If you're aiming for a PhD or heading for the commercial world, pick your Masters carefully. By Sanjida O'Connell

James O'Connell, an emeritus professor from Bradford University's peace studies department, has taught Masters courses for years. When his nephew, Niall O'Connell, embarked on one himself, O'Connell wrote him a letter warning him of the differences between this mode of study and an undergraduate degree: "There are three crucial elements in the initial approach to a Master's: the lectures, the essays and the company. They are important in inverse order to the sequence I have put them in."

A Masters, so often thought of as bridging the gap between the noisy rabble of an undergraduate degree and the long-distance loneliness of a PhD, has evolved to suit the modern world. Now, as O'Connell points out, you may indeed learn as much from your fellow students as from your lecturers.

And in the face of rapidly changing technology and new advances in scientific understanding, Masters courses have had to change dramatically. Newcastle University, for instance, runs an MSc course for a subject that doesn't even exist: biomedical nanotechnology. Professor Calum McNeil, head of the course, sees his role as "giving people skills required in an industry that will happen, but has not happened yet."

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 67,240 students completed a Masters course in the UK in 2001. So what do you achieve by doing a Master of Science degree (MSc), and how do you know which one to do? Both MSc and Master of Research (MRes) courses are taught courses; the latter tends to involve more dissertations or projects (usually up to three).

If your goal is to do a PhD, theoretically there is no need to do a Masters first. In practice, McNeil points out that you will need a Masters if you did not achieve a high enough grade in your first degree. Ben Collen, who is studying for a PhD at the Institute of Zoology in London, opted to do an MRes. "The competition is so intense now that you often need to have a Masters to get funding for a PhD," he says. "I chose to do a Masters of Research because I wanted a more research-based degree."

McNeil says, "I would advise students to do an MRes if they are PhD material already. It gives you a four-year shot at your thesis; it's much more like the American four-year approach."

MSc degrees are also taught courses that include dissertations or projects. Some may have more taught elements than an MRes courses, and their approach is often broader. Although the majority are vocational, MScs vary in their applicability to the real world. Professor Ian Moss, from the school of mathematics and statistics at the University of Newcastle, runs a new MSc course in relativity, astrology and cosmology. "It's a purely academic course. If a student wanted to do a PhD afterwards, I would warn them against this subject," he says - even though the only graduates so far are both working towards post-doctorates.

In contrast, the Masters in pharmacy run by the University of Brighton is strictly aimed at practising pharmacists. The MSc in industrial and pharmaceutical studies is split into six modules, each one involving a week-long residential course. The 20 students on the course are already employed and their course fees are paid for by their employers. Forensic psychology at Coventry University is perhaps more typical. The course has a specific aim: to create chartered forensic psychologists. But as with other courses of this type, about a third of graduates work as forensic psychologists, a third continue to carry out research in the field and a third find alternative employment.

How do you know what is the most appropriate course for you? Most university libraries have prospectuses; courses can also be viewed on the internet. Newcastle and Birmingham Universities have excellent websites, but not every university organises its information as effectively.

It is also difficult to gauge how good the university is from its prospectus. "Do a bit of research," says McNeil, "For instance, there are only four universities in the UK that have nanotechnology courses, and we are the only one that has biomedical nanotechnology." In cases like this, the specificity of a university course can help focus a student's options.

Professor Mike Kearsey, head of the applied genetics MSc at the University of Birmingham, says students should ask what career prospects a Masters offers. "Many MScs sound exciting, but there are not many jobs studying whales in the South Pacific, for instance, so ultimately students need to think about bringing home the bacon."

There is also the thorny issue of money. Courses that are highly vocational and relevant to industry usually have funding: Kearsey has bursaries available for 25 British Masters students in biosciences. Others, such as the conservation Masters run by UCL, no longer have any scholarships, but as 90-95 per cent of graduates gain employment in the conservation sector - a notoriously difficult place to find work - students feel it is worthwhile funding themselves.

Birkbeck College, University of London, is that rare university: a highly acclaimed research establishment that allows people to study whilst working. "A lot of full-time students are probably moonlighting in the evenings to make ends meet," says Professor David Latchman, Master of the College. "At Birkbeck we formalise that arrangement, allowing students to work during the day and study at night. This approach will become increasingly popular in the light of top-up fees and with those students who don't want to take on extra debt but are interested in continuing their studies."

Usually a Masters degree will cost £2,000-£4,000 for a British student and upwards of £10,000 for an overseas student, just for the fees. There are, of course, living expenses to be found and these can be extremely high in places like London. In addition, some courses run obligatory field trips and this cost is not included in the fees. UCL's conservation course estimates students need a further £750 for field studies. Universities will, however, be able to provide advice about available funding, financial aid for field trips and possibly discounted accommodation.

It is also worth looking at how well established a course is: new areas of research spawn new courses, such as the three-year-old Masters in biomedical nanotechnology at Newcastle, which contains information that cannot be found anywhere else, but could have teething problems.

Others courses have had to evolve: applied genetics at Birmingham University has been running for 40 years and as a result it's had to adapt considerably to continue to be on the cutting edge.

Most universities advise prospective students to talk to staff about their aspirations. "At Birkbeck we have lots of students who are not conventionally qualified," says Latchman, "and staff will advise them on the best course for them. This may mean they don't do the course they came in wanting to do, but perhaps one that is more appropriate for them."

When interviewing prospective students, McNeil asks them for a statement on why they want to do this particular course and what they think it will give them. It might be helpful to adopt this approach and ask the same questions of yourself.

'The course gave me the confidence to go on to a PhD'

Susie Molony, 24, studied an MSc in conservation at UCL's geography department, before going on to study a PhD

I took two years out after university to do conservation work. I knew I wanted to work in this area, but hadn't thought of studying for a Masters until I was doing work experience at BBC Wildlife Magazine. One of the editors mentioned that she had done the "Cons Course" at UCL. The course, on the whole, was well run and very good; the facilities are also excellent.

Among the best aspects of the course were the field trips, which enabled you to get out and see how reserves are run, and do some practical work. The course is very well recognised, with lots of potential to make good contacts: for example, English Nature, WWF, the RSPB and other conservation bodies came and spoke to us.

Having other students around was also invaluable. There were so many issues to talk about and no definite answers in conservation, so being able to debate problems with others was helpful. My dissertation looked at primate extinction in fragmented habitats across the tropics. I worked with Dr Guy Cowlishaw and Dr Nick Isaac at the Institute of Zoology (IoZ) in London.

My work was part of a larger project at the IoZ and didn't involve fieldwork. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship for the fees. I'm not sure I'd have gone on to do a PhD otherwise: it gave me confidence and showed me that I had the dedication to spend three further years studying.

My only criticism is that the year I did the course, it switched from the biology department to the geography department and took on more students than it could really cope with. My advice to anyone trying to decide what Masters to do would be to look closely at what research your department and closely related departments do, because you don't know whose advice you might need to take.

'The staff try to accommodate people who have to work'

Deepa de Silva, 34, studied an MSc in biomolecular organisation at Birkbeck College's School of Crystallography, University of London

My first degree was in Biological Sciences at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, but because of the political situation I decided to come to Britain. I started working as a cashier in a café earning £5 an hour and chose to study for my Masters at Birkbeck College, London, because the university and the staff really try to accommodate people who are working during the day but want to further their education. They also have a flexible payment scheme - there is no way I could have paid the course fees up-front, but this way I could work, earn and pay for the course.

I chose to do a taught Masters because I wanted to do a PhD. I felt a broader course would enable me to chose a subject for my postgraduate studies later on. I studied biomolecular organisation, which covered molecular biology, biochemistry and biophysics. Within six months I was able to obtain a more relevant job as a research technician. It took me two years to complete my MSc. I had a lot of help and support from the tutors who realise that most of their students are doing several things in life.

It was difficult; I started my day at 8am and finished work and started studying between 6pm and 9pm. I now have a studentship for a PhD at Birkbeck with Dr Simon Baker on discovering new enzymes which can remove industrial waste from the environment.

I'd advise anyone considering a Masters to think carefully about the subject area, the location of the university, future employment prospects and whether they can afford it.

What is involved in studying for a science Masters?

There are now science Masters courses in a wide range of subjects, from acupuncture to anthropology. Increasingly they are highly practical - between 50-60 per cent of the course is in a wet lab, a dry lab, collecting data or on a field trip.

Most courses are split into modules: discrete subject areas are assessed by an essay, and/or an exam, with one or two longer dissertations or projects. Each course will be different, but most are structured along similar lines to the MSc in conservation at UCL.

In the first two terms there are eight core modules, each assessed by one essay. The seven best essays are given a mark out of 7.5 per cent, as is a take-home exam essay.

The dissertation counts for the final 40 per cent; students have to score more than 50 per cent on all modules, in the exam and the dissertation to pass.

The final dissertation may be a project chosen by the student aided by staff who will advise against over-ambitious or unworkable subjects. The best students are allowed to work with other organisations, for example, the top students from the applied genetics MSc at Birmingham University could carry out research at the Roslin Institute for Animal Genetics in Edinburgh (where Dolly the sheep was cloned) or the John Innes Research Institute at Norwich.

Some courses collaborate with other organisations and will frequently invite representatives from industry or other organisations to lecture. For example, the MSc in conservation and utilisation of plant genetic resources at Birmingham University is also run by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Staff from Kew are involved in teaching and there are two five-day courses, one in gene bank management at the Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex and one in plant biodiversity and conservation at Kew. Students also visit other relevant industrial and governmental organisations, such as Horticultural Research International, the Natural History Museum, Lion Seeds, and the Henry Doubleday Research Association. Other specialist lectures are also provided by international and national plant conservation experts. This kind of interdisciplinary approach is vital for a good course.

This particular course involves a two-week field trip to the Mediterranean to cover aspects of the Masters taught theoretically, such as plant identification, how to collect specimens and wildlife management.

The low-down on two very different MSc courses


Overview: This programme aims to provide you with the understanding, knowledge and skills to enable you to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, biosciences and microsystems technologies industries. You will gain core knowledge across the three disciplines of medicine, engineering and science, and gain an advanced knowledge and understanding of micro and nanotechnology, and its existing and potential biomedical applications.

Modules: Nanoscale fabrication and manipulation;top-down and bottom-up fabrication; biomolecular engineering; nanoparticle-based drug delivery; sensor systems; business skills for biotechnologists

Dissertation example: Surface structure: How do you make the surface of a hip implant communicate well with cells, encouraging them to grow bone around the implant?


Overview: This course aims to provide a professional and academic forensic psychology qualification. Students will be provided with a thorough grounding in the theory, themes, issues and practical skills that are central to psychological research into behaviour relevant to crime and forensic settings. Graduates can pursue a career in areas such as prison psychology, community psychology, or the probation or police services.

Modules:Psychology and criminal behaviour; sexual and violent crime; the assessment and treatment of offenders; punishment and rehabilitation; advanced research methods in psychology; the English legal process

Dissertation example: Facial recognition - does a person's perceived 'handsomeness' influence whether they will be picked as the criminal in a police line-up?