Postgraduate study for the Uncertain: 5 Questions to ask yourself when considering a Masters or PhD

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Taking time to go deeper into a subject you are passionate about can be a deeply valuable and rewarding experience. Postgraduate study can enable this in the form of Masters and PhD programmes. Many subjects and specialisms are now open to you which were not as undergrad. You will develop skills as an independent learner, and direct your own research. Further study can also help get your work life aligned with your interests, progress your career and increase your earning potential too. However, for success, huge commitment is required in the form of time, money, energy and ideas. In addition, career progression does not come from the qualification alone – experience and insight into the sector are required also.

Postgraduate study is best not undertaken lightly!

Hugely rewarding and hugely challenging – how to decide? Research! Self-reflection into your motivation and expectations, plus research into your options and chosen sector will serve you well. The clearer you are on your decision to study further, the more fully you will be able to enjoy and make the most of the fantastic opportunities presented to you as a postgraduate learner.

Much support is available to help you in the process of decision making, reflection, exploring your options, and making strong applications. Great starting points include…

Here are five questions that all postgraduates-to-be would should ask themselves (ideally, before starting a course):

  • Why? What are you hoping to get out of it?

This is a crucial question, though it might seem obvious. If your motivation is a pure love of subject, it’s great to be clear on that. If you have aspiration and expectation to progress your career, it’s valuable to know this too. What do you hope to develop – particular knowledge? Skills? Contacts and links with your sector of interest? Ideas for further research? Keep these in mind as you research the different programmes and what they offer.

Do your research into your chosen field – are postgraduate qualifications required or simply preferred? Is this for entry level positions or to progress? Get to know people and organisations which interest you, find out all you can about career paths in the sector. This networking and research will be useful whether or not you decide to take on further study.

Is your motivation to buy time before you have to make a career decision because you don’t know what to do? This is not a good reason to take on further study, and only ends up delaying the important question of ‘what’s next and why?’. Book a guidance appointment immediately with the Careers Service. You can discuss your concerns and your options, and figure out some helpful next steps. Also, have a read of ‘Should I do a Masters?’ from Prospects.

  • Are you committed?

There are many benefits to postgraduate study, and the right course can be a pleasure. There are also inevitable challenges. Being aware of the challenges involved in advance will help you be prepared to meet them face on.

Cost: There is significant cost associated with further study, both in terms of institutional fees (from £4,900 per year, check with the institution), and for living expenses whilst you are studying. Part time work and part time study is an option, requiring double the amount of time to complete.

Time: Independent study allows you to direct your own research, and work independently. Your time can be your own, meaning it is down to you to commit to organising your time to study, research and meet deadlines, in the context of enjoying a balanced life.

  • Why now?

Timing is everything. There can be many benefits gained from returning to postgraduate study after a break from your undergraduate degree. Valuable insights and skills can be gained from time working, exploring different roles, getting to know yourself and your interests more clearly. This perspective can then add value to your decisions in terms of what you want to study, as well as informing the themes of your research. Many postgraduates choose to return to study having had time in industry, and then wanting to either progress professionally, or change direction, or both. If unsure of whether to embark on further study, have you considered taking time to work or travel beforehand, and the benefits this could bring?

If you are choosing to do a Masters or PhD directly after your undergraduate degree, are you clear on why this is and what you hope to gain from it? (See question 1). In any industry, a qualification alone will rarely be enough to make progress. It is worth considering how you will add value to your CV – consider using your time to also make connections and gain experience in a relevant work environment whilst studying.

  • Why this course? Why this institution? Why this country?

Be sure to make a fully informed and conscious decision on what and where you choose to study.

All courses have different specialisms and flavours, and all institutions have different cultures, themes and priorities. Be sure to do detailed research. Choose to study with institution and course which aligns with your own research interests and values. Links to industry? Focus on a particular theme? Developing a particular methodology?

There are a multitude of opportunities to study across this wonderful planet. Have you considered all your options? If your research interests lie in different countries, different regions, studying in those regions can bring huge value and opportunity, in terms of deepening your experience of language, culture, and the broadening the range of the people you encounter. There is lots to consider, including visas, cost, and language requirements.

Excellent resources can help you explore:

Masters or PhD?

This is an important question, for anyone who is considering further study. Be clear on the difference, and the benefits and challenges of each. A PhD is a 3 year minimum commitment to your research, where you will be contributing original knowledge. You will become an expert in your field, and an independent researcher. Masters are often, but not always required for a PhD.

There are some fantastic resources to support you with this question, including a SOAS Careers consultant dedicated to working with the research students, including those considering starting a PhD. Get in touch to book an appointment.

Alice Moon, PhD. Careers Consultant

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About soascareers

We are the dedicated provider of careers advice, events and information services for current SOAS students, staff and GradClub members.

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