Research, patience and bargaining are key to securing a course tailored for you, says Jessica Moore

When a letter can make or break your dreams, collecting the morning post is an emotional experience.

Those hoping to receive offers from universities know this all too well.

“The difficulty with postgraduate courses is that your offers don’t all come together,” says Dr Amy Sanders, who gained her PhD at Imperial College London. “The timing of it all can be difficult.”

Not to mention the prolonged wait.

While prospective undergraduates apply through UCAS, receiving all their offers and rejections within a set timeframe, postgraduate applications are made institution by institution. “I got offers from Imperial and Keele,” says Sanders. “I took time researching them, meeting the people who would be my supervisors, looking at their published work, visiting the universities – and then, just as I felt ready to commit, I got an offer from Oxford.”

“In the UCAS process [for undergraduate applications], everything is governed by milestones, and necessarily has to be. Postgraduate applications are much more individualised,” agrees Chris Rea, senior business manager at Graduate Prospects, which provides information, advice and opportunities to students and graduates. “There’s no central application process for postgraduates, which means everyone has to find their own way.”

Efforts are being made to consolidate postgraduate applications, however. Twenty-five UK universities and colleges now use UKPass, UCAS’s online postgraduate application service. “We’re seeing an increasing number of students researching their postgraduate choices using the information, links and course search provided by UKPass,” says Darren Barker, a spokesperson for UCAS. “Postgraduate study can represent a major investment, and requires solid thought and understanding, especially in the current climate.”

But how can prospective postgraduates be confident they’re making the right decision? “Postgraduate students make their selection based on whether it’s the right course for them,” says Rea –and he believes that means considering whether it will aid their career development and enhance their employability.

“Applicants tend to narrow their options down to two or three programmes that might be suitable for them, because what they’re looking for will be very specialised.” Considerations might include practicalities, such as work or family commitments, personal preferences such as the location of the institution, how it might enhance employment or professional development, and academic factors. Is the institution respected in the appropriate field? Does it have the necessary facilities?

Are the staff specialised enough? A great deal depends on the type of postgraduate course. Rea says: “In some sectors, a postgraduate course might be a prerequisite to get into a field – if you’re doing a conversion course in law or training to be a teacher, for example.”

With postgraduate Masters and research programmes, it’s much more about personal development. “With a research-based postgraduate course, it’s important to consider who your supervisor would be and whether you feel you would have a good relationship with that individual,” says Sanders. “Your supervisor has to help guide you. Some people I know have had real trouble because the relationship with their supervisor didn’t work; they weren’t supported or advised well. You’ve got to meet the individuals that you’re going to be spending time with before deciding on a course.”

It’s also important that prospective students gather as much information as possible about the course content. “We have to make clear to students the nature of the course, so they can understand what it is that they’re seeking to achieve,” says Martin Coyle, English literature professor and an admissions tutor at Cardiff University.

“I think applicants need to do a lot of research, and universities need to be open. There are league tables, but they are volatile. I would advise students to look for a long-established course with a good track record, and to look very carefully at what’s involved in terms of assessment and how long it will take. Often what’s advertised is only a shorthand version,” warns Coyle.

“The information is there to be found out – that’s why universities have postgraduate open days and fairs, and market their courses. They want to know that the students they offer places to are committed and know what they’re signing up for,” says Rea. “The students will almost certainly be paying fees, so they’re customers as well.”

Does that marketing of postgraduate courses engender spin? “In the postgraduate- taught market, I think students need to make sure that they’re aware – no matter what the university has told them – of what the salary premium is. Universities will probably not want to tell them,” says Professor Howard Green, a senior partner at Postgraduate Directions, which offers consultancy and workshops in postgraduate education. In other words, how much more money can postgraduates expect to earn in their first job as a direct consequence of pursuing further study compared with those who don’t? “It’s about £4,000,” says Green. “In net terms, given our taxation and National Insurance systems, that’s worth about £2,500 a year. It takes a long time to make back the cost of the course.”

Rea says in some cases there is no monetary premium whatsoever. “In some subjects, postgraduate degree holders can earn more in their first post than their undergraduate counterparts. In other subject areas, that’s not necessarily the case.”

However, he believes there are significant benefits: “What we do know is that graduate recruiters talk incredibly positively about the skills and qualities that postgraduates have. At one time, having an undergraduate degree was the key differentiator in the labour market. Because there are more and more people with degrees, some recruiters are taking postgraduate qualification as that differentiator. That, I think, is the real value these days of a postgraduate degree: you can’t necessarily put a cash value on it, but in terms of skills development and employability, postgraduates can give themselves an edge.”

To those students deciding whether to accept postgraduate offers, Green suggests playing the market. “The changes in the undergraduate approach and the Government’s attitude to creating a market in higher education is going to create a market in postgraduate education. Students should do a bit of bargaining,” he says. “That’s what a marketplace is: it’s where the customer is in a position to negotiate. Students need the confidence to say to institutions: ‘Those fees are a bit high; how about I offer you less?’ because institutions need postgraduate students.”

These postgraduates can give universities the run-around, too. Unlike with course acceptances for undergraduate courses, postgraduates are not committed to a course, even after accepting a place. “Sometimes students will accept an offer from two or three institutions, because there are no ties,” says Coyle. “We’re very much in the student’s hands at that point. They may well change their mind later on.” Because of this, some programmes demand a non-refundable deposit. But there is trust in this relationship yet: “I think most students are very serious and committed,” says Coyle. “Most are determined to get their postgraduate qualification and have made their choices carefully.”

Coyle believes postgraduate courses have great personal and professional value, but advises prospective students to make their decisions carefully: “Postgraduate study does train deeper skills. You get a huge amount out of it. Fishing is not the way forward for these students; they need to realise they’re becoming professionals, and that requires a lot of work.”

So while you’re waiting for the postman, put in your research and take time to consider your options.