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Types of postgraduate degrees

Postgraduate study builds on the knowledge gained in undergraduate study, offering you the chance to become an expert on a topic and have more experience of independent research.

Before applying for postgraduate study, it's good to get an idea of what to expect.

Graduate programs at universities often work towards a master’s or PhD, and come with a heavy workload; this means they won’t be suitable for everyone, and students need a lot of commitment towards their chosen program.

The differences between undergraduate and postgraduate degrees

  • Knowledge: with a postgraduate degree you’ll have to gain a deeper understanding of complex topics in a shorter amount of time
  • Independent working: you’ll be researching and learning by yourself a lot more than you were at undergraduate level
  • Workload: essays, dissertations and theses will all be substantially longer, with more reading to do
  • Cost: postgraduate study can work out more expensive per year
  • Classes: for postgraduate study you’ll be in smaller classes

As a result of completing a master’s you are perceived as more qualified in that subject area than someone with only a bachelor’s. Likewise, upon completing a PhD you would be considered at the forefront of research and knowledge in your subject area.

Master’s degree

Master’s degrees are the most common graduate programs. They normally require a student to have completed a bachelor’s degree before starting. There may be conditions attached to an offer of postgraduate study, for example the level you achieved in your bachelor’s, or whether you have studied a particular subject before.

Taught or research master’s

If you are studying a taught master’s it will be a similar structure to an undergraduate degree, with credits to fulfill on classes, or a program created to provide you with specific transferable skills or vocational training. These type of master’s often require more credits to be completed than at undergraduate, reflecting the added difficulty of this level of study.

A research master’s is a type of master’s degree where you create one piece of work at the end of the course, usually in the form of a thesis. It is a shorter version of a PhD, and is the ideal preparation if you wanted to do a PhD.

How long it takes to get a master’s degree

Full time, a master’s degree will take anywhere between one and two years depending on the university.

PhDs

Along with doctoral degrees for specific professions, PhDs are the highest level of academic degree. PhDs focus on academic research with very little taught aspects. The goal of a PhD is to contribute to your subject area with new and original research, which you’ll compile in a thesis.

How long it takes to get a PhD

As a PhD is an unstructured program relying on independent study, so the time it takes to achieve one can vary a lot depending on the person and the university. Generally, a PhD full time will take between three and four years, but you will often have the opportunity to study part time for a longer duration.

Reasons to do a master’s or PhD

  • Improve your career prospects: whether you need a higher qualification for your chosen career, or simply want it to put you ahead of the competition, getting a second degree can help you with your career prospects.
  • Gain academic recognition: with these types of degrees you can contribute to the research on a subject rather than simply learning about it. If you’re interested in a career in academia then you’ll have to work towards a PhD.
  • Update your knowledge: if it’s been a while since you did you bachelor’s degree, then you may want to return to study to learn about the latest findings in your subject area.
  • Learn more about your interests: maybe there was a topic that you didn’t get to study in undergraduate, or you have specific interests that lend itself to a master’s degree. Taking up postgraduate study could be a great way to make your hobbies or interests part of your education.