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Masters' degrees: Are they worth the bother?

Your degree might be coming to an end, but are you ready to leave university yet? A master's degree may work out for someone like James Franco, but is it right for you?

For many undergraduates in their final year at university, the spectre of graduation is looming ever closer on the horizon. Some will relish the prospect of hitting the job market, armed with a fully furnished CV and a wealth of experience at their fingertips. But with 957,000 16 to 24-year-olds currently unemployed in the UK, and as parents begin dusting down old bedrooms for the return of their qualified kids, the majority will feel shut out by an austere economic climate.

Yet there is hope for the so-called ‘boomerang generation’ stuck at these crossroads. Postgraduate masters degrees have become a popular alternative to mowing the lawn for Mum and Dad, as they offer another year of independence and a chance for further study, enhancing the skills adopted at undergraduate level.

After achieving a 2:1 in English Literature (BA) at the University of Surrey, 22-year-old Imogen Jones opted to stay and applied to do an MA. She is now five months into her chosen course, and while she has enjoyed the freedom of university life, she has also realised it is no easy ride.

“I wanted to do a master's and I felt most comfortable doing it at a place where I was familiar with the department and the staff and also the student life,” she admits.

“I thought it would be like final year but the step up has been enormous. I've got to grips with it now but at the start it was quite daunting to realise you didn't know enough already. I'm planning to do a PhD and then become a lecturer so this is a vital step towards that.

“I don't think it’s for everyone, not because they aren't intelligent enough, just because it’s a bit like being self-employed and you need a lot of motivation.”

Yet just getting on a masters course can be daunting, as different institutions have different application deadlines. LSE’s application process urges students to make a decision in their first semester, as last year applications opened on 15 October and successful applicants were notified in January 2013.

But what does it cost?

Price is also an important factor when considering a masters, with fees varying wildly depending on institution. The cheapest course for an English MA last year was at Leeds Trinity University College with fees starting from £2,000 for home students. In contrast, Exeter University’s cost up to £18,500. For MSc courses such as medicine, the fees increase dramatically. Oxford University quotes fees from £5,970-£30,488 for home/EU students, while the starting figure for overseas students ranges from £16,788.

While the cost of a masters is not to be shirked, students willing to shop around may find grants they were not otherwise entitled to.  Edward Gough, 21, is studying for an MA in Environmental and Regional Policy at the University of Aberystwyth. His choice was partly a fiscal one; having been offered Access to Masters funding, a scheme backed in Wales by the Convergence European Social Fund (ESF), it enabled him to take the course at his former place of study.

“The availability of funding was a huge factor in my decision, and I don't regret it as I think it's greatly increased my options,” he says.

“It's also furthered my interest in the policy making sphere; I've been inspired to move on to PhD level study as a postgraduate.”

Will it help you get a job?

Yet perhaps the most important question is, will a masters get you that dream job? Or is it just vital for teaching where a PGCE is desired? Cyrus Engineer, 23, who has an MA in Twentieth Century History from the University of Liverpool, is sceptical.

“I guess it shows to people that you have a certain degree of self-discipline, but I think employers prefer to see experience on a CV rather than a load of educational merits,” he explains.

“Whilst I did enjoy it, looking back if I could do it again I probably wouldn't. Given the fact that I ended up doing an NCTJ journalism diploma, I would probably rather have just gone straight into it and missed out the MA.”

However, Beth Nightingale, 22, who did an MSc in marketing at University of Nottingham, thinks it can make a difference to graduate job prospects.

“I got to stay at uni and extra year. It was a great experience as I met new friends and it looks good on your CV,” she says. “It does make you stand out a little more. Pretty much everyone now has a degree, but not many have a master's.”

Overall, it seems a master's can be beneficial for those who feel their future lies in academia, or even those who want extra responsibilities or a new challenge. Although the financial burden may appear risky, students currently stuck at those all-important crossroads should not despair. With an ever-increasing number of people donning the robes for a second time, postgraduate study is not to be sneered at.