Postgrad Queries: 'Can I do a part-time PhD? How do I become a speech therapist?'

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Q. I want to beef up my CV with a postgraduate qualification, but can't afford to stop working. Is it possible to do a Masters or a PhD part-time?

A. There are a lot of options for part-time study at postgraduate level, and most universities offer courses, some based on block study, some on one day or two evenings a week, and some primarily on distance learning. The structure of each course depends on the subject. Science and engineering, where you need laboratories and workshops, may demand more time at the university than an arts course such as creative writing. Distance learning is the most flexible form of study, and is ideal if your job involves travel or irregular working hours. Working on your own, without the buzz of being in a group, can make study tougher.

A PhD, being a much longer undertaking, can be more difficult to do part-time, particularly if you are in an area where new information is appearing; there's a danger that you may never catch up with your sources or that someone else may beat you to publication.

If your purpose in wanting to take a postgraduate course is to improve your career prospects, check carefully before embarking on it. It may be that a professional qualification would be better for you.

During my degree course in French and Spanish, I got particularly interested in how we form words with our mouths, and in how choice of words can have such an effect on wider communication skills. I'd like to learn more about this and about work in the field of speech and language therapy. Do you have any suggestions?

There are two routes to qualifying as a speech and language therapist: you can take a three or four-year degree in speech and language therapy; or you can sign up for a two-year postgraduate course. Your chances of getting on a course depend partly on the content of your first degree. Relevant components, such as linguistics in a foreign language degree, will always help.

Somewhere along the way, you need to pick up practical experience, possibly as a speech and language therapy assistant or as a volunteer, perhaps with a charity working with stroke victims or with children, elderly or disabled people. It would also be worth visiting a speech clinic to see the work in action and to talk to people there.

Financial help is available from the NHS, but check exact conditions on the relevant page at the www.nhscareers.nhs.uk website. It would also be an idea to ask the course providers about where previous students obtained their funding.

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists ( www.rcslt.org) is the professional body, and has details of all accredited courses and other useful information.

Q. I'm about to finish a history degree, and would like to go into social work. Do I have to start from scratch with a first degree in social work or can I get a job via a postgraduate course? At what stage do I have to decide which area of social work to go into?

A. If you get a 2.2 or above in your history degree, you will be eligible to apply for a two-year Masters to train as a social worker. These courses are extremely competitive and normally stipulate that you already have some substantial background in working with socially disadvantaged groups, either as a volunteer or as a salaried social-work assistant. Once on the course, it's a mix of academic study and placements in real social-work settings. Only after achieving this initial qualification would you start to specialise, perhaps with children, probation or mental health.

Some bursaries are available for postgraduate degrees. An alternative would be to look for a trainee social-worker post with a council or charity, which involves a secondment to do a Masters, probably part-time. Interviews for courses and traineeships are tough, and it is important to understand the topical issues and challenges facing the profession. Read the trade press, such as the journal Community Care, and look at the website for the General Social Care Council ( www.gscc.org.uk), which gives an overview of employment and training opportunities.

Thanks to Liz Hagger and Gill Sharp, careers consultants for Domino Careers ( www.dominocareers.co.uk)

Send your queries to Steve McCormack at steve.mcc@virginmedia.com

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