Postgraduate students guide
Our guide to the benefits of a postgraduate degree, entry requirements, how to apply – and how to make the most of postgraduate study.
People choose to go into postgraduate education for a number of reasons:
To boost your career prospects or help you change career
A postgraduate degree on top of relevant experience can increase your earning potential and enhance your job prospects.
For some professions, a postgraduate qualification is mandatory; for others it’s desirable. Professional bodies may give guidance on what’s needed to enter that profession. Postgraduate conversion courses in teaching and law lead towards specific careers and commonly take only one year.
A postgraduate degree is as valuable in the private sector as it is in the public. An MBA may advance your business career in a way nothing else will.
Postgraduate study can also help you change career – for example, a postgraduate qualification in counselling or social work. It could also put you in touch with new contacts that may be useful once you seek work.
To learn even more or step into academia
A postgraduate degree gives you the chance to specialise in a field that interests you, advancing your knowledge and expertise in a subject you enjoy.
You’ll also develop your skills in planning, research and critical thinking – all useful skills to have in employment.
Given the UK is also a global leader in research, you could be excited about research at the frontiers of knowledge, with the hope of establishing yourself in your academic field.
To gain experience or fit around other commitments
Part-time or modular courses can fit around existing work or family commitments. They may also give the opportunity to gain work experience in a field related to your studies.
Postgraduate study in the UK is growing, increasing by over 15% since 2015 and a further spike in 2020, partly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 65% of postgraduate students are studying master’s degrees, while 10% are taking a PhD, doctorate or other research degree. Nearly 60% of postgraduate students are under the age of 30 (Postgraduate Education in the UK, HEPI, May 2020).
Study at master’s and PhD level is popular with international students – around 45% of all full-time postgraduate students in 2018 came from overseas (HESA survey). UK universities produce research with an international reputation and their qualifications are recognised across the world. Also, a taught UK master’s usually takes only one year full-time rather than the two years typical elsewhere – another reason they’re attractive to international students.
Subjects linked to employment are the most popular, with a fifth of students taking Business & Administrative Studies and high demand for Education and Subjects Allied to Medicine.
If you have work experience plus a postgraduate qualification under your belt, you’ll earn around 18% more than those with only undergraduate qualifications. Equally, it can help protect your job: in the 2008 recession, the employment of those with a postgraduate degree was affected less and recovered faster than for those who only had a first degree (Postgraduate Education in the UK, HEPI, May 2020).
Favourable student loans for UK residents at master’s to PhD level in England and Wales, and up to master’s level in Scotland and Northern Ireland, has led to a higher uptake in postgraduate degrees.
For international students, incentives for postgraduate study in the UK may include the introduction of a new post-study work visa. From summer 2021, the Graduate Route visa will mean you can remain in the UK to work – or seek work – for up to two years after you complete a degree, or three years after a PhD.
Postgraduate qualifications range from PG certificates and diplomas to master’s and PhD degrees. Some UK qualifications include an integrated master’s as part of the overall course. Note that the Scottish MA is an undergraduate-level degree.
Postgraduate courses can be research-based or taught via seminars. Students will be expected to be self-directed in their study and use the opportunity to be proactive and explore their academic interests.
Many postgraduate qualifications can be completed within a year, including full-time taught master’s degrees. Flexible options include online qualifications (including MBAs), part-time study and a growing number of modular courses.
Cost can vary greatly depending on the course and the university. MBAs and clinical courses have the highest tuition fees. Our guide to postgraduate funding looks at the options available to UK residents and international students.
Entry requirements for postgraduate courses vary by institution. Most UK universities and colleges ask for a first-class degree or a good second-class honours. Some postgraduate degrees specify that you’ve achieved a 2:1 or above, others a 2:2 or above. It may also be possible to get accreditation for prior experiential learning (APEL/APL) if you have relevant professional experience.
For a PhD you’ll probably also need a master’s degree, an MPhil or MRes, as well as evidence you know something about research procedures. Experience of working alone on a research project, or evidence of good writing and communication skills, will be useful. The latter is especially important for humanities and social science doctorates.
If you’ve gained qualifications outside the UK, you’ll want to know how they compare to the UK course entry requirements. Some university websites have details of the equivalence of international undergraduate qualifications from certain countries. If you can’t find the information you need, try contacting your preferred university for guidance. If you need a ‘statement of comparability’, you can contact UK NARIC (there will be a fee for this service).
If you’re an international student, check the English language requirements for your course at your chosen institution – you may need an IELTS score of 6.5 to 7.5. Your test must have been taken in the past two years. You’ll also need to arrange a visa. Find out more about applying and studying in the UK.
There’s no single admissions system for postgraduate degrees in the UK. Applications are usually made directly to your chosen institution. Check individual university websites for their course listings to find out how to apply and for details of application deadlines.
Some institutions use UCAS, the UK’s centralised undergraduate application system, for their postgraduate courses. Conservatoires may use UCAS Conservatoires, while teacher training courses in England and Wales are applied for via UCAS Teacher Training. Teacher training in Scotland uses the UCAS undergraduate system. A small number of institutions use UCAS Postgraduate. We suggest you always first check course listings on institution websites for details.
- Give yourself plenty of time by starting your application process one year before the course begins (some courses may have early application deadlines)
- In your application, make sure to mention your research interests and any relevant work experience you’ve gained
- When writing your personal statement, think carefully about why you’ve chosen your programme and what it means to you
- Draw up a shortlist of institutions and courses – you can apply to as many as you want but student advisers generally recommend six to eight
- Remember to check with departments about the closing date for applications
- If you’re applying for a scholarship, apply at least six months before the course begins
Firstly, make sure your chosen qualification fits your requirements. You’ll need commitment to take on the heavy workload that comes with postgraduate study.
Hone your time-management skills, so that you study when you’re at your most effective and rest when you need it most. Managing your wellbeing is crucial. Scheduling each day of the week can help.
Be organised and thorough with taking notes. Take advantage of any professional or personal development resources provided by your university to support your level of study.
If you’re choosing a postgraduate qualification in the hope of entering a particular profession, does it include emerging or in-demand specialisms potentially attractive to recruiters? Will it build your practical or professional experience? Would international study bring added insight or contacts?
If you can gain related knowledge or experience while studying – do it. Opportunities may include:
- Internships or live projects with an employer (particularly on MBAs), or setting up your own
- Guest speakers or lectures, bringing an outside perspective on current issues
- Academic conferences or seminars, to get insight on new developments
- Opportunities to learn about or be involved in innovative research
- Mentoring schemes with undergraduate students
- Networking online with others in your field through forums or social media
These can help you learn to apply skills in practice, work on collaborative projects, use lateral thinking to apply your knowledge, be involved in knowledge transfer, explore your ideas with others, or start to build an academic reputation.
In all cases, you can benefit from networking with other students and departmental staff. Your university may also have specific careers support for postgraduate students.
A postgraduate degree on its own may not help you stand out to employers. But if you decide your priorities beforehand – whether academic or work-related – you can choose the course best placed to make them a reality. Show employers that you’re aware of your key attributes and how you used postgraduate study to develop these, along with your knowledge and skills, to meet their needs
To find a postgraduate degree, check the course search on Postgraduate Search and UCAS. There’s also Prospects, the UK’s official graduate careers website. For international students, the British Council is the go-to source of information about UK postgraduate degrees.