7 Questions to Consider If You’re Thinking of a Postgraduate Degree
Doing a postgraduate qualification is a tempting thought, both for current final-year undergraduates and those contemplating a return to university from the workplace.
For some, it means career advancement; for others, a chance to stay a while longer in the pleasant environment of a university. A postgraduate degree can enable you to compensate somewhat for a disappointing undergraduate performance, or allow you to move between subjects. But it can also represent a year or more of time that might have been better spent in the workplace, not to mention a sizeable chunk of debt.
While you might have decided to do a Bachelor’s degree more-or-less by default, with most of your possible career paths requiring it, for most people a postgraduate degree is much more optional. This makes for a more challenging decision as you weigh up the pros and cons, all the way down to getting to wear a fancier robe at your second graduation ceremony and having some exciting extra letters after your name. If you think your decision about whether to continue in academia should be based on more than the possibility of wearing an extra-colourful hood, here are some questions to ask yourself.
1. Are you thinking of doing it for positive reasons, or to postpone entering the workplace?
The first question you should ask yourself if you’re thinking of doing a postgraduate degree is exactly what your reasons are. This might take a bit of soul-searching, as it’s easy to reframe “I just wanted to hang around in the History department a bit longer” as a dedicated commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. Here’s a way to test if that’s the case: if the degree you’re thinking of taking was suddenly unavailable at your university of choice, but available somewhere on the other side of the country, would you still want to do it? If the answer is “not at all”, that suggests it’s maybe not scholarship that’s the main attraction.
Of course, it may be that the idea of hanging around your university, or any university, for another year or two doesn’t really appeal to you at all. Perhaps the slog of essays and exams, time in the library, student accommodation and microwave meals isn’t something you’d miss or feel nostalgic for, but something you’d really like to get away from. For some people, their reasons for doing a postgraduate degree are solely about getting that extra line on the CV for their dream job, and the reality of completing the degree is an interlude separating them from the life they want to have. If you know that you need another degree for the job that you want to do but the degree itself doesn’t appeal, there are alternatives – you could look into part-time degrees or distance learning, which might enable you to get the qualifications you need while living the lifestyle that you want.
2. Do you have sufficient motivation?
Do you remember what it was like going from secondary school to university? From the days when there were endless people chasing you to get every assignment done on time – and consequences ranging from a stern telling-off to detention if you didn’t – to the days when whether you did your work or not was met with little more than a vague shrug, as your academic success or failure was entirely up to you?
Going from being an undergraduate to doing a postgraduate degree is a step of similar proportion. If you’ve entered the workplace since completing your first degree, you’ll probably find it even more of a shock to the system, as you’ll have got used to having a line manager checking up on whether you’re doing everything you’re supposed to. But if you’re doing a Master’s, the onus to motivate yourself to meet deadlines is entirely on you. Unless you have a very unusual supervisor, they will have no interest in holding your hand (metaphorically) through your studies.
This means that if you’re a chronic procrastinator, it’s worth taking some time to figure out if it’s a problem that you can overcome sufficiently to make an success of your postgraduate degree – for instance, is there anyone else in your life who can take on the role of prodding you into action now that your university tutors won’t be willing to do it? Or are there other techniques you can use to make sure you get your work done on time?
3. Are you sure you want to carry on studying?
Doing a postgraduate degree will mean doing many of the same things you did as an undergraduate, but at a higher level. That may seem obvious, but it’s a lesson that some students don’t manage to absorb. For instance, if you still have nightmares about your dissertation deadline, it may be worth considering whether it’s sensible to put yourself through that again. Alternatively, you might wish to explore options that are different from your undergraduate course; looking at research Masters rather than taught Masters courses, for instance.
If you’ve never tried life in the workplace – or at least, not the kind of office job that you may envisage yourself doing long-term – it may be worth considering applying for work experience or an internship to get a taster. Some people love academia more than any other setting, but others find that the world of the nine-to-five actually suits them better; for instance, in academia the division between work and home gets eroded, which isn’t the case in all environments. If studying is all you’ve ever known, it can be tricky to figure out which aspects of academia are common across all workplaces, and which are eccentricities that are found nowhere else.
You might also have absorbed the idea that anyone who is good at studying must continue in academia, while people who enjoy academia but aren’t necessarily at the top of their class should go elsewhere. But at postgraduate level, this breaks down; many of the best and brightest will go into careers elsewhere, and most Masters programmes require no more than a 2.1.
4. Are you happy to still be studying while your friends are working?
Whether you’ve already spent some time in the workplace, or are considering going into a postgraduate course straight after you’ve finished your undergraduate degree, it’s likely that you’ll be studying while the majority of your friends are working. Perhaps this is something you’re used to from being an undergraduate if not all of your friends went to university. If that’s not the case, though, be aware that it might change your friendships.
For one thing, if your friends are working nine-to-five jobs, you’re likely to be busy when they’re free and vice versa; your evenings might be a time when you do a part-time job, while they’re unlikely to be free for long lunches during the week. There’ll also be the fact that they’ll be enjoying the fruits of having a full-time job, while you’ll still be living on a student income.
Of course, it’s not all bad for you, on the ‘student’ side of the equation. You might well feel that you’re getting the better half of the deal, getting to spend your time studying and not having a boss breathing down your neck. And having an occasional nine a.m. class is much easier to cope with if you know lots of people who have to be at their desks by then every day of the week. But if you’re someone who struggles with fear of missing out, it may be hard to see your friends progressing through their careers while you’re still studying, even if you know that in the long run, your qualification will enable you to leapfrog them in the job market.
5. Do you know what you want to do after this?
Even if you feel quite certain that you’re not doing a postgraduate qualification out of indecisiveness, that’s belied if you don’t actually know what you intend to do afterwards. Do you want to stay in academia in the long run, going from a Master’s to a PhD to a post-doctoral position? If so, have you done much research to find out how plausible that is in your particular field, or whether you would struggle to find a permanent position? The world of academia can be tough to get a foothold in, but it varies very significantly depending on the subject and specialism. Your lecturers will be able to advise you, so do take the time to talk to them if you haven’t done so already.
Or do you plan to get a couple of extra letters after your name and then step out into the world of work? If so, do you know what kind of a career you might be looking for, and where you would want to be located? That could also affect your choice of university for your postgraduate degree; it’s easier to get a job in a city where you’re already living, and you might be able to find ways of getting your foot in the door even while you’re still a student.
6. Have you researched the possible courses sufficiently?
Often, current undergraduates don’t look beyond their own university for postgraduate courses. They know the staff, they know the specialisms, they know the courses available and they have a fair idea of whether they’d get a place, and if all of that suits them, they don’t consider going elsewhere. After all, it’s probably where their friends are, where their apartment is, and so on; there’s not much incentive to move.
However, even if you do ultimately choose to stay at your current university, it’s sensible to at least look into other options. You might find that what other universities have to offer suits you better, whether that’s in terms of the focus of the course or something more incidental like teaching hours. There can also be a mismatch between a university’s reputation for undergraduate teaching and for postgraduate research, which means that even if your university was one of the best for your subject at undergraduate level, you can’t assume the same as you advance through your university career.
Finally, even if you think that you won’t find better than your current university’s selection of courses, you can’t know that for sure until you take a proper look at the alternatives; there might be something that interests you even more. You might also find part-time courses or other flexible structures that might suit you better than a conventional full-time course.
7. Will it help your career?
This is arguably the biggest question to consider if you’re thinking of a postgraduate degree, especially if helping your career is your primary motivation! Don’t assume that a postgraduate qualification will always be a positive; some employers will simply see it as you postponing entering the workplace.
There are also some careers where being overqualified is a danger – for instance, if employers are concerned you’ll get bored, or leave the instant you sight a better opportunity. Having a Master’s is usually not a problem, but having a PhD can actually have a negative impact on your career in some fields, even as it represents a significant boost in others. You’ll want to know which category your own chosen path falls into. Furthermore, there are some jobs where pay grades mean that candidates with postgraduate qualifications are automatically paid more; good for you in principle, but not if the employer is trying to cut costs on their new hires.
And of course, not all postgraduate qualifications are created equal. Your Master’s in statistics might well be an employer magnet on your CV, while your PhD in continental philosophy could have the opposite effect. It’s unlikely you’d be facing a binary choice between the two, but if employment is your goal, it’s worth considering possible courses in terms of transferable skills as well as the knowledge that you’ll gain from them. Research skills, statistical analysis, experimental design, any teaching you might have done, project and time management and communication skills are all extremely valuable for the workplace, so choose a course that allows you to develop and demonstrate them to the full.
How did you decide whether or not to do a postgraduate degree? Share your thoughts in the comments section.