Types of Postgraduate Study

There are four main types of postgraduate degrees: taught courses, research degrees, conversion courses and professional qualifications. Here we list some of the commonly taken postgraduate degrees.

Taught Courses

Taught courses include Masters degrees and postgraduate diplomas or certificates.

  • A postgraduate certificate takes about four months whereas a diploma lasts nine months.
  • These two qualifications can provide a route to particular careers, or they can serve as stepping stones towards studying for a Masters degree. Sometimes they are awarded to people who did not complete a Masters.

A taught Masters usually takes place over one or two years and usually involves the completion of a dissertation or project.

  • Taught courses are led by a tutor, and students attend weekly seminars and lectures. You can take a Master of Arts (MA), a Master of Science (MSc), a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Engineering (MEng).
  • You can also study integrated Masters degrees, which form part of your undergraduate degree.
  • Not all taught Masters are entirely taught. You can, for example, do a Master of Research degree (MRes), which concentrates more on independent research. A MRes qualification is a taught course, but 60 per cent of it is an individual research project.

Research Degrees

Independent research constitutes a big part of postgraduate study and people usually undertake it because they love being immersed in the subject they are studying.

  • Research degrees are often called doctorates. The principal kinds of doctorate are PhDs/DPhils, integrated PhDs and professional doctorates.
  • Doctorates can be taken after a Master’s degree and sometimes after a bachelor’s degree when the Master’s is earned at the same time as the bachelor’s.
  • Doctorates usually take up to four years to complete, but sometimes longer.

The main component of a PhD is the doctoral thesis.

  • This can run to between 40,000 and 120,000 words and is a research project on a specialist topic.
  • It should contribute something new to the field of study and be capable of publication.

An MPhil is similar to a Phd but is not as challenging.

  • Instead of having to complete a hefty 120,000-word research project, you will carry out a research project of 30,000–35,000 words.
  • So, it is not as demanding as a PhD and correspondingly does not carry the same prestige, but it is still nevertheless a respected qualification.

In addition, there are some new PhDs in the marketplace. Called New Route PhDs, they have been going for 13 years and are now part of the UK postgraduate landscape.

  • These give students taught courses and practical experience alongside advanced research.
  • There are also professional doctorates, which combine professional skills with academic knowledge.
  • Both these PhDs are more vocational than traditional PhDs and are often taken by people to further their careers.

Routes to a Profession

Further postgraduate study is sometimes needed for certain careers. Postgraduate conversion courses give you a lifeline if you have not studied an undergraduate degree for the profession you want to enter. They enable you to transfer to a different subject area.

  • Conversion courses are usually one-year, taught courses.
  • These include teaching, for which graduates need a one-year PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education) in order to enter primary or secondary school teaching. Alternatively, they can take a new PGCE called School Direct where they train while teaching in a school.

Conversion courses for law, medicine, dentistry, architecture, social work and academe.

  • Postgraduate conversation courses also include the law for which you will need to take the law graduate conversion course if you have a degree other than in law and want to become a solicitor, as well as the legal practice course or the Bar Professional training course.
  • Medicine where you need to take a four-year graduate entry medical course if your first degree is in something else.
  • Dentistry where graduates of other subjects can also enter on an accelerated four-year course.
  • Architecture where aspiring architects have to take a postgraduate course in addition to their BA.
  • Social work where you will need to take a two-year postgraduate course if you have a degree in another subject.
  • And, academe where you need a Masters’ degree and/or increasingly a PhD.

Other professions – journalism, pharmacology, and engineering.

  • Masters are optional but desirable in a number of other careers. Journalism, which used to be a non-graduate profession, is now taking entrants who not only have first degrees but increasingly one-year Master’s degrees. Such degrees are sought after because of the skills students acquire and the industry links they acquire.
  • Pharmacology is an industry that is increasingly seeking to recruit entrants with postgraduate experience – for most of the job options suggested by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society a higher degree is desirable.
  • The same is true of engineering. A Master of Engineering is highly valued for a job as a chartered engineer.

Business – MBA, MSc and MA

  • Similarly, in business, a Master’s degree is increasingly seen as helping you to expand your opportunities and move, say, into a more strategic role. 
  • There is a range of degrees in business: the MBA is perhaps the best known. It lasts one to two years and is the priciest but it can help you to change career, move into a highly-paid job or gain an important promotion.
  • Then there are MScs and MAs in business that can help you to get ahead without such a big financial outlay, and some Masters degrees in finance with track records of enabling its graduates to secure well-paid jobs in the financial services sector.