Entry requirements for postgraduate students

An important question every potential postgraduate student will ask is ‘What are the entry requirments for my chosen postgraduate programme and will I have the qualifications to be offered a place on the programme?’ Qualifications are important, of course, but universities make their decisions about whom to accept onto their postgraduate programmes on a range of factors. Some of these entry requirements will be formal educational qualifications that you either have or expect to have, but others will include your English language skills, and what is said about you in the references that you provide. Others will depend on the university’s judgement about whether it can provide you with a suitable programme. So, for example, many postgraduate programmes will have quotas – a maximum number of students that can be accepted on to the programme, which is affected by the number of teaching staff available and the teaching resources such as computers and library resources that are provided. In addition, it will also depend whether your individual specialist needs can be met. For example, if you are applying to do a Doctorate it will depend whether the department you are applying to has a member of academic staff who can supervise your research project. Let’s look at each of these factors.

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Postgraduate entry requirements: academic qualifications

Whatever the postgraduate programme you want to apply for you will need to have, or expect to get before you join the course, a first or Bachelor's degree of a good standard. If you want a place on a Doctoral programme you will probably also need, or expect to have, a master's degree of a good standard.

Every country in the world has its own school system, higher education and academic qualifications, and while there are very many similarities between the systems, each is unique in detail. One of the issues in higher education is that the title and academic level of first-degree qualifications varies between countries, and in some ways an academic qualification is like currency for international travellers – the currency has to be acceptable in the country where you want to spend it, and it will have a value which reflects the international exchange rate.

When universities in the UK indicate that they require a good first degree as an entry qualification to a Masters degree what they really mean is either a degree from a UK higher education institution or a qualification from another country that is at the same level and standard. So, the key thing is to know whether your degree is seen as equivalent in standard to a British first degree.

There are two parts to this. The first is whether the level of your qualification is equivalent to a British Bachelors degree at Honours level. The second is the level of your final achievement in that qualification.

Many countries now assess their degrees using grade point averages (GPAs), which is the average score achieved across all the courses within the degree programme. While there is now some early discussion about whether British universities should use the same system, they currently use a degree classification system. This means that the final degree a student is awarded is graded as follows:
• A first class honours degree is the highest level of achievement, normally representing an overall mark of at least 70%.
• An upper second class honours degree (usually called a 2:i – ‘a two-one’) represents an overall mark of more than 60%.
• A lower second class honours degree (usually called a 2:ii – ‘a two-two’) represents an overall mark of 50%.
• A third class honours degree normally represents an overall mark of 40%.
• A pass degree normally represents an overall mark of 35%.

To be accepted on to a master's programme you will normally need the equivalent of at least a lower second class honours degree, and for popular and competitive programmes this will normally have to be at least an upper second class honours degree. To be accepted on to a Doctoral programme you will normally need to have a Masters degree already, although exceptionally a student with an excellent Bachelors degree may be accepted.

This is all explained in much more detail in Chapter 3 of the book Postgraduate Study in the UK by Nicholas and Rosalind Foskett (from which this text is extracted).

Professional experience

Most postgraduate degree programmes do not require you to have professional experience as well as academic qualifications. However, in some fields, such as medicine, education, social work or business, you will normally be expected to have between two and five years of experience in your profession before entering a Masters programme. This is because the programme is focused in part on practice, and is regarded as both a higher degree and as a postgraduate professional development programme.

English language expertise

All degree programmes in the UK are taught in English. This means that you will need to be able to show that you have a good enough knowledge of English to be able to understand and follow the programme, to be able to read academic literature in English and to be able to write your assignments and dissertation/thesis with an acceptable standard of English. There are normally four indicators that show you have an acceptable standard of English language:

• If you come from a country where English is the everyday language, and where the education system operates in English, for example Australia, Jamaica, most of Canada.

• If you have completed your first degree at a university in which the language of teaching is English, for example if you are a student from China who has completed their first degree at a university in Australia or the United States.

• If you attend an interview for the programme and can demonstrate that your spoken and written English is of a high enough standard.

• If you have a formal qualification in English language that meets the minimum standard the university requires.

For most international applicants it is the fourth of these that is the usual way of showing English language competence. Each university sets its own minimum standards, so you will need to find out from the university website or from their prospectus what those standards are. However, there are some common standards used by most universities and these are minimum levels achieved in recognised international tests of English language ability.

More, including further information about English language tests and qualifications, is provided in Chapter 3 of the book Postgraduate Study in the UK  by Nicholas and Rosalind Foskett (from which this text is extracted).

A good personal statement

To apply for a place on a postgraduate programme you will need to fill in an application form for each university. Most universities include on their form a section in which you are asked to make a personal statement about why you are applying for the course and why you feel you are a good applicant for the programme. This will be read carefully by the admissions tutor for the programme, particularly where there is strong competition for places on the programme.

You will need to show in this statement that you have a good academic record, that you are a well-motivated, well-organised and hard-working student, and that you have good reasons for wanting to do the course. It will also be a way in which the admissions tutor checks your standard of written English. The things you should write about in your personal statement therefore are:

• Your own academic achievements.

• Your special academic interests.

• Why you want to take the postgraduate programme you are applying for.

• What you will contribute to the programme.

• If you are applying for a Masters programme, then explain what you think at this stage you might want to study for your research project for your dissertation.

Spend time drafting and redrafting this statement and ask somebody else to check your English and comment on what you have written.

Good references

You will be asked on the application form to give the details of two or three people who can write a reference about you that supports your application. The important thing is to check first how the university you are applying to organises references, and follow their requirements.

One of the most common reasons for a university not being able to send you an offer of a place quite quickly is that referees take a long time to send back their references. It is a good idea, therefore, to ask your referees well in advance so they can prepare a reference ready for when they are asked to provide it, and to politely remind them to respond to a request quite quickly. If you know that one of your referees will be away on leave or on sabbatical, then you may prefer to choose somebody else to be your referee.

Who should you ask to be your referee? They need to be people who can write about you as a student and about your academic achievements. Most applicants choose two people from the university where they studied their first degree or, if they are applying for a research degree, their Masters degree.

If it is some time since you were at university you should still use one referee from your university, but you might want to choose a second referee who has known you well since then. This needs to be somebody who can comment on your skills and intellectual ability and make a judgement about whether you will cope well with a Masters or Doctoral degree. Your employer might be fine, particularly if he or she is a senior professional and either has a higher degree or understands the nature of postgraduate degrees. Do not, however, use family or personal friends since their judgement will not be seen as objective.

A good research proposal

In many academic disciplines, if you apply to join a Doctoral programme you will be applying to undertake a research project that has already been chosen by the department you are joining. A research proposal is simply an outline of what you intend to do for your research, and will include:

1 A proposed title or subject for the research

2 Some background and context to explain why this is an important topic to research

3 A suggestion for the research methodology you will use, and how you plan to organise your research. This might include some idea of what data you need to collect, how you will collect the data and how you might analyse the results.

It will normally be 1,000–2,000 words in length.

This is all explained in much more detail in Chapter 3 of the book Postgraduate Study in the UK by Nicholas and Rosalind Foskett (from which this text is extracted).

Useful links:

How to apply for a master's degree

Assessing postgraduate programme quality

Researching postgraduate programmes

Making the choice

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