Postgraduate queries


Q: Do the university ranking organisations consider what life is like for postgraduates?

A: Since the number of undergraduates far outweighs postgrads, it's not surprising, as you hint in your question, that ranking bodies spend more time on measures reflecting life for those taking their first steps in higher education. But that doesn't mean there's nothing in there for potential postgraduates to learn from.

The student experience measure will give you a feel for what it's like living, working and playing at a particular institution, and the measure on performance in the field of research is likely to be a useful general indication for someone contemplating postgraduate study. But the method of judging universities' research performance is changing, with no new findings out until next year, so don't give those measures too much weight.

I'd always advise would-be postgraduate students to use the experience they've already gained in three or more years working towards a first degree, to make judgements about where to go for a Masters or PhD. Above all, steer clear of general findings about a university as a whole and dig deeper into what goes on in the individual subject department you're considering, as well as its past performance.

Q: What can I do with my law degree, other than train to be a solicitor or barrister, and do I need to do postgraduate study?

A: The short answer is that you can do plenty with a law degree. It is respected as an established academic degree that teaches precision with words, critical thinking and a broad range of communication skills – all of which are chips you should be able to cash in when you head for the employment market.

Here I'm thinking of banking, local government, civil service and accountancy, for example. Then there are the areas where argument and advocacy are important and a broad knowledge of the law useful: social work, probation, trading standards and the charity sector.

Once you've chosen which areas to target, you then need to find out which are best pursued by acquiring a postgraduate qualification of some sort – and how to achieve it. In most cases, the best source of up-to-date information will be the professional body linked to the career path in question.

Q: I'm doing a chemistry degree but have now developed an interest in plants and crops. What postgraduate options could I consider?

A: The first observation is that, whatever direction you go in this field, your chemistry degree will always stand you in good stead, although some avenues will probably require you to augment some of the biology you learnt at school.

As far as your course options are concerned, since this is quite a niche area, you don't have a wide choice. A small number of institutions (such as the University of Reading and Writtle College, which is linked to the University of Essex) run Masters in horticulture, which you'd probably veer towards if you were thinking of specialising in crop production (pictured). There's also a handful of programmes that touch on similar territory, such as the MSc in sustainable agriculture and food security at the University of East Anglia and the University of Dundee's research Masters in crops for the future.

Wherever you end up, advancing technology and the politics of ecology will ensure you're involved in a dynamic and at times controversial area.

Send your queries to Steve McCormack at