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Choosing a postgraduate program

Choosing a postgrad programThe first step to choosing a postgraduate program is working out what subject you want to study. You should know if you’re a science enthusiast or a literary genius, but at postgraduate level you will have the opportunity to narrow your subject matter down quite a lot more than you did as an undergraduate.

For example, you may think you want to study an MA in English Literature, but if exploring the works of Shakespeare was your favourite element of your undergraduate English degree, you might prefer studying an MA in Shakespeare Studies instead.

Once you have a list of possible masters degrees that are of interest to you, it’s time to move to the second phase of choosing, which involves a careful comparison of the individual postgraduate programs and their respective universities.


How to choose a postgraduate program

What factors should you consider when choosing your postgraduate program? Choosing a university and postgraduate program is very much an individual decision and will depend on a wide range of factors. Broadly speaking, the factors to consider can be divided into two groups:

Academic factors – relating to the program and the university.

Personal factors – relating to what is important in your own life and experiences while you are studying.

Academic factors

The main academic factors relate to the content and organisation of the postgraduate program and its quality.

If you are looking for a masters degree then you will need to decide whether you want to do a general program in your subject, which will probably allow you to take some specialist topics of particular interest, or whether you want a program that is highly specialised. This will determine whether there is a wide or narrow choice of programs open to you.

If you want to study a PhD program, choosing how much you want to specialise is also important, but you options are likely to be quite narrow because the academic staff with expertise in your specialist area who can supervise your research might only be found in a small number of universities.

Consider what’s best for you

Whether there is a large selection of postgraduate programs in your field or only a couple, you will want to identify which is the ‘best’. But ‘best’ can be a difficult concept, as it can depend on how you measure it. You have to decide what makes a program ‘best’ for you.

The list below shows some of the academic factors that might be important in deciding which program is ‘best’:

  • The program is in one of the most prestigious universities.
  • The program is taught by well-known researchers.
  • The program has a high reputation for the quality of teaching.
  • There is a good ratio of staff to students.
  • The program has excellent teaching resources, eg computers, workshops, laboratories, etc.
  • The program has access to an outstanding library.
  • Graduates from the program mostly get excellent jobs afterwards.
  • The program attracts large numbers of students.
  • The program has many specialist options within it.

What’s best for PhD students?

In addition, for a Doctoral program you might want to add the following to the list:

  • All students have their own desk and computer.
  • There are several research students each year working in your particular field.
  • The research training program has good ratings and a strong reputation.
  • The department has a number of students with prestigious scholarships, indicating it is highly regarded for research training.

Personal and social factors when choosing a postgraduate program

You will also have to consider factors that are much more personal when it comes to choosing your postgraduate program, and these depend on how you want to live your life and spend your time while you are a postgraduate student.

Personal factors include postgraduate accommodation, social life, cultural life in the university and the nature and character of the town or city that the university is in. Here is a list of some of these factors:

  • Does the university have accommodation in university residences available for international postgraduate students?
  • Does it provide accommodation for students who have their families with them?
  • How close to the university will you be able to live?
  • Does the university have a large community of international students?
  • Does it have a large community of students of your own nationality/faith?
  • Does the university and the department have good social facilities and arrangements for postgraduate students, eg common rooms, eating facilities, clubs and societies?
  • Does the university have specialist facilities for your preferred cultural needs, for example a Muslim prayer room?
  • Do you want to live in a large city, a smaller city or a smaller town or rural area?
  • Do you want to live in or close to London?
  • Do you want to live in a historic city or a modern or industrial city?
  • Do you want to live with good access to attractive countryside and/or the coast?
  • Will the cost of living in a particular town or city be relatively high or low?

Think about your strengths and weaknesses

What are you good at? Even if you don't love it with all your heart, there is something to be said about working in a field you excel in. Write down all your strengths and weaknesses and compare this with what you enjoy. You're bound to have overlap, and this overlap will guide you to what you should study next. This knowledge about yourself will help in your application and interview for your dream course.

Give yourself plenty of time to do research

Don't rush the decision to do a postgraduate course and don't rush the research. It'll be both wasted time and money if you choose a postgraduate course that's not for you. Think about where you want to study and how you want to study. Do you want to study overseas and learn another language or experiencing another culture?

Assess the quality of courses by checking out reviews of institutions and spend time at open days and information sessions getting all the facts you need to make a decision. You'll also want to think about how you are going to study. Will full-time study be for you or would part-time, online or distance learning fit better with you and your life?

Talk to people with experience

Although you can get the factual answers to many of these questions from university prospectuses, handbooks and websites, bear in mind that what often makes a place a happy one is the chance set of friendships that you will make and the general feel and comfort of the place.

A university that answers ‘yes’ to every one of your questions may still not be the best place for you to attend, and often students who have by chance gone to a university that at first sight did not seem to meet many of their criteria have a wonderful experience as a student.

To get the full picture it is always worth asking people who have attended the university you are considering when choosing your postgraduate program. Wherever you are in the world you will find people who have attended specific universities, particularly through online social groups. In addition to this, many universities have alumni societies in other countries who can arrange for you to meet and talk with a former student. Details of alumni groups will be on their website or in their prospectus.

Talking to people with postgraduate experience will be a big help. Students who have just completed a course will be invaluable as they will already know if their institution is the best place to study your area of interest or not. Are the teaching and networking opportunities really as good as at the other institutions you’re considering? Former students will know which tutors and lecturers are good and where they are based.


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