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Applying for postgraduate courses.

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Looking for advice for postgraduate applications.

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      25.04.2008 15:02
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      A starting point for people thinking about postgraduate study

      If you are thinking of applying for postgraduate study, then you are not alone - each year, thousands of people apply to the 12,000+ postgraduate courses that are available in the UK. With the number of graduate jobs apparently dwindling over recent years (26% of employers reported a decrease in the number of graduate vacancies in 2003 alone, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters), then the number of people wanting postgraduate study in the future is likely to only increase. As the scramble for graduate positions intensifies, more people are considering postgraduate study as a means of making themselves more marketable to employers, such as by learning extra skills, demonstrating a level of commitment to a subject, or widening their knowledge in a field that complements their other qualifications. With more and more people having first degrees to offer, a postgraduate qualification may help you stand out from the crowd and get you those important interviews; employers might also value people who have shown they have worked hard and independently at this level, and someone who has secured funding in such a competitive market might be more attractive again to some bosses. But of course, employability isn't the only reason to consider postgraduate study - you could do it simply for the pleasure of studying a subject you love alongside like-minded people (yes, seriously!). If you are put off by the high cost of taking postgraduate courses, then you may be interested to know that there is good evidence that while people with postgraduate qualifications don't necessarily earn more than graduates when they enter the job market, they do tend to get promoted faster and the pay differential increases later on in careers.

      There are many different sorts of postgraduate option to choose from, from certificates (PGCert, usually two modules of masters-level study) to diplomas (PGDip, usually three or four modules of masters-level study) to Master's degrees (MA, MSc, MPhil, etc) and doctorates (PhD, DBA, EdD, etc). The first two options are taught courses, with Master's degrees being taught with a dissertation or by research (i.e. no taught element, just one big thesis), and doctorates being entirely by research (with the exception of some professional doctorates that have an element of advanced level teaching). The length of time taken would be less than a year for someone taking a PGCert or PGDip full time, with a taught Master's degree lasting a year, a Master's degree by research lasting a year with a degree of flexibility (i.e. a couple of months either side of the year to accommodate the greater variation in research than taught courses), an MPhil lasting about 18 months (again with a couple of months either side), and a doctorate being three to four years. Most colleges and universities will want a minimum of an upper second class bachelor's degree (or international equivalent) for admission to a Master's degree, and a Master's degree for admission to PhD, although there is variation and having a 2:2 is not necessarily a barrier to higher level study.

      If you decide to apply for postgraduate study, then my first piece of advice would be to make sure you actually want to do it and that you are not just doing it because you want to be a student for a another year or two. Postgraduate study is an expensive undertaking (in the order of several thousand pounds per year in fees alone), a lot of work, and if you are pursuing it with career ambitions in mind there is no guarantee of the job you are aiming for at the end of it in many cases. It is also a very different experience to being an undergraduate. If you choose to take a postgraduate taught course, you are not going to be spoon-fed the subject like many undergraduate courses have the tendency to do; the work is a lot more intense and the students are expected to be more independent (i.e. not everything is going to be in the lectures, you need to think for yourself a bit more). If you opt to take a research degree, then that independence is taken even further, as you will essentially be designing and directing your own course of study - something I suspect will frustrate, terrify or create inertia in a good deal of students. Consider why you are applying in the first place; if developing your confidence, independence, initiative and self-motivation are on your list, you could do a lot worse than applying to take a research degree.


      1) Finding a course
      With there being so many courses on offer, how do you go about finding the one that is right for you? If you are unsure of where to start, a good place to look is the Prospects website (www.prospects.ac.uk) where you can search for course by subject and location throughout the UK. Once you have a selection that interests you, you can find further information using prospectuses (most colleges and universities will have these available online) and by attending postgraduate open days. Other useful websites are www.findamasters.com, www.findaphd.com, www.jobs.ac.uk (which lists courses, research opportunities, scholarships and bursaries) and the Guardian's education section (http://education.guardian.co.uk/courses/). For those of you interested in research rather than a taught course advertised in a prospectus, it is a good idea to look for universities that have staff interested in your research area and then contact either the graduate school (or equivalent) or the staff directly to enquire whether there would be research opportunities to study under them. Even if there is nothing explicitly advertised, if an academic is sufficiently interested in your work and has the time, you might be able to get your research opportunity through this approach.


      2) Funding your course
      Whether you decide on a taught or research course, you need to give serious consideration to how you are going to fund your time at university. While some grants, bursaries and scholarships are available, competition for these is fierce and you may have to consider funding all or part of your course out of your own pocket. Unfortunately, there isn't the same level of financial support for postgraduate students as there is for undergraduates (with the exception of teacher training), and there are no subsidised loans available (although on the plus side, this means you don't need to deal with the Student Loans Company!). Only around a quarter of students starting a postgraduate course have come straight from an undergraduate degree, and I suspect that this is at least in part due to financial reasons. Many people (myself included) take a year out between graduating and returning to university to work and save up some money towards courses fees (and living expenses, etc). Other people work part time during their course (I did to some extent, working as an invigilator for exams for instance) or work full time and take their course part time (a lot of universities are becoming increasingly flexible in this area).

      There are various organisations that offer funding to postgraduate students, such as research councils (e.g. the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Medical Research Council - see www.rcuk.ac.uk/research/eligibility.htm), the British Academy, some government departments, charities and charitable trusts, and well as the individual colleges and universities themselves (see http://tinyurl.com/6frr8t and www.npc.org.uk/page/1082154863). If you are doing teacher training you may be eligible for a bursary from the Training and Development Agency for Schools (www.tda.gov.uk). There are also career development loans, which are available for students who are normally resident in the UK, intend to work in the UK and are studying for a vocational qualification (www.lifelonglearning.dfes.gov.uk/cdl.). Other good websites to look at are www.postgraduatestudentships.co.uk, www.studentmoney.org, and www.egas-online.org.uk/fwa, and you could also look at the dooyoo category on applying for a research grant (www.dooyoo.co.uk/professions-occupations/applying-for-a-research-grant/) for advice on how to proceed with these organisations.


      3) Completing the application
      You need to apply directly to the university, unless you want to do a postgraduate course in social work, in which case you apply through UCAS (www.ucas.ac.uk). The first thing to check is that you have a copy of the correct application form (there may be different ones depending on whether the course is taught or research, and there may also be variations between faculties), as submitting the wrong one is not going to endear you to any selection committee! Secondly, make sure you do everything asked of you - supply any additional documents requested in the quantity requested, make sure all relevant part of the form are filled in, and the method of completion (e.g. word processed or in black ink) is adhered to. If you hand-write your form, make sure it is neat, legible and correctly spelt throughout (you might want to photocopy the form first to give yourself a practice copy before completing the real thing). Keeping a copy of the form for yourself once it is complete is also advisable, as you may need to refer back to it at a later point (such as at an interview). Basically, you want to treat your form like a job application and take it just as seriously; if you are filling out several applications, then make sure each one is specifically target to the department/university in question.

      If you are applying for a research opportunity, then you will also need to submit a research proposal; check carefully how long this needs be and what it has to contain. Research proposals do not normally need to be very long, but they do need to demonstrate sufficient grasp of an area to know what research could be done in it (and also within the time and resource limits of the study), and with some idea of the bibliography and methodology to be used, and an awareness of any ethical issues, if applicable. I would suggest sending the form by recorded delivery so you have proof that it arrived safely, in hard-backed envelope to help prevent damage in the post.


      Good luck!


      (N.B. This review may also appear in this - or a slightly different - format on other review sites under my username).

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