Postgraduate Queries: Can a diploma be converted? Which green course is best?

Master your diploma

Q. When I'm searching for postgraduate study options, I often see university courses leading to a diploma or a certificate, which is presumably worth less than a Masters. But I've heard that you can convert these diplomas and certificates to a Masters while you're studying. Is that true?

A. As a general rule, a full-time taught postgraduate course will begin in late September or October, with teaching until exam time around May, then research and writing of a dissertation or project to be completed by the end of September. The first part leads to the diploma; the dissertation/project takes the qualification to Masters level. Quite often, the course fees are the same, so there is no good reason not to complete the Masters, other than the extra work involved.

If the course is part-time, it may be run over two years to diploma level with the third year being dedicated to private study for the dissertation. If you look on the course as partly a social activity, the third year can be disappointing from that point of view.

Not all courses leading to a postgraduate diploma have an option to convert to a Masters, for example the PGCE teaching qualification.

The more fundamental question for you, perhaps, is why you want to do postgraduate study? If it's for purely academic reasons, then a full Masters is the obvious objective. But, if it's linked to a career, then a diploma or certificate might suffice, and asking admissions tutors where previous students have ended up should address that.

A sustainable future

Q. I keep hearing that environmental and sustainability qualifications are going to be valuable in the next decade. Can you recommend some Masters courses that would give me a good all-round grounding in environmental issues and that might stand me in good stead for the future? I finished a geography degree last year.

A. With 700 postgraduate courses covering various aspects of environmental studies, it may seem as if you are looking for a needle in a haystack. However, many of these are specific, focusing on discrete areas such as risk or disaster management, energy matters or water studies. Broader-based Masters are run in a range of universities. For example, Newcastle offers an interdisciplinary programme and the University of East Anglia has a pick-and-mix approach that enables students to construct their own Masters.

Generally speaking, it is probably best to look at universities with large geography or environmental studies departments, as there is more breadth of provision there.

You may also want to consider King's College, London, Oxford Brookes and Edinburgh among others. The Graduate Prospects site (www.prospects.ac.uk) is a good starting point for your course search.

One point to bear in mind, though: most courses will expect you to have a Bachelors of science (not of the arts) in geography or at least be able to show that your undergraduate studies contained a substantial element of science. An idea of career direction might help you to narrow your options, see www.environmental-careers.info to find out more.

A lesson in research

Q. I have a sociology degree and am interested in becoming a researcher, possibly in the field of criminal justice. Are there any Masters courses that deal with generic research and analysis methods, or should I be looking for something more specific?

A. Broadly speaking, there are two types of Masters course – taught and research. The former is by far the most common, across all disciplines, and consists of a mixture of tutorials, classes and individual study. Most will also contain a module on research techniques, typically run at the very beginning of the programme.

A Masters by research (MRes) is exactly what it says on the tin: there is supervision from academic staff, but students pursue their investigations largely alone. Traditionally aimed at graduates who want to progress to a PhD or another type of higher degree, MRes is often seen as the province of those who have already become familiar with research methods as part of a first degree. An intensive introductory module may be available on some courses.

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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