Masters degrees: Pricey, but is it worth it?

It's not cheap and you're often left to your own devices. Harriet Williamson, doing an MA at York, ponders whether or not she's getting her money's worth

After 2013 research from Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute showed that one in three first year undergraduates believe that their course is not good value for money, I began to wonder how I would judge the economic value of a taught Masters degree.

With the average course coming with a price tag of between £4,000 and £6,000, and record numbers of students choosing to continue in higher education after their first degree, are we receiving enough bang for our buck? Of course, postgraduate (and undergraduate) experiences vary from person to person and from institution to institution, but there are key elements that should be provided by the university and things that we can do as postgrads to get the most out of our degrees.

Contact time

The reduction in contact time and increased focus on individual study at Masters level means that the degree cannot be measured simply in terms of the number of hours spent in lectures and seminars. Personal feedback from staff is essential for academic growth and I’ve found that having the right tutor is essential to gaining the most rigorous criticism.

For the first two terms of my MA I had a spectacularly disengaged personal tutor, but being assigned a new tutor for my dissertation has been a completely different experience. He shares my research interests and goes into real detail regarding improvements to my writing. You get out of a Masters what you put in, and there is no academic hand-holding, but finding a tutor who is a good match is crucial.

Library services become especially important during a Masters dissertation, when there is no suggested reading list and students are conducting their own research. David Maclean, completing his MA at the University of York praises their ‘MoreBooks’ scheme because it allowed students to ‘actually have some spending power in the departmental library’, only lamenting that it didn’t last for the whole dissertation period.

A well-stocked university library that feels accessible is a must, not least because purchasing academic texts can be very expensive. If your library doesn’t have a particular book or hasn’t paid for access to an online journal that you need, always send an email and ask if they’ll consider buying it for you.

Fees

Of course, our tuition fees pay for much more than just the academic side of things. Extra-curricular activities and student support facilities can feel even more necessary during an MA or MSc when study is isolated by its very nature. A friend on my course described student support as ‘non-existent’ and it can certainly feel that way if such facilities aren’t well-publicized on campus or you end up with a personal tutor who isn’t particularly interested in the pastoral side of their duties.

However, student-run nightlines and campus counselling services are available and departmental events organised for postgrads are useful for making good social links with your peers, something essential to staying sane! Getting involved in events and fun stuff with course mates should not be overlooked because it boosts your chances of getting the most out of your Masters year and ensures a more rounded experience that isn’t solely about study.

The most commonly cited reason for applying for a Masters, other than ‘I just wasn’t sure what to do next’, is that an MA or MSc will ensure that candidates stand out to future employers. For me, this remains to be seen.

Employment advice is available in the form of guest speakers from industries, workshops and conferences, and this is increasingly important when competition for graduate jobs is fierce. Departments should also provide readily-available information on what a PhD application entails, rather than shrouding the process in academic secrecy.

But is the taught Masters worth the money? The current cost of higher education is deeply daunting, particularly for undergraduates facing tripled tuition fees, and decisions regarding what degrees are worth in monetary terms seem to be made in an increasingly arbitrary manner. My academic growth in the last year has been marked and I feel very privileged in this sense, but the price was high and I and the majority of my peers are now much deeper in debt.

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