Why do postgraduate study?
Postgraduate study is an opportunity to study your chosen subject in more depth and enhance your career. There are some important factors to consider when choosing a course and deciding when to go back into higher education (HE).
What to consider
Why do you want to do further study?
Before you decide to do postgraduate study, consider your motives and decide what it is you want to achieve. People do further study for a number of reasons including an interest in the subject, to gain a career advantage, or because it is necessary for entry or advancement in a particular occupation.
Will you enjoy it?
Research all your options to find the right one for you. Look at the prospectus, visit the institution and talk to the tutors to see if the subject matter, teaching styles and research methods will suit you. If you're considering a research post such as a PhD, talk to current doctoral students about their experiences, and make sure you get on with your proposed supervisor before you agree to the post.
Can you afford it?
Further study can be very expensive but funding may be available in the form of government loans, scholarships, bursaries, research council grants or employer sponsorship. Additionally, many universities offer alumni discounts.
For those domiciled in England, there is a new postgraduate government loan scheme for masters courses. Loans are available for full-time, part-time and distance learning courses.
In Northern Ireland, new postgraduate funding will be available from 2017 onwards. The Scottish and Welsh governments are considering introducing similar schemes but details are yet to be finalised and for now, the existing funding arrangements continue to be available.
Eligibility criteria, including details of nationality, residency, age and previous study, apply to all postgraduate loans.
If you are planning on studying for a separate postgraduate course immediately after completing your undergraduate degree you should contact the award making body that funded your first programme of study. If you have worked or taken time out after your first degree you should contact the award making body where you are ordinarily resident.
Before getting a loan, assess whether you will be able to pay it back after you graduate. The English postgraduate loan scheme has to be repaid at the same time as the undergraduate loan.
PhD loans of up to £25,000 have also been announced by the government for 2018. Anyone considering a PhD should fully research the current funding possibilities such as studentships and research council grants.
Will it improve your career prospects?
Further study can demonstrate enhanced technical and transferable skills and a commitment to your subject, for some careers it may even be a requisite. However, don't assume that a higher qualification will automatically help you get into your chosen career; some graduate employers look more favourably on experience than additional qualifications. Postgraduate qualifications may increase long-term earnings, but they do not usually merit higher starting salaries.
Is it necessary to get into your chosen occupation?
The usual path into many careers, such as teaching, law, social work and librarianship, involves a professional postgraduate qualification. However, in recent years, career routes have diversified so you may be able to enter these roles with a range of alternative qualifications. Therefore, if you are considering further study in order to join a particular profession, research all the routes into your chosen role before choosing the best one for you.
Will it buy you some time?
Whether you want more time to decide what to do or you think the job market may be better after you finish a postgraduate course, don’t just use postgraduate study as an excuse to procrastinate. You need to think about what the benefits are of doing a particular programme, and what your priorities are for getting work experience and getting contacts along the way.
Can you build useful networks?
Networking is a crucial element of career development. Make sure you choose a postgraduate course that gives you wide access to professionals in your chosen field.
Will it help you change your career?
Further study might be advisable if you want to get into a career that isn't linked to your degree, or if you have started work and want to move into a new field. You could do a wide range of courses, such as a masters, a conversion course or a PhD. However, be aware that the majority of graduate employers do not require a specific degree or further qualifications. So before you take such a major step, make sure that your new qualification will enhance your opportunities. Conversion courses can be very useful for graduates with general degrees who wish to take a vocational direction such as law or psychology.
When should I study?
Straight after your degree
If a course requires up-to-date knowledge and skills there is a clear advantage to signing up immediately after your undergraduate degree. This will ensure you don’t get out of the habit of studying. Immediate postgraduate study could help you in your career by giving you a unique selling point in your job applications, refocusing your skills or providing you with a professional qualification. On a personal note, it will probably involve less turmoil at this stage if you just carry on with your studies rather than uprooting yourself mid-career.
After a break
The main reason for taking a break before postgraduate study is that you will gain important skills and experience that will help to maximise the impact of your new qualification. Whether you take time out from your studies to work or travel, it will give you a chance to improve your CV and make yourself more attractive to employers. Some postgraduate qualifications, such as social work or some MBAs, require a minimum period of employment experience before you can even start the course. The personal advantages to taking a break are that you will be refreshed and you can save up some money to fund your studies.
While you are working
Many graduates continue in some sort of education/training even when they have found work. You could study during the evenings and weekends or your employer may allow you to take study leave. Studying and working simultaneously will enable you to put theory into practice and will help you to develop your career. However, it can be very tiring, especially if you have other commitments, so you will need to be motivated and enthusiastic if you are going to succeed.
This is an option if you want to take a further qualification to progress in your career or enter a new field. Make sure that the qualification you are considering will be beneficial before you hand in your notice at work. The advantage of this option is that you can save up the money you need and will have a range of skills to bring to the course and your future career. On the other hand, you have to ask yourself if you can afford to live without your salary and if you will have the energy and opportunity to reinvigorate your career once you have finished your study.
Written by Fiona McNamara, University of Liverpool, November 2016