There are many myths and mysteries about doing a masters. It’s a rather momentous decision for any student, as it represents such a significant investment of time and money. This post represents the views of somebody who teaches and researches at the Business School of a British university, and has completed two taught masters degrees herself. Over the years, I have seen hundreds of students have more or less success in their degrees, and these are some key points of advice that I give my undergraduate students.
If you are coming directly out of your undergrad, it might just seem like an easy option to stay at university, to simply continue doing what you have been doing for the past few years. It’s certainly less scary than the big uncertain world out there. Don’t underestimate the commitment it takes to do well in a postgraduate degree! It’s time, it’s money, but most of all it’s a lot of focussed energy going into a singular pursuit. Are you ready to commit to this knowing that it is likely to affect your family life, your social life, your income etc.?
Masters are many things, but they are certainly not easy. Make sure you know exactly what is involved in your chosen degree and be honest with yourself — are you willing to give it your all? There are many things to consider there. You might be fed up with studying, so taking the (significant!) step up to a postgraduate level might not be the best idea. You might have commitments to friends and family that oppose an extended period of focussed study. It might just not be right for you at this time.
The opportunity to do another degree doesn’t disappear. You still have that option a few years (or even decades) down the line. If you are not ready for it, if you’d like to explore first, if you’d like to earn some money, or travel, or do all manner of other things, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t torture yourself with another degree unless you really want to do it.
2. Subject Area
Some countries or institutions have very strict entry criteria. In Germany, for example, you are often constrained to a very narrow range of possible postgraduate degrees that you can apply for with any given undergraduate degree. Other countries or institutions have a broader view. Doing a degree in Supply Chain Management at one of the top UK universities, I had classmates who had done management degrees, but also some who had done languages or engineering or even history for their bachelors.
This gives you the freedom to branch out, to change your career trajectory, or to sharpen your focus in a particular area that you are interested in. Maybe there was a particular class that you enjoyed and would like to pursue in more detail. Or you started out with a highly specialised degree and want to broaden your skills with a more generalist programme. If you are going further away from your original area of study, be prepared for some very intense work in the first few weeks or months of the course as you catch up to your peers who have more previous experience.
An invaluable source in selecting the correct subject area is work experience. Studying something is one thing; actually working in your chosen field can be completely different. Even a relatively brief time in the workplace can be very enlightening as to what you would like to focus on, and what offers the best career opportunities. For example, I teach on an Engineering Management programme where a lot of our students are highly skilled engineers who have discovered that they cannot be promoted any further without acquiring some advanced business and management skills.
3. Career Prospects
What are you going to get out of your postgraduate study? Hopefully new skills and insights, as well as a new group of friends (often international) who are amazing future connections, but most students hope for a boost to their career trajectory. A postgraduate degree can help you stand out and gain qualifications for the higher echelons of your chosen profession.
Does it though? Make sure to investigate your field closely. A masters, even from a very reputable university, does not necessarily give you an advantage. In some professions, professional qualifications are more highly valued and are a fundamental requirement, no matter what degree you’ve got (Accounting comes to mind as an example). Or maybe an extra year or two of work experience would give you much more of an edge.
There is, in some countries, universities, and subject areas more than others, a strong drive for everyone to get a masters degree. Every now and again, the media get in on the hype as well, and suddenly it seems like the only way forward. Be cautious with such advice. In the end, you need to do the work and you need to be happy with it, not some journalist, and not your parents.
By the way, it’s also perfectly to fine to do a degree that doesn’t have a strong link with a career. You might have other objectives. I’m currently considering a Creative Writing degree for no other reason that the joy of learning and interest in the subject. The pressure is on to actually enjoy it now!
4. Location & Institution
The world is your oyster! Terms and conditions apply… The easiest option seems to be to just stay where you are and continue at the same university. You know the place, the student life, and the expectations… Make sure it is actually in your best interest though. Are the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees sufficiently different or are you just going to get a rehash of what you have already done? Has your performance increased significantly over the past few years and you might be able to get into a better university now? Is your university a good fit for your chosen subject area?
Don’t be afraid to shop around a bit! Write an email to the course leaders at the places you are considering to get additional information and a better feel for the institution. If you can, you might want to consider visiting the universities, either for open days or just for a casual visit. It’s important to fit in and feel like you can spend a year or two at this place. You can also have a look at facilities like the library or more specialist workspaces such as laboratories that might be relevant to your chosen degree.
How about going international? It’s an exhilarating option and often much less difficult than you think. There are many options for international students. Speaking for UK universities, we generally have more international students than home students on our postgraduate programmes. It’s an exciting environment! The first thing to consider are the vast differences in what it means to do a postgraduate degree in various countries. One year, two years, three years? A dissertation at the end or not? Lots of time in the classroom or mostly independent study? In the same vein it’s important to consider if a foreign degree will be recognised in your home country. There are many degrees that are taught in English even in non-English-speaking countries. Obviously have an eye on visa issues and finance (more on that later), but keep an open mind! As a former international student — it’s worth it!
5. Delivery Style
An important consideration in your decision making process should be the way in which a programme is delivered. The most obvious distinction is between part-time and full-time programmes. The part-time option gives you the opportunity to earn while you study and your fellow students will often be a very interesting bunch with very diverse backgrounds and work environments.
For both part-time and full-time degrees, there are options of block teaching (=a whole class delivered over a short space of time, very intense, but then you are done with that subject) and the more traditional style of having the same classes each week. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages. I have done both, and for me a block delivery of studying one subject from 9am till 5pm for five days (group work and independent study after that, so very little sleep) to then complete the assessment afterwards was perfect. It allowed me to combine full-time work and full-time study and kept me focussed on one subject at a time. For many of my fellow students it was torture. Only you can make that decision, so be sure to find out how your chosen degree is being delivered!
Furthermore, degrees can be delivered in varying degrees of face-to-face teaching and independent study. You might have 30 hours of classes a week or 5 hours. On top of that there are online and distance-learning degrees, which have little or no obligation to attend traditional classes on campus. Again, there is no “best” way of doing things. I’m easily distracted and know I need guidance and class time to keep me on track. However, I also travel a lot (I’m writing this from a train) and need to be able to fit my studies around this lifestyle. Select what is best for you, but make sure it’s a conscious choice!
As students, few people have the opportunity to just spend as much as they want. If you do, congratulations! Feel free to skip this section. For most, money will be a concern. More time spent spending money rather than earning it is a serious decision. You might feel more comfortable working for a few years and saving up money to fulfil your dream of going for a postgraduate degree. For those who are in employment already, there is also the option of having your employer sponsor (part of) your studies. This might be tied to a long-term commitment to the company, so keep your eyes open!
Be careful to include all costs in your calculations. It’s tempting to just look at study fees, and there are indeed vast differences. There are some countries that charge no fees whatsoever, not even for international students. Other places ask for ridiculous amounts of money. But also keep an eye on the cost of living in your chosen destination. I actually decided to forgo a completely free degree in my home country to go to the UK and ended up paying roughly the same amount of money simply because I went from a 2-year-degree to a 1-year-degree achieving exactly the same outcome. Travel cost is not to be underestimated, as well as the cost for additional examinations (language certificates, admission tests etc.) and visas.
If you don’t happen to have vast amount of money lying around and don’t fancy going into very severe debt for another degree, don’t despair. There’s hope! To me, one of the most astonishing things in higher education is how few people apply for scholarships. Having sat on various scholarship committees, I know the struggle of having to award the money to somebody out of a very slim field of applicants. It’s worth it to apply! No every scholarship is based on merit either. There are alumni scholarships, there are diversity scholarships, there are scholarships for people from disadvantaged backgrounds… Ask! Many universities are very helpful in giving guidance for financing options.
Other than universities and philanthropic organisations, governments are a frequent source of funding. Many of my students from developing countries receive funding from their national government to acquire skills that they can then disseminate back home. Similarly, your host government might offer financial support.
Apply for funding. Options will vary considerable according to your background, your discipline, and your institution, but please do your research and apply for what you might be eligible for.
Why do students quit degrees? The reasons are as diverse as the student body, but the most common one is a lack of motivation. As a lecturer, it’s also the only reason I really can’t do anything about. I can help with language issues, give advice for homesickness, even point out financial aid options, but if a student isn’t sufficiently motivated to do the work, I have very few options. It’s incredibly frustrating!
A postgraduate degree is hard. There’s no way around that. Just having nothing better to do right now or fulfilling your grandmother’s dream are usually not the best motivators to keep you going for an extended period of time. You need to know why you are doing this. That could be for career reasons or for personal satisfaction, but make sure that your motivation is strong enough to carry you through.
A good understanding of what you are expected to do and achieve certainly helps in being realistic. Be honest with yourself. Do you really want to spend more time studying right now? Is this really the area you want to study? It’s a very personal decision and there is no shame in declining or postponing the option of doing a postgraduate degree. Do what is right for you! A taught postgraduate degree can be a nightmare. It can also be one of the greatest experiences of your life. After all of the previously discussed considerations it really comes down to this one — are you motivated to do this?
All of the above is based on my experience as a student, talking to fellow students, and working with students in my job as an academic. I have deliberately refrained from giving highly specific advice on specific subject areas or countries, to keep this post as widely applicable as possible. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me!