Postgraduate study

After several years as an undergraduate you might be tiring of the time spent in the education system, and you may well be deeply in debt. Although many people are keen to get straight into the job market, there are some very good reasons, including financial ones, to head back to university for further study.

Because I have a passion for my subject

Library
You will certainly not survive a postgraduate degree, especially a PhD, unless you are genuinely keen on the subject matter. But is interest, on its own, a good enough reason to undertake another degree? You will need to think about how a postgraduate qualification fits into your career plans. However, you don’t have to choose something in exactly the same area (you may not even know for sure what career you are most interested in yet) as all further degrees enable you to develop transferable skills desirable to many types of employer. If you want to continue into pure mathematical research or academia then gaining a maths PhD (possibly with a Masters first) is the only possible route.

Because it will help me get a job

Postgraduate studyIt is definitely true that completing a postgraduate degree demonstrates a high level of commitment and enthusiasm for your field, and employers will take note of that. Even if the postgrad maths qualification you gain is not immediately relevant to your career direction, you should develop good skills in time management and project planning, communication, data analysis, and so on. These are all highly sought after transferable skills in any job. In either case, a postgrad qualification on your CV will give you a distinct advantage over other job applicants, particularly if most have a good first degree and the competition is very fierce. Some career areas, for example university lecturing, even require a further qualification. You will need to do your homework into the careers that interest you and decide whether a postgraduate course would be necessary, or advantageous, or perhaps the time would be better spent entering the job market earlier.

Because I can’t think of anything else to do

Postgraduate studyStarting further study because you can’t really think of anything else to do will more than likely end badly. Postgraduate degrees require a great deal of hard work, and are certainly not an easy option to buy some more time before you have to make a career decision.  If you are unsure about which career is for you, your time would be much better spent researching available opportunities, and thinking hard about where your interests and abilities lie. If need-be, move back home and get a temporary job for 6 months while you find your feet. If none of the jobs commonly seen at careers fairs or milk rounds appeal to you, don’t be disheartened. These events can provide an unbalanced view of the opportunities available to you.

Because my supervisor thinks it would be a good idea

Postgraduate studyDon’t let yourself be talked into taking on a postgraduate degree by your tutor, no matter how flattering you find it. Your tutor may recommend it to you, or try to convince you to continue work you were doing with them in an undergraduate project, or even guarantee funding for the programme. Having the support of your supervisor is of course very encouraging, but starting postgraduate work is a big decision and should be based solely on your motivations. Is the course of real interest to you and does it tie into your long-term goals? The prospect of staying at the same university with the same supervisor is also something you should consider carefully.  Another university may be better equipped, or have more active research in the specific area of maths you are interested in. You will get a wider perspective if you move to a new university, and the change of surroundings will certainly be refreshing.

You should also consider the realities of research-based postgraduate study. The moment of breakthrough can be absolutely euphoric, but the two years before-hand of stumbling down blind alley after blind alley, with no end in sight, and no meaningful results to speak of can be deeply frustrating and depressing. Finding a suitable supervisor that you can develop a good working relationship with is also crucial. You need to feel comfortable with them, communicate with each other effectively and able to understand each other’s lines of thought.

When should I start my postgraduate studies?

Postgraduate study

When to start postgraduate study is also something worth putting some thought into. You might want to begin straight after finishing your bachelor’s degree, especially if you are continuing the same research and don’t want to lose momentum. Other people prefer to take some time out, usually a full academic year, before getting back into their studies. You will come back refreshed, but there is the danger of losing the habit of study and finding it hard-going in the beginning. The year out is an excellent opportunity to travel and relax before committing yourself to a three-year PhD, or to work to pay off existing debts and save up some money.

Types of postgraduate courses

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The first level of postgraduate study is the Master’s degree, although this qualification can sometimes also be obtained from an undergraduate course. Master’s degrees can either be a taught lecture course, or be based more on a dissertation or your own research. They typically last one year.
  • The MRes (Master of Research) degree tends to be structured to prepare a student for a career in research. Individual research projects may be combined with specific taught courses and work placements.
  • The MPhil (Master of Philosophy) is a longer (usually two-year) research-based Master’s degree, and is awarded for the completion of a thesis. It is often taken as the first step towards a doctorate, with the university allowing you to convert to a full PhD if you have demonstrated your ability.

The highest postgraduate qualification is the doctorate. These are named following the traditions of the oldest universities. Cambridge names its degrees in Latin, and so a mathematics doctorate is a PhD (Philosophy doctorate) and an English one a Litt,D. Oxford uses English abbreviations, such as  D.Phil (doctor of philosophy) and D.Litt.

Depending on the institution and subject, a PhD can be started immediately following a first degree. You will almost certainly need an Upper Second class or First class degree to do this, however. Alternatively, you can apply to PhD programmes after finishing a Master’s course, or even, depending on the university, extend your Masters research into a full doctorate.

Applying for postgraduate programmes is not done through UCAS, but directly to the university or department you are interested in. The procedure varies, but you may need to fill out an application form, submit an academic CV, and attend one or more interviews.

Related Links

Prospects.ac.uk
A comprehensive careers web site for all graduates offering advice and information on various career paths, as well as employer lists and job vacancies. The site also features case studies and information on graduate destinations and salaries.

FindAPhD.com
A comprehensive guide to current scientific research and PhD studentships from many major universities and institutions throughout Europe. Also check out FindAMasters.com

Women into Science, Engineering and Construction Campaign
Women into Science, Engineering and Construction works with industry and education to inspire girls and attract them into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) studies and careers.

Jobs.ac.uk
This is one of the most important higher education recruitment websites in the UK. The jobs listed here are mainly academic. A lot of them require the candidate to have a PhD, but you can also search for PhD places on offer.

Topgraduate
This site provides a comprehensive index to the world university ranking top 550 universities and the post graduate courses they offer. It also hosts an international post-grad fair which offers prospective students face to face advice on where and what to study.