Is my degree holding me back? How can I find out about studying in the States?

Q. I'm a 25-year-old New Zealander who studied ecology and marine science as my undergraduate degree (BSc). Afterwards I gained work experience as a graduate adviser in government fisheries policy. I want to return to university to complete a Masters, either in environmental policy or development studies. I have looked at UK courses, but the entrance criteria always seem to exclude me owing to my past degree. Is my BSc "without honours" enough to get me into a good Masters programme, or should I complete a bridging course first?

A. Postgraduate courses can be highly competitive and, as you've found, it can be difficult meeting the entry criteria without a good honours degree. It can be even more of a problem when changing study area, as course providers want to know you're up to the task.

First, identify institutions with Masters that interest you. There are 38 programmes in environmental policy on the Prospects database ( and information on development studies courses/careers on the web pages run by the University of Sussex (

Contact the admissions office and course tutors to discuss your personal circumstances and, if necessary, find ways to build the required entry qualifications. You may feel that your BSc without honours automatically excludes you, but have you actually made an application? Contacts I've spoken to - for example, at Cambridge and Gloucestershire universities - advise putting in a full application (emphasising your work experience) with evidence of your potential, and good references.

You could apply for a postgraduate certificate or diploma that leads to the full Masters once you have achieved the required level, but entry also depends on whether you had a good reason for not pushing your BSc on to honours level.

The London School of Economics's Development Studies Institute takes people with science backgrounds, but usually after they have had experience working in the development field.

California dreaming

Q. I'm halfway through a BA in American Studies, which I love. I recently visited California, and I'd like to study there. I want to do an MA in African-American Studies. Which universities should I look at? Are there ways to get funding - I've heard of things such as teaching assistant posts.

A. Luckily, there is plenty of help around when it comes to finding a Masters in the US. Try;; and But you'll find few options in your study area. Black Studies began in the early 1960s, later becoming African-American Studies, and more recently, Africana Studies. Yet, while California has many colleges, only UCLA has an MA in African-American Studies. UC Berkeley has an MA in Ethnic Studies, and California State University Long Beach has a postgraduate certificate in Black Studies, but perhaps you will need to look further afield.

First, find out what links your university has with those in the States, and contact faculty members direct. Formal applications should be made in the autumn/winter before you intend to start. The Fulbright Commission advises people to apply to between three and six universities.

Where you end up will depend on your degree class, references and your score on the mandatory graduate entrance test. If you haven't learnt the art of self-promotion, do so: US universities expect you to trumpet your achievements and aspirations.

About one-third of international postgraduate students in the US get most of their funding from a US university, but funding deadlines can be a year before the course starts. If you don't succeed, teaching and research assistant posts can cover living costs.

Advisers: Gill Sharp and Mike Cox, Prospects Careers Consultants

Send your queries to Caitlin Davies at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail