Brian Cox was a big name before completing his studies / Getty

Stars in fields from pop music to politics have reaped personal and professional benefits from taking time out for further learning

Anyone starting a postgraduate course this year, or perhaps beginning to look into the options, is bound to have a few doubts or some questions about their choices. So it's probably good to know that many successful students, from pop stars to presidents, have walked this path previously – and have gone on to do rather well.

Irrespective of your current level of fame, a postgraduate qualification has the potential to aid your career. "In an increasingly competitive and crowded careers market, postgraduate qualifications, particularly in specialised areas, are proving ever more important in helping people improve their skills and knowledge," explains Mark Ridolfo, a senior lecturer at The Business School, Bournemouth University.

So, while his academic credentials may not have been the the first thing cinema director Danny Boyle looked at when considering him for the lead in his 2011 film 127 Hours, Oscar-nominated actor James Franco claims his continuing education has helped his acting career. Franco has a Masters in writing from Columbia university and is due to enrol on a doctoral programme at the University of Houston this year.

Franco's example could help prospective students considering their career/study balance – and closer to home is Alistair Brownlee. The three-time International Triathlon Union world champion was competing at international level while completing his undergraduate degree and now mixes training with an MSc in finance at Leeds Metropolitan University.

However, if reading appeals more than running, those pursuing an arts-related Masters may be encouraged by the numerous authors who have gone on to achieve success after their academic endeavours. William Boyd, CBE, gained an MA in English and philosophy from Glasgow and a DPhil from Oxford before earning numerous awards for novels including Any Human Heart and Restless. And Jonathan Coe gained an MA and PhD from the University of Warwick before publishing his first novels – after a brief diversion as a jazz pianist.

Of course, previous vocations, keyboard related or otherwise, shouldn't be considered a roadblock to academic achievement or a high-flying career. "Obtaining a postgraduate qualification is an attractive option for those considering a career change or people who have hit a 'glass ceiling' in their current jobs," says Ridolfo. It was more a glass bottle than a glass ceiling for Brian Cox, when a Berlin bar scuffle broke up his band Dare, sending him back to his physics studies. By the time his next band, D:ream, assured us that things could only get better in the early 1990s, he was Dr Cox, having completed a PhD at the DESY laboratory, Hamburg. Now Professor Cox holds a chair in particle physics at the University of Manchester and his TV programmes have been credited with restoring public interest in science and physics.

While Cox has taken responsibility for helping us all to understand quantum theory, other postgraduate qualifications can develop understanding in different fields. "MBAs in particular offer people the opportunity to develop new skills and knowledge and improve their networking capabilities," says Ridolfo. Indeed many prominent business leaders, and one US president in the form of George W Bush, have used the MBA to boost their careers.

Jean-Paul Agon is just one example; the HEC Paris graduate is now CEO of L'Oréal and commands a salary in excess of €13m, having worked his way up through the ranks. "Of course, doing an MBA doesn't guarantee that you will end up a rich and successful C-suite executive," cautions Heleen van Hall MBA, corporate relations manager, Nyenrode Business Universiteit, the Netherlands, "but it does provide you with many of the core tools needed to succeed at the top of a large organisation."

The top of an organisation doesn't get much higher than leadership of a country, and there are certainly some postgraduates who qualify in this area, albeit away from the MBA arena. Across the pond, President Barack Obama gained postgraduate law qualifications, while in the UK the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown turned his interest in history into a first-class honours MA, then a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. One step down the chain of command, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has fitted in two separate Masters qualifications, winning a scholarship for one of them – to study the political philosophy of green campaigners at the University of Minnesota.

For those worried that they've left it too late, perhaps Brian May can help. The Queen guitarist was part-way through his astrophysics doctorate when the band found fame in the 1970s, and so abandoned it, although he still contributed to books with Sir Patrick Moore. However, he returned some 30 years later to complete his studies and gained his PhD in 2008. The title, A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, proves not everything the musician writes is as catchy as the guitar solo in "Bohemian Rhapsody", but also that it is always possible to consider postgraduate study, whatever stage your career has reached.

Finally, Andy Lockley's career trajectory shows that a shrewd choice of course can lead to glory. He graduated from the National Centre for Computer Animation (NCCA) at Bournemouth University in 2000 with an MA in digital special effects, went to work in the film industry and won an Oscar for Inception in 2010. "None of this would have been possible if I hadn't done my MA," he said later on the university's website.

None of this is to say a Masters, MBA or PhD is a golden ticket to the big league, but for those who want to pursue a postgraduate programme, the potential benefits are nonetheless great. "There's considerable evidence that obtaining a postgraduate qualification not only gives people more confidence and competence to tackle more challenging roles, but often provides an impetus to apply for new, better-paid jobs or even change careers altogether," says Ridolfo. As luminaries like Cox show, even the sky itself isn't the limit – with ability and academic rigour, you can go much further than that.