What Is a Postgraduate Degree?
Updated 5 March 2021
A postgraduate degree is an academic award or qualification that is undertaken after an undergraduate degree. A postgraduate degree can take the form of a master’s degree, a PhD or an industry-specific qualification.
A bachelor’s degree is usually a minimum requirement for entry, but there are some exceptions if the student has many years’ experience working directly within the field of study and can meet other entry requirements.
The way a postgraduate degree is structured differs depending on which route you choose. Some courses are taught using lectures, others are research-based and involve undertaking an original research study, while others offer practical training.
Master’s degrees take a traditional academic approach. Students are taught by lecturers and carry out original research to complete a dissertation as part of their course requirements.
A master’s degree usually takes one to two years to complete. Although there are various specialised master’s degrees, some of the most popular include:
- Master of Science (MSc)
- Master of Arts (MA)
- Master of Engineering (Meng)
- Master of Business Administration (MBA)
For undergraduates interested in pursuing a career in research, a Master of Research (MRes) may be a preferred route. The taught element is minimal, with a strong focus on independent research.
A Master of Philosophy (MPhil) is a master’s programme that consists entirely of independent research.
Some four-year undergraduate courses incorporate a master’s degree within them, meaning that successful graduates earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the same course.
Other academic postgraduate awards include the Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip) and the Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert). The level of study presents the same challenge as a master’s degree but these courses are shorter – the Postgraduate Certificate takes four months and the Postgraduate Diploma takes nine months.
They do not contain the dissertation element of a full master’s degree, which makes them viable options for those wishing to advance their skills in the workplace or improve their CV without having to undertake a research project.
PhDs and Doctorates
A PhD is an abbreviation for Doctor of Philosophy. It is referred to as a DPhil when awarded by the University of Oxford.
Unlike the traditional taught model of a master’s degree, PhDs and professional doctorates are research-based qualifications. This means that the student works independently to plan, carry out and evaluate a full research project at an advanced academic level.
A PhD usually takes three or four years of full-time study to complete, after which, students submit a comprehensive thesis (often up to 90,000 words in length) detailing their research study and findings.
A PhD is the highest level of degree awarded in the UK education system. The depth of study and the amount of time and focus dedicated to one specific area means that Doctors of Philosophy are considered experts in their field.
The entry requirements for a PhD course usually demand a First or 2:1 classification bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s degree. Successful applicants may have access to bursaries and scholarships to fund their PhD, and council grants may be available to some.
Studying for and completing a PhD or doctorate is often a gateway into a career in academia. However, professional doctorates are available for students on a vocational career path, such as medicine or teaching, and are supported by employers. They usually involve a more significant teaching element and have a smaller research component.
A professional doctorate requires the same level of study and standard of original research as a PhD, with a tight focus on the chosen industry. For example, an engineer can be awarded an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) that is directly relevant to their field of work.
There are some alternative routes of study that result in a doctorate. Some universities now offer a four-year course called a New Route or Integrated PhD. The first year of the course is a Master of Research degree programme involving studying research methods and techniques, leading to a three year PhD.
Experts in a particular field of study can submit previously published works, such as articles or books, to apply for a doctorate award by demonstrating a substantial contribution to advances in their area. Professionals wishing to take this route must have graduated from their first degree many years earlier and be established in their career.
If a committee decides that an applicant’s work is of the required standard, they may award a title such as Doctor of Literature, Doctor of Law or Doctor of Music.
Conversion Courses and Professional Qualifications
A postgraduate conversion course enables people to change career path or take a different direction with their studies after completing a bachelor’s degree. Conversion courses are usually master’s level and entry requires a bachelor’s degree in any subject. Some universities may specify a minimum degree classification of a 2:1.
Unlike a traditional master’s degree, a conversion course focuses on practical training rather than a research dissertation. The intended outcome is that the student is ready and qualified to enter into a new profession. Conversion courses usually take one year to complete.
Several professions demand a certain level of training and expertise before allowing people to register and practice. These requirements are often fulfilled with a postgraduate conversion course or professional qualification:
- A Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) allows non-law graduates a chance to train for a career in legal practice, just as a Legal Practice Course (LPC) opens doors to a career as a solicitor.
- A Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) is required for a career in teaching.
- Other conversion courses prepare for work in a wide range of industries such as medicine, social work, psychology, IT, accountancy and engineering.
The vocational nature of a conversion course means that they are often open to funding opportunities. If an employer considers the training and development of a staff member to be an asset, they may have funding programmes in place to support this.
Employer funding is more likely if your postgraduate conversion course results in registration with a professional body.
Teaching courses are often incentivised with government funding for candidates with a solid bachelor’s degree classification.
If self-funding a postgraduate degree, students can expect to pay between £6,000 to £12,000, depending on the course, so exploring funding options before applying is advisable.
The time and cost demands of studying for a postgraduate degree of any kind mean that a candidate must be sure of their decision before making a commitment. Here are some key pros and cons to consider:
- Further study allows you to broaden your skill set, better equipping you for progression in the workplace or a change of career altogether.
- If you study in an area you are particularly interested in, you are likely to get a lot of enjoyment from dedicating time to studying it more closely.
- Postgraduate study displays a commitment to learning and reflects well on your work ethic – both qualities that appeal to employers.
- A postgraduate degree may be a requirement for the field of work you wish to pursue.
- Future earning potential is very likely to increase after being awarded a postgraduate degree.
- No matter where your career takes you in your future, you will always have the qualifications you’ve worked hard for – no one can take them from you.
- A postgraduate degree will help you stand out from the crowd. The graduate job market is very competitive and your additional qualifications may give you the edge over your peers.
- Dedicating an extended period of time to your studies has an immediate effect on your income as you are unlikely to be able to work at the same time.
- Postgraduate study can be very demanding; you will be expected to put in significant hours dealing with complex academic material.
- Course fees can be very expensive without funding help.
- Choosing to enter into further study can sometimes be a symptom of not knowing what you want from your career and can lead to wasted time studying for a field you are not sure you want to work in.
- A postgraduate degree may not be necessary. Many careers are accessible without studying at a postgraduate level or may offer alternative entry routes such as workplace training.
A bachelor’s degree is a basic requirement for study at postgraduate degree level. Many universities ask for a certain level of degree classification, often a First or 2:1 bachelor’s degree, although some may accept a 2:2.
The type of postgraduate degree also affects the entry requirements. For study at master’s level, a good bachelor’s degree is usually sufficient. For PhD and doctorate courses, a master’s is a minimum requirement.
Those applying for a PhD will also usually have significant work experience in the industry.
It is worth noting that there are alternative ways of gaining postgraduate recognition which do not necessarily require recent study. An awarding body or university committee following a strict criterion may award a PhD for contributions to research or previously published work. This is often applied to those well established and advanced in their career.
The most important point to consider when applying for a postgraduate degree is to do your research. Universities may require different methods of application and have different time frames for submission.
Unlike undergraduate applications, which are entirely managed by UCAS, postgraduate applications are often made directly to the university offering the course. Details and admission requirements will be listed on the university website and in their prospectus.
However, UCAS do retain some involvement with the postgraduate application process. UCAS postgraduate has links with 12 UK universities including the University of Winchester and the University of Westminster. You will also apply through UCAS for teacher training as well as some nursing or social work MAs.
It may take some time identifying institutions that offer the course you want, and you need to be sure that the logistics and practicalities of studying at each one works for you. The course model of your chosen degree makes a big difference here, as taught courses require you to be on campus more frequently than research-based courses, where distance learning makes up the majority of the research element.
Carefully check closing dates for applications and consider starting your application up to a year before the course commences.
You may be eligible for financial assistance for your postgraduate degree. There are many sources of funding so make sure to research which are relevant to your circumstances and course:
- The government provides non-means-tested student loans for postgraduate Master’s or doctorate study.
- UK Research and Innovation is an organisation that works closely with universities and the government to help support and encourage research in the UK. They can provide funding and grants for a range of postgraduate opportunities.
- Various charities and trust funds offer financial support for postgraduate students, particularly in areas of human interest such as medicine and health.
- Employers may offer postgraduate funding programmes, especially if the newly qualified individual will be an asset to their company.
The range of postgraduate courses available support career progression and skills development in almost every professional field. For graduates wishing to change career direction or progress up the ladder in their chosen career, postgraduate study can be an extremely effective way of achieving their goals.
The time and focus given to learning and research has benefits for the individual and UK industries in general.