheaper and often taught in English. But don’t give up hope of getting funding in Britain, says Jane Penrose, whose websites include postgraduatestudentships.co.uk.

“There are grants available from charities, trust funds and academic institutions themselves, if you know where to look.”

Recently the University of Roehampton offered 29 studentships or bursaries, all covering student fees and a few covering living costs as well. One department, English and Creative Writing, received 43 applications, but could propose only three for the studentships. All three were successful. “Many excellent applicants had to be disappointed,” warns Professor Martin Priestman. “Funding for a PhD in the arts and humanities is by no means impossible, but demands a constant scrutiny of websites such as jobs.ac.uk to see what’s available.”

Sometimes sponsorship, rather than studentship, is the answer. Roisin Murphy already had a Masters and was lecturing at the Dublin Institute of Technology when she decided to take a Doctor of business administration (DBA) qualification from Edinburgh Business School, and was funded by the institute to do it. The course was taken entirely online. She chose it rather than a PhD, she says, because it gave her flexibility and a structure, with clear milestones.

“From start to finish it took me seven years because I took two years off. As it happened I had three children during the programme.”

Statistics suggest that the time she took is not unusual. Indeed, some students take up to 25 years to complete their doctorates and almost a fifth never finish. So the advice is simple: postgraduate study can be highly rewarding, but think carefully before you start.

Famous postgrads

So popular is the television astronomer Brian Cox that he has been credited with sparking a rise in science applications to universities.

As a star-struck undergraduate at Manchester University he got a first, then an MPhil – staging post to a doctorate – and finally a PhD in particle physics. To achieve it he “gave up quavers for quasars”, abandoning a music career with the band D:Ream, whose hit “Things Can Only Get Better” became a Labour Party anthem.

Brian May, guitarist with the rock group Queen, did it the other way round. Thirty years ago he was in the middle of a PhD at Imperial College, London, but shelved it when Queen first became successful. He retained his interest in astrophysics, continuing to write scientific papers, and in 2007 finally completed his thesis, into radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud. He graduated the following year.

The demands of show business can be an obstacle to some academic aspirations.

The singer Art Garfunkel graduated in art history before turning to mathematics for an MA from Columbia in 1967. At the peak of Simon and Garfunkel’s success he was still doing coursework for a doctorate in mathematics education.

The X-Files actor David Duchovny and the scriptwriter Armando Iannucci both similarly sacrificed their PhDs for their careers. But the actors Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver both have a Masters in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama.

In politics, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has a doctorate in quantum chemistry (like Margaret Thatcher, she started her working life as a research chemist). The only British Prime Minister to match Merkel academically is Gordon Brown, who has a PhD in history.

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