Postgraduate study in science: MSc, MRes or PhD?

Postgraduate study in science

Of all postgraduates, scientists are probably the most directly employable.

A postgraduate qualification can be the starting point of a budding academic or commercial research career or set you on the right path to entering your preferred specialist area. However, you still need to be very clear about your reasons for continuing with study after finishing your undergraduate degree. You shouldn't become a postgrad just to delay career decision-making for another year or three. Start your postgraduate career as you mean to go on – with some good research and analytical thought. If you have specific aims and future career goals in mind, selecting the right course and place to study will be much easier.

MSc, MRes or PhD?

The type of postgraduate programme you choose depends on your aims. Masters-level courses are typically good for going into more depth on a subject covered in your degree. They can also be useful for gaining new specialist knowledge and taking a side step into a new but related area of science, for example, bioinformatics after a biology degree. Full-time masters courses are a year in length and can be taught (MSc) or by research (MRes). If your final-year project and courses have sparked the research bug, you might be keen to take things further with a PhD. Over three years you will conduct independent scientific research (theoretical or experimental), usually within a specialist research group at a university. Doing a PhD can be a lot of fun and you'll build good camaraderie with colleagues and collaborators, but ultimately you are in the driving seat of where your research goes and gathering results to write your thesis.

Choosing a course or programme

Your current university and the postgraduate prospectuses of other universities are the best place to start your search. Most university careers services also have information on postgraduate study. In general you need to check entry requirements for postgraduate study. Make sure that masters courses cover the content you you want. Try to find out what other masters graduates have gone on to do and look at what projects and final dissertations will be on. If you are considering a PhD, do some reading around the subject area that interests you and talk to researchers and supervisors at your current university to find out more. Locate other research groups and universities working in the field and do a literature search to find work published in key journals. You can try starting with, and your university's library services should be able to point you in the direction of other academic databases. Check the research assessment exercise (RAE) ratings for departments that interest you. Three years doing a PhD is a long time, so you need to make sure that you find a place where you will be happy and able to do your best work. The relationship you have with a supervisor can make or break a PhD. Once you start visiting research groups take the time to find out as much as you can about how a group runs and how much support you will receive. Make the most of opportunities to talk independently to PhD students and post-docs already in the group. If you are considering an experimental PhD, cast your eye over the equipment – does it look up to the job?

Finding funding

Funding for masters courses can be harder to come by than funding for a PhD. Start by investigating whether the course or department you are applying to has its own awards, scholarships and bursaries, otherwise you need to look elsewhere. Check out for general information on funding for postgraduate study. There are a number of research councils that fund scientific postgraduate study and research of a scientific nature. The main three are the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). Grants from research councils are allocated direct to departments and research groups, which pass on the money to students. You apply to do the PhD and if you are successful, you get the studentship. Some research groups may also have access to additional funding from industry partnerships. The important thing is to do your research and apply early to make sure you get the programme you want and secure the funding.

Adding value to postgraduate study

While you study and research you need to keep an eye on what's going on in the employment market and industry sectors of interest to you. Science postgraduates are employed for their specialist knowledge and skills, their ability to work independently and think analytically and innovatively, as well as their ability to conceptualise and question. However, to be most effective in a commercial environment, these need to be combined with the essential professional skills of good communication, teamwork and leadership. During your studies, try to develop these skills and build up a portfolio of experiences. Take up opportunities to go to conferences and present posters, attend summer schools and professional development programmes such as the UK GRAD programme, get experience of teaching undergraduates and use your university's facilities to gain basic business software skills. These will all add value to your CV and help you to find a position whether you choose to stay in academia or enter the commercial world of science.