Postgraduate study

Postgraduate Study (also sometimes known as further study) means studying towards a Masters or Doctoral degree (PhD) or a Postgraduate Diploma or Certificate after your undergraduate degree.

Postgraduate study is an increasingly popular direction for graduates, but applying for courses requires thought and preparation. Thinking about what you hope to gain from further study, and the time and cost implications, will help you decide whether it is right for you.  By thoroughly researching the options available to you, it will help you to make an informed choice.

Diploma and certificate courses

These tend to be vocational – to provide further study that enables you to access a particular career area.  They normally last one full academic year and can be useful for a change in career direction.

Diploma and certificate courses are available in a wide range of subjects such as: teaching, law, housing and librarianship.

Use occupational information about different careers in the Careers A-Z section to find out whether this kind of training is required for the career area you are interested in:

Masters courses

Masters courses are either delivered as taught courses, or through research.  Taught courses will follow a similar structure to your undergraduate degree and are usually undertaken over one year full-time or two years part-time with lectures, seminars, coursework and exams. You may undertake a short research project with a dissertation at the end of your course.  Research Masters degrees involve critical investigation of a clearly-defined topic over one to two years.  You work independently with the support of a supervisor to conduct your research and are likely to undertake training in research skills.  Some students may begin a Masters degree by research with the aim of upgrading to a PhD.

Many Masters degrees are academic in nature but some are also vocational to give you access to a particular career area e.g. social work.

The titles used for degrees can seem confusing. Oxford, Cambridge and four Scottish universities (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews) award MA degrees to some or all of their undergraduate students. As a consequence, they use different titles for their postgraduate masters programmes (such as MSt or Master of Studies at Oxford and Cambridge). Other universities may award MMath, MEng, MChem, or similar titles to science students on four year undergraduate courses. Again, these are not, strictly speaking, postgraduate qualifications.

If you are in any doubt, check with the institution concerned that your understanding of the degree title is correct.

Doctorate degrees

A PhD (known as a DPhil in some universities) is the highest level of academic qualification and is available across all academic subjects.  It involves at least three years of independent, in-depth research with the support of a supervisor (five to seven years if completed part-time).  At the end you produce a thesis.  The thesis needs to make a genuine contribution to knowledge in the discipline as well as relating your findings back to existing work in the field.  It must be original and add something new. This is reviewed by external and internal examiners and you sit a viva which is an oral exam where your arguments and conclusions are tested.  Once your PhD has been awarded you are entitled to use the title of ‘Dr’.

New types of doctorate have also been created. The DEng and DBA, for example, are more focused on practical, vocational outcomes than the traditional PhD and involve a significant industrial element, and they exist alongside the traditional models for both subjects.

Practice based PhDs allow students of art, design and similar areas to combine practice and research in their subject.  Professional Doctorates are also available in some fields.  The Professional Doctorate is a doctoral qualification that is fully equivalent to the PhD, but it is focused on the application of research in a particular field.  Professional doctorates are undertaken by practitioners working in a particular career who want to apply their research in their roles, so it combines academic and professional knowledge.  For example, the School of Social Sciences here at Cardiff University offers the Professional Doctorate in Education, Social Work, Health Studies and Social & Public Policy

In the UK, a PhD is not classified. A candidate either passes, is required to make corrections or to rewrite part of their thesis and to resubmit it, or fails. In the case of failure, candidates are sometimes offered a lesser degree (eg MPhil) instead.

Useful Links:

Prospects.ac.uk - large postgraduate study section

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