Postgrad queries: If I don’t want to be an academic is doing a Masters still worth it?

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The Independent Online

Although I don’t want to go into serious academia, I am interested in studying for a Masters in an arts subject. Other than for enjoyment, is there any purpose in doing this, considering the potential costs?

If by “serious academia” you mean becoming a lecturer or undertaking groundbreaking research, then you shouldn’t let that lack of academic ambition put you off. But if you’re asking yourself serious questions about the wider pros and cons of postgraduate study, then that’s a healthy thought process.

There are many reasons why you might conclude that a year or two’s further academic activity is worthwhile – and worth the cost – and these don’t necessarily have to be directly linked to a tangible goal, such as a job in academia or increased career prospects. Given the increasing number of Masters degrees being completed these days, it’s by no means a given that a Masters gives you a leg-up in the job market anyway.

In my book, a real love of learning and a desire to deepen knowledge in a chosen field are perfectly good reasons on their own for taking postgraduate courses. It’d be unwise to completely ignore the associated financial implications, of course, but only you can make the judgement on where the cost/benefit balance lies in your life.

I’m applying to do a PhD in medieval history but, without funding, money is an issue. What are the benefits and problems of studying part-time while working as well?

The first thing you need to do is check with the university (or universities) concerned that they’d be happy for you, potentially, to do your PhD part-time. It probably wouldn’t be a problem, but the question needs to be asked early on. There will be some practicalities to be considered, namely how you will divide your time between university, money-earning work and face-to-face meetings with your supervisor. Once that’s dealt with, and if you feel that your financial situation demands you keep up a job and study part-time, there are a number of issues to think about.

First, the length of your study might now stretch to five or six years. Have you thought how this might affect the choice of your research subject? Will it still feel fresh after that period of time? Are you sure you’ll be able to juggle work and studying? In a full-time PhD, you can immerse yourself in an academic area for two or three years with limited sources of distraction. Are you confident you’ll be able to switch hats smoothly without letting it affect the quality of your academic work?

What should I look for in a PhD supervisor, and should I let this affect the topics I’d like to research?

The fact that you’re asking this question is a good sign, because not all student-supervisor relationships are harmonious. First, you should be sure that a supervisor is fully in-tune with your topic of research, and they should give you confidence that they will take an interest in your progress and offer guidance when you need it. Second, you need to satisfy yourself that they will make themselves available to you reasonably regularly. Check, for example, that they’re not about to start a sabbatical in New Zealand!

If, on top, there’s a bit of natural chemistry and empathy between the two of you, then you have some icing on the cake.

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

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