Free Career Information and Advice on Higher Education in the UK (...and Europe...) for Foreign and UK Students

Choosing a Course: Postgraduate

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Postgraduate courses can be difficult to research if you are not aware where to look. It's easy to research only the universities you are interested in and to miss out on a lot of other opportunities which may be just as good or even better. Some courses, like taught Masters courses, you will have to look for in the university's postgraduate prospectus and some, like studentships and Phds you will have to find on the university's vacancy website. Generally, there is no central database, like Ucas, for postgraduate courses, even though Ucas has started offering an online application system for some courses.

ID-10019937Some of the issues relating to undergraduate courses are similar or the same however. 

So… what could be important in putting your course choice together?

 

What does the course offer in the way of knowledge and skills?

You apply for a course because it's of interest to you of course. Does the course fulfil those interests? 

  • you may want to look at the detailed course description or job description
  • try talk to students studying the course, aluni and university staff if you can
  • try and discuss your choice with tutors or the head of department on your visit to the university
  • look at the university facilities, possibly on their website but most certainly when you visit

 

What does the course offer in the way of status?

For some career prospects the status of the university, the course and the people teaching are of great importance. Examples could be: a legal career, a career in politics, a career in (science) research etc… There are some tools you can use to research this, apart from what you know already. In this sense it's important to bear in mind that Oxford and Cambridge are obvious options, but they are not the only high status options, nor are they the most high status options for all subjects. You can find out more on the following links:

  • Unistats: an excellent website, mainly for undergraduate courses but they reflect the situation for postgraduate study as well. You can find out how happy students were with their course, how many found work (even though that doesn't give you the whole story) and how they achieved. 
  • The Guardian: a similar website to Unistats with more parameters to compare. 
  • The Russel Group: a group of universities striving to support the very best research. Their member universities are generally well regarded. At the same time, bear in mind there are other excellent universities which are not part of the Russel Group.

If you can, have a look at the staff list of your chosen universities and the reputation, publications and general links of the 'key drivers' of your chosen university and your chosen faculty. How important are they in their field? 

In addition to this, the wider press and professional organisations will add to your idea of the perceived status of different courses and universities. Status only takes you so far… what the course offers generally is important as well. There is no point in striving to work for a very prestigious company with the wrong study subject under your belt. 

 

What does the course offer in the way of networking and professional contacts?

especially in a world where there are more graduates and postgraduates, and thus more competition for the best jobs and career prospects, building up a network of professional contacts is very important. It not only gives you a good supporting network professionally but it will also allow you to tap into the 'unofficial job market'. Many employment opportunities are not officially advertised but are gained through reputation or word of mouth. Any opportunities for building a strong student network will be very difficult to gauge before starting a course and are more down to luck. You can, however, explore other possibilities for networking with other professionals in your field. 

  • University staff: we all know people who have inspired and motivated us, or maybe we know examples of the opposite. If you can, have a look at the staff list of your chosen universities and the reputation, publications and general links of the 'key drivers' of your chosen university and your chosen faculty. How important are they in their field? What further opportunities can they offer for developing yourself?
  • Experience and placements: if you are doing a course where this is appropriate, contact your chosen universities to find out about placements they can offer. If a placement or work experience is part of your postgraduate course and if you have to look for your own placement, research as if you were looking for a job. explore people who are top of their field and who they work for. What are their links with 'industry' or other major players in your chosen field. LinkedIn and professional publications may be a good starting point. Starting to build up a reputation and get your name known is one of the ways by which you can take a tremendous head start or further your opportunities quicker than you otherwise would. If experience or placements don't lead to a job, at least you have the experience to put on your CV. It's a win-win situation in the long term.
  • Conferences and other events: these are excellent networking events. There is more information and suggestions on working with these in the 'Moving on…' section on this website. In the same way, it makes sense to become a member of any professional society or organisation you can and to actively take part by volunteering if you have the time. Your postgraduate course can underpin your membership and your taking part in other professional events and conferences if you are not already working in the field.
  • Online networking: LinkedIn appears to take an increasing role in building your career and linking up with people who can help you. If you are doing a postgraduate course you can 'befriend' the other people on your course and possibly university staff to give you an excellent headstart or progression. While researching a course, LinkedIn is an excellent place to have a look at the who's who at your chosen university. 

It's key not to pin yourself down to using one networking opportunity linked to your course but to use as many as you can. 

 

What does the course expect from you? How will the course expect you to work? 

page 19Before you decide, explore the course or studentship offer thoroughly to make sure it's what you want to do. Particularly explore what is requested or expected of you and how learning is going to take place. Does that fit in with your expectations and the way you best learn? If not, can you adapt? Some courses are short, but for instance for a Phd you will be engaged in this course for quite a while, possibly while keeping the rest of your life running alongside, so this is an important consideration. 

I don't need to say here that it's not the content of the course and the way the course will expect you to work which is the only important factor here. Studying is very time intensive, especially when you are maybe working alongside and when you have a family to keep happy as well. It's not an investment to take lightly and it's very important not to underestimate what is required. 

Before you engage yourself, ask lots of questions as to what is involved and/or research in another way.

  • read the course description or job description thoroughly. 
  • when you visit the university, talk to tutors, course leaders, head of departments and other students doing the same course or studentship if you can. Take into account that what students tell you may be personal opinion, so don't talk to just one and make up your own mind! 
  • look at university facilities during your visit and don't be shy to ask questions. Take someone with you for support if you feel that would be helpful. It would be a good idea to make a list of questions you want to ask before any visits and ask the same questions at every university you visit to be able to compare. 
  • talk to other people who have done similar studies or courses to the one you are about to embark on, ideally in your subject but if not, anyone will do.

suggestions for things you would like to find out about are:  what kind of work do you need to do? Is the course based on continuous assessment? If a dissertation is part of your course, who can/will be your supervisor and how often do you have access to their expertise and support? How about the amount of reading and research you are expected to do? How often are you expected to attend tutorials, lectures etc… How much one to one support is available? What additional support, such as support with study skills, is available for students?

 

Where is the course taught? Where do I find opportunities?

Applicants sometimes go straight to university websites, but it's easy to miss out on many valuable options. It would be more useful to look at a complete list of courses available and to use this as a starting point to find out where the course itself is taught. For postgraduate students, there are a number of places to look for these: 

For postgraduate taught courses and research courses:

  • Prospects: an excellent course search facility, but I'm not sure it's completely exhaustive, although it may be…
  • UKPass: a system for finding courses and applying for postgraduate courses which as yet not all universities have signed up to. 
  • Postgrad.com: an excellent database of postgraduate courses if you either register or can put up with the pop up. Good information but not always clear whether the course is a Certificate, Diploma, Masters or Phd. Search criteria yield very precise results. 
  • Findamasters: another excellent website with a good overview of courses and good overview of available information. The site looks a bit cluttered to my taste, but stick to the search facility and you'll be ok. 

For Studentships:

  • Jobs.ac.uk: THE jobsite for both jobs and studentships with UK universities nationwide. 
  • The Open University also publicses studentships on its own website, just like all other universities. 
  • Postgraduate Studentships: where studentships and funding meet according to the website… they may be right.
  • Findaphd: another part of the same website on Masters courses above.

Especially for students from the EU, the location of many universities may be a mystery until you see them on a map. This website has a map which will give you additional options on the right hand side. You can search nationally or by region.

 

Where will it lead, once you graduate?

Many people study a postgraduate course to improve their career prospects. Some will do this out of sheer interest and others out of a real passion for their chosen subject. Especially when you are hoping to increase your career options it may be important to know where things will lead.

  • One way of finding out is to search for job vacancies out there and explore what they expect. 
  • another opportunity to find out more is to talk to professionals already working in the sector you are interested in or to academics working in the field if your intention is to work in academia.
  • It may also be interesting and useful to explore the possibilities. The 'options with our subject' section on the Prospects websites could be a good starting point.

 

When will the course finish/how long will the course be?

It's often difficult to say something general about the length of each postgraduate option at university, especially when it comes to studentships and even more so when it comes to research Phds.

Most postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas may take about a year to complete. Masters may take one or two years. A Phd may take 3 years or more to complete. A lot depends also on whether you are opting to study full time or part time. As many postgraduate students are studying, the real length of the course you do may diverge from the general medium.

For every course you are interested in it would be important to find out exactly what to expect in this respect, and whether the quoted length of the course is for full time or part time study. 

 

Why do you want to study this course, and not another one?

I think talking about this would replicate what this website is all about. It's about exploring yourself and finding a course that fits in. I'm sure that, if you have worked on all the different aspects on here, you will have a good chance of being able to explain why you have chosen your particular course. 

 

Who are going to be your tutors and what additional support can you expect?

Knowing who is going to teach you or be your supervisor may answer questions about the quality of the course, whether it fits in with what you are looking for and a lot of other things. Sometimes it's useful to know what other support is out there. Some people need very little support, others would like, or need more support. Especially if you have a disability, illness or learning condition it would be of primary importance to know what your chosen university can do to help you achieve your personal best. 

If you feel you do need extra support, this is going to be at least as important as your choice of course and university, so it's  important to explore this and find out the facts very early on. To achieve this you can do a lot to assure yourself the support you need will be in place. There are a couple of things you can do to help you in this respect:

  • your first port of call could be the university website. Every university has its own support department with its own website where you can find out the basics about what is on offer. In addition to that, every university will do its best to accommodate you and to help you to be able to perform to the best of your ability. 
  • visit the university: if you need to ensure accessibility it may be very important for you, or a representative of your choice, to visit the university. This will not only ensure the university buildings will be accessible to you, but it's also an opportunity to meet up with tutors to explain your needs, and with the relevant student support department to ensure the university knows about your needs and things can be put in place before you arrive. This is especially important for your accommodation. University halls and accommodation are at a premium and you need to make sure you are housed according to your needs. 
  • many universities have a system of peer support as well. They can either buddy you up with someone or you may be able to tap into a group of experienced students for support. 
  • if you feel you need extra support from your tutor or supervisor, then it's best to let her or him know before starting, or as soon as possible thereafter. 
  • If you feel you are struggling while you are at university, it's imperative you talk to student support straight away. There have been too many people who waited too long and didn't do well as a result. 

 

How much is the overall cost of your choice going to be?

The cost of going to university doesn't stop with the course and exam fees. There are a lot of other expenses to take into account. You could build up an estimate before going to university by looking on the relevant sections on this and other websites. Alternatively, you can use this tool to help you assess what it's all going to cost. If you don't have MS Office on your computer, you can download a copy of Open Office (free and completely legal) here.

I would have liked to put some average costs on here but that would be very difficult to do because the cost of living varies widely depending on where you study. London, Edinburgh and some other major cities will be most expensive with the North East as potentially the cheapest area in the UK. Normally, your chosen university should have some estimate of local living costs on it's website. I would suggest putting 'living costs students [name of town]' in your favourite search engine to find that information easily on your university website. 

For the general day to day cost of food the MySupermarket website may help you get an idea. You need to register, which is free, and then you can put together an average shopping list to see what it will cost per week. 

In addition, there are some fixed costs like a TV licence, which you only need if you have a TV in your room.

For the cost of train journeys and coach journeys the following two websites are very useful:

  • The Trainline.com: website where you can find out what your trainjourney is going to cost.
  • Traveline: similar to the trainline.com but for bus services
  • National Express: the national long distance coach service

Also look at the 'Living in the UK' and 'Useful Links' pages on this website for more information and tools. 

 

What if you have to prove what your qualifications from outside the UK are worth?

When applying to a university abroad, it's often very difficult to compare your qualifications with those in the UK for entry to university. Universities may therefore ask you for an equivalency statement. You will have to pay to get this finalised, but it may be the only option to get into a university in the UK with qualifications from your own country. Naric can provide an easy way to do this. You can find them on:

 


Useful web addresses:

Additional websites not mentioned above:

  • www.ukcoursefinder.com: a good website you have to register for but which offer you a questionnaire to explore your interests and help you find a course, mainly for undergrads but may be useful for postgraduate students. .
  • www.opendays.com: an alternative website to find out about open days.

Exploring and finding university courses:

  • Prospects: an excellent course search facility, but I'm not sure it's completely exhaustive, although it may be…
  • UKPass: a system for finding courses and applying for postgraduate courses which as yet not all universities have signed up to.
  • Postgrad.com: an excellent database of postgraduate courses if you either register or can put up with the pop up. Good information but not always clear whether the course is a Certificate, Diploma, Masters or Phd. Search criteria yield very precise results.
  • Findamasters: another excellent website with a good overview of courses and good overview of available information. The site looks a bit cluttered to my taste, but stick to the search facility and you'll be ok. 
  • ww.open.ac.uk: the website for the Open University for excellent courses with a good reputation if you would like to study at a distance

For Studentships:

  • Jobs.ac.uk: THE jobsite for both jobs and studentships with UK universities nationwide. 
  • The Open University also publicses studentships on its own website, just like all other universities. 
  • Postgraduate Studentships: where studentships and funding meet according to the website… they may be right.
  • Findaphd: another part of the same website on Masters courses above.

Tools to compare universities and opportunities:

Travel:

Living costs:


Image1: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image2: by Flickr/mauren veras

 

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