Postgraduate queries: "Will studying be a lonely time? Is doing a PhD a logical step up?"


I am thinking about studying for a postgraduate research degree, but am worried that the experience might be a lonely one. What kind of opportunities do universities offer to combat this? Is the postgraduate community as strong as at undergraduate level?

The postgraduate experience differs from the undergraduate one in a number of ways, both academic and social, and, if I read your query correctly, you are right to suspect that postgrad life, away from lectures, will lack the atmosphere that’s created when large numbers of freshers get together, mostly on their first living-away-from-home experience. But that doesn’t mean that postgraduates can’t establish friendships, inside and outside their academic area, that sustain them through two or three years, even if their research activities are largely lone pursuits.

Many universities recognise the special nature of life as a researcher and put in place structures to help these students link up. The University of Birmingham, for example, has a doctoral researcher community, which lays on events such as guest speaker evenings, which provide a way for students to mix on a variety of levels. The degree of community-feel mixing at faculty level will depend on the nature of the subject (compare practical disciplines with largely reading-based areas, for example) and on the size of the postgraduate community within any department.

So the best advice I can give you, before you finalise your choice of university, is to chat to someone who has trodden a similar research route at a university you’re considering. Only they will really be able to say what the experience was like.

I am interested in applying for a Masters course with the possibility of studying for a PhD afterwards. In what ways is a transition possible between the two, or are they always separate qualifications? If you study for a Masters do you have to do the MPhil?

The principle of moving from a Masters course to a PhD-type qualification is well established at British universities. But it is a route that relatively few students actually take, largely because a Masters course is increasingly seen as a means of giving students a leg-up in a specific sector of the job market, rather than as a preparation stage for what might be termed “real” research. This is particularly true if the Masters consists exclusively of taught lectures and conventional exams, with little or no research.

So your first step is to identify Masters courses in your chosen field that do contain an element of research, leading to the production of a substantial piece of your own work, usually called a thesis. In many cases, where students show a particular interest in, and flair for, research during their Masters, the subject of their dissertation forms the basis of their area of study in their subsequent PhD. Some Masters (MRes and MPhil) are tailored to prepare students for more in-depth research; these are the ones mostly easily “converted” into a PhD.

Secondly, you should find out from your chosen Masters institution if there is any history of students moving on from a Masters to a PhD, not necessarily at the same university. This will at least show that the senior academics will probably be helpful if you show the calibre required to move towards being able to put a “doctor” after your name.

I am applying for a postgraduate course in physiotherapy/nursing, and the entry requirements ask for experience relevant to the subject and involvement with organisations. Therefore, I would like to know what type and how Postgrad physio courses usually require clinical experience much experience would be necessary to be considered for the course? Moreover, does the experience have to be accredited by an institution in the UK, or does overseas experience also count?

Universities, and the professional bodies that accredit their courses, often ask for such experience, first because it shows you have the aptitude and practical qualities to work in the field in question, and secondly because it helps them sift candidates applying for the courses.

Postgraduate courses in health service fields often have good records in placing people in jobs after they qualify and so are heavily over-subscribed. For that reason, anything you can add to your CV, on top of your first degree, that shows you mean business on this career path, will help enormously. You don’t say what your first degree was in, but I’m assuming it was in a health-related area, in which case you will have done practical work in a hospital or clinic as part of the course.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has a list of all postgrad courses in the field, and each institution should be able to give you an idea of what’s required in the way of experience. Relevant overseas experience should be just as acceptable as something done in the UK.

Send your queries to dr@contacts.bham.ac.uk (0121 414 5005)

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