Deciding what you want to do when you graduate can be pretty nerve wracking and can be easily forgotten when you are busy doing coursework, getting ready for exams and just enjoying your undergraduate degree. When I first started to investigate the idea of doing a masters I found it hard to find clear and simple information in one place. Naturally I had lots of questions and it took a long time before I found the answers I was looking for.
All this made me think I should put together some basic information regarding masters study along with a few of my personal experiences and tips. Not only for those who know for sure they want to do a masters, but also for those who want a quick crash course in all things masters related.
Some helpful steps to finding the masters for you:
- Speak to your university careers adviser.
As part of the Lincoln award I had a careers meeting with my course specific adviser, and I’m really glad I did. The meeting was around 45 minutes and we discussed the areas I was interested in pursuing after graduation and where I could find more information regarding these choices. I would definitely recommend booking a meeting with your careers adviser and talking through your options, as they have lots of really useful information and connections they can put you in contact with. If you attend the University of Lincoln you can email the careers department with your query and find out who your specific course adviser through this link.
- Consider whether you want to do a taught or research masters.
When I first started to investigate the idea of continuing my study through a masters, one of the most important decisions I had to make was whether I wanted to do a taught or research masters. The exact structure of a masters varies based on what subject it is based in, for example: MSc and MScRes (Science based subject – Like myself and several of my good friends), MA (Arts based subject – Like Sarah from Newbiescience), MBA (Business based subject), MEd (Education based subject), LLM (Law based subject). In this post I will be focusing on MSc and MScRes as these are the areas I have experience in! In case you aren’t sure what the difference is, here is an explanation:
MSc: A taught masters usually takes 1 year to complete full time and has a similar structure to the final year of most undergraduate degrees.
Usually your year of study is made up of two main parts: taught lecture/seminar style sessions and an independent research project. As you are required to attend lectures/seminars, taught masters enrollment usually starts around the same time as undergraduate, in September. My friends who are completing taught masters in Biotechnology and Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of Lincoln have their year structured the following way: Lecturers/seminars from September to May, then independent time to work on a project until the following September. Again the way in which these components are structured is down the place you choose to study, so it is definitely worth asking them specifically.
The application process for taught masters is very similar to an undergraduate degree, however instead of using systems like UCAS, you can either create an account on the website of your chosen university or apply by requesting forms (This can be seen here on the University of Lincoln application page). This application consists of a personal statement and may also involve an interview. The assessment process is also similar to the last year of an undergraduate degree, in that you are assessed based on a combination of assignments and coursework from the first part of the year and a thesis/dissertation write up from the second part of the year (This can be seen here on the University of Lincoln Biotechnology taught masters information page).
As a result of this format, taught masters are brilliant for those who much prefer being given a structured schedule and really thrive through focused academic driven study, but who also want the chance to complete research work. Taught masters are also good for students who are coming from an undergraduate degree that may not have been in the masters they wish complete, or did not significantly feature the specific subject area they want to pursue.
MScRes: A research masters also usually takes 1 year to complete full time, however unlike a taught masters you have the whole year to complete your own chosen independent research.
When you consider a research masters the first thing you will need to think about is in what area you would like to research. Once you have decided on this, it is then up to you to inquire at different institutes to find an academic member of staff working in the area you are interested in. This member of staff will most often end up being your first supervisor and therefore be the person you work most closely with. You will also have a second supervisor who is familiar with your area of research, but you may also have a larger supervisor team depending on the area of your work. As a result of this, the structure of your year will be entirely based on you and your supervisor team decisions. Unlike a taught masters, a research masters can begin at any point during the academic year, however many students choose to begin in September along with undergraduates and taught masters students, or in January.
The application process for a research masters is similar to a taught masters in that you are required to create an account on the website of your chosen university or apply by requesting forms. However, the application itself is slightly different in that you are not always required to submit a personal statement, but more a brief description of the research work you wish to undertake. You may also be required to attend an interview. The assessment process for a research masters consists of informal meetings with supervisors throughout the year, presentations at internal and external meetings and finally at the end of the year by a thesis and viva – an oral examination (This can be seen here on the University of Lincoln Biomedical and Medical Science research masters page).
As a result of this format, research masters are great for those students who want to focus on gaining hands on experience of practical research and enjoy a lot of freedom in regards to their own schedule. Research masters are good for those who feel confident in the particular area they want to research, or don’t mind the challenge of working independently and actively learning through experience.
If you are struggling with this decision and are unsure what would be best for you, I think it is important to consider what your particular learning and working style is like. If you are still uncertain, it may be useful for you to seek advice from a member of staff who knows you and your academic work well and who has experience of completing either a taught or research masters.
- Considering PhD study?
As a side note I feel like I should mention PhD study. PhD study is similar to a research masters in that you are conducting your own independent research and are supported by your supervisory team. However, PhDs typically take 2 years to complete, require annual progression reviews and the official progression from MPhil to PhD (Usually around 2 years). In the current academic and economic climate getting accepted onto a PhD from undergraduate study can be particularly difficult. You may be discouraged from applying straight for a PhD study due to the preference of institutes to take on PhD students who are already well trained and prepared for PhD study. The idea being that they do not want you to take a year to become comfortable and therefore only realistically have to years to research. In fact some institutes may recommend that the possession of a masters may put you in a better position to compete for a PhD position, and therefore may be something you want to consider. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply for PhDs as an undergraduate! Especially if you have extra support from academic members of staff, financial support for your research and previous experience to persuade them that you are capable.
- Utilise helpful online resources.
When I met with my course specific careers adviser for the first time, she showed me the website Find A Masters and I am very glad she did! If you are uncertain what area you want to do a masters in, whether to chose a taught or research masters or aren’t sure which institutes run the course you are interested in, this website is really useful. You can start by just selecting a discipline, for example Medical and Health Sciences and browse through the variety of masters currently available or you can be much more specific and just look for masters in particular subject, for example Haematology.
- Ask current or graduated masters students for their advice.
One of the most valuable things I did before deciding to apply for a masters was speak to both current and graduated masters students. I was lucky enough to know a few students, at different stages of their masters who I could ask for advice, however if you don’t you can always ask one of your lecturers for their advice or if they know any students who would mind speaking to you. If possible try to speak to something who is working in the area you want to be in as then they can give you more specific advice. The advice that they gave me was really honest and this was incredibly helpful when it came to making my decision between taught and research masters.
- Choose an area that you are really interested in.
I know this may sound obvious, but sometimes it is easy to let yourself get persuaded to undertake a masters in a subject you aren’t completely sold on. Especially if you are doing a research masters, make sure you really love the area you decide to work on as you are going to need something to make you want to drag yourself out of bed at 7am (Because trust me no one is going to be making you!) and make you want to keep repeating an experiment that has failed 60 times already…
If you decide you aren’t happy, and you are doing a taught masters, this is more difficult to fix as half your year is set in stone (Unless you have elective modules). Of course you do have your independent research project to maybe adjust the area to something you are really interested in. With a research masters, although you can’t really make any major subject changes you do have the opportunity to move your research towards whatever direction you are most interested in. This is a constantly changing process, that is ultimately based on your findings throughout the year.
- Plan ahead and make valuable connections.
If you are interested in staying on at the university you are currently studying at, or have previously studied at start by making connections. If you can, definitely arrange a meeting or just show an interest with a lecturer you know works in the area you might want to do a masters in. Like many science based undergraduate degrees, my final year consisted of an independent research project. We were given a variety of topic titles to choose from, which covered a selection of areas, including microbiology, oncology and biochemistry. Many people already knew the area they wanted to pursue careers in by final year, but if you aren’t sure you can really use this project to experience a particular field of study. In fact, several of my friends ended up on their masters as a result of showing interest during independent research projects and through working with members of staff in their field of interest – so it is definitely worth doing!
- Plan a visit to the institutes you are interested in.
When I was considering where I wanted to apply for a MScRes, I only had two places in mind: The University of Lincoln and The University of Nottingham. As I already attended the University of Lincoln, I decided it was very important that I visit Nottingham and the university. Not only to get a feel for the place but also to meet with someone in the department I would be based in. Most institutes have a staff contact section within the college or school you are hoping to be based in, contact information at the bottom of the course details or can be obtained through the postgraduate department. I checked these areas on the University of Nottingham website and found the details for my course of interest’s module coordinator. After a few emails, they were happy for me to come visit the university and I also arranged an informal meeting with the module coordinator. The visit was really worth while, as it allowed me to ask plenty of questions, visit the university campus and laboratory facilities. I would definitely recommend contacting someone at the institute you are interested in, whether just by email, over the phone or for an informal meeting.
- Think about finances.
Unlike undergraduate degrees there is no government finance for postgraduate study. There are a number of options when it comes to paying for your masters, these include: Self finance, Taking out a professional and career development loan, applying for grants/bursaries, sponsorship and scholarship.
Self Finance: If you are lucky enough, your masters can of course be self financed. Whether that is by personal savings or by a very kind relative! When you enrol, you just need the card details of the bank account you wish to use and you can pay the whole amount straight away or set up scheduled monthly payments (Details on how payment can be made at the University of Lincoln can be seen here).This will depend on the institute, so it is definitely worth asking them specifically.
Professional and career development loan: If you cannot afford to pay your course fees straight off, and need some financial assistance you can take out a professional and career development loan. You can to borrow from £300 to £10,000, are not required to pay interest while you are studying and are offered flexible repayments when you finish studying (Most also offer 1-2 months free interest after you finish your course). Definitely be aware of the amount of interest that you will be charged when you finish your course, as you will most likely need to be in full time employment/have a regular income in order to make repayments. These types of loans are available through Barcleys and the Co-operative bank. If you do decide to take out a loan to pay for your course fees/accommodation costs, bear in mind that banks require an acceptance letter/proof of your study from your institute before they will be able to loan you any money. This can delay things quite a bit, so make sure you give yourself at least 3 months (Possibly more…) to get everything sorted. For more information check out these links, give them a ring or visit in store.
Grants/bursaries: If applicable to your research you may be able to apply to research councils and within your institute for grants and bursaries. These will vary based on your institute, so I would recommend asking them specifically.
Sponsorship: Generally comes from employers, if they feel as though postgraduate study would benefit you as an employee, or under the circumstance you work for the company after completing your masters. The exact details of sponsorship will vary based on your employer and institute, so I would ask them specifically.
Scholarship: Some institutes offer both individual scholarships that may require application and interview, alumni scholarship and international scholarship. Some scholarships may pay your course fees and/or supply you with a bursary under the circumstance that you do a certain amount of demonstrating or teaching within the institute. The exact details will vary based on your institute, so ask them specifically.
A Day in the Life…
Adolescent career education (2013) Careers signpost [Electronic image] Available at: http://adolescentcareereducation.com.au/useful-links-for-senior-school-students/ [Accessed 15/10/2013]
Findamaster (2013) Findamasters logo [Electronic image] Available at: http://www.findamasters.com/ [Accessed 16/10/13]
University of Loughborough (2012) Mature finance [Electronic image] Available at: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/mature-students/finance/ [Accessed 15/10/2013]