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Types of master’s and postgraduate degrees

Learn about the different types of postgraduate courses: taught master’s, research degrees, conversion courses and professional qualifications.

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  1. Taught courses

  2. Research degrees

  3. Conversion courses

  4. Professional qualifications

Taught courses

Taught courses include postgraduate diplomas or certificates and master’s degrees.

Most postgraduate courses are advertised as a Master’s degree (MSc, MA, MBA) and other routes are available. A postgraduate certificate takes about four months while a diploma lasts nine months. These two qualifications can provide a route to particular careers or can serve as stepping stones towards a master’s degree. Sometimes they’re awarded to people who didn’t complete a master’s degree.

A taught master’s degree takes one or two years and usually involves completing a dissertation or project.

Taught courses are led by a programme director or course leader, and students attend weekly seminars and lectures. You can take a Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MSc), Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Master of Engineering (MEng). You can also study an integrated master’s degree that forms part of your undergraduate degree.

Not all taught master’s degrees are fully taught. You can, for example, do a Master of Research degree (MRes), which concentrates more on independent research.

Research degrees

Research degrees, or doctorates, can be taken after a master’s degree and sometimes after a bachelor’s degree, where the master’s is earned at the same time as the bachelors. They usually take up to four years to complete.

Doctorates include PhDs/DPhils, integrated PhDs and professional doctorates. The main component of a PhD is a doctoral thesis. This can run to between 40,000 and 120,000 words and is a research project on a specialist topic. An MPhil is similar to a PhD but isn’t as challenging, involving a research project of 30,000–35,000 words.

There are also New Route PhDs that offer taught courses and practical experience alongside advanced research. Professional doctorates combine professional skills with academic knowledge. They’re more vocational than traditional PhDs and are often taken by people to further their careers.

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Conversion courses

Conversion courses give you a lifeline if you haven’t studied an undergraduate degree for the profession you want to enter, and let you transfer to a different subject area.

Conversion courses are usually one-year taught courses. They include:

  • Teaching, for which you’ll need a one-year PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education) to enter primary or secondary school teaching, or you can take School Direct where you train while teaching in a school
  • Law, for which you’ll need to take the law graduate conversion course if you have a non-law degree and want to become a solicitor, as well as the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)
  • Medicine, where you’ll need to take a four-year graduate entry medical course if your first degree is in another subject
  • Dentistry, where graduates of other subjects can also enter on an accelerated four-year course
  • Architecture, where you’ll take a postgraduate course as well as your BA
  • Social work, where you’ll take a two-year postgraduate course if you have a degree in another subject
  • Masters degrees, Diplomas and Certificates in Psychology, Computing and Marketing are also often referred to as conversion courses, aimed at students without a first degree in the subject, but are looking for professional accreditation and/or entry into those career paths
  • Academic careers, where you’ll need a master’s degree and/or increasingly, a PhD

Professional qualifications

Master’s degrees are optional but desirable in a number of other careers, including:

  • Journalism, previously a non-graduate profession, which now takes entrants who not only have first degrees but increasingly one-year master’s degrees
  • Pharmacology, an industry that’s increasingly seeking to recruit entrants with postgraduate experience
  • Engineering, where a master’s degree in engineering is highly valued for a job as a chartered engineer
  • Business, Accounting, Finance and Marketing where an MBA, MSc or MA is increasingly seen as helping you to expand your opportunities and move into more senior roles, or emerging specialist areas like FinTech or Data Science. 

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