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What Is A Postgraduate Degree? A Definition and Guide


What is a postgrad degree?A postgraduate degree is a type of qualification that is completed after an undergraduate degree. Postgraduate degrees encompass a range of qualifications, including masters degrees, Postgraduate Diplomas and Certificates, and PhDs.

One thing that all postgraduate degrees have in common is that they allow you to continue your studies in a specialised subject, and mostly require an undergraduate degree in order to be considered for entry.

Postgraduate degrees are taken for a number of different reasons, such as to move into academia and research or specialise in a career path. Some people choose to complete a postgraduate degree to change study or career paths entirely. 

There are a lot of different aspects involved in postgraduate education. If you are considering expanding your knowledge with a postgraduate degree, it’s important to understand the details.  This guide covers everything you need to know about postgraduate degrees.

Masters degree

A masters degree is one of the most common postgraduate courses completed after undergraduate study. This postgraduate qualification can take a number of different forms, but what they all have in common is that they usually require an undergraduate degree to gain entry. These forms of postgraduate degree include:

  • Masters of Arts (MA)

  • Masters of Science (MSc)

  • Masters of Philosophy (MPhil)

  • Masters of Research (MRes)

  • Masters of Engineering (MEng)


The majority of masters courses require a thesis or dissertation to graduate in addition to any coursework. In the UK, most masters courses are a year in length, apart from some professional masters courses such as Masters of Architecture (MArch) which are generally between two and three years. Most masters courses in the US are also a year in length and many masters courses in Europe are two years in length. 

MA, MSc and MPhil

Masters degrees are gained either through a taught or research course. In a taught masters, students are awarded a Masters of Arts (MA), Masters of Science (MSc) or a Master of Philosophy (MPhil)

MA and MSc are the two most common types of postgraduate degrees. MA courses focus on arts and humanities subjects, whereas MSc degrees focus on STEM subject areas.

There are variations between countries, for example in Scotland students can study a Masters of Letters (MLitt) in subjects such as Creative Writing, History and Theology. 


Postgraduate degrees can also include a Masters of Research (MRes), available through research based study, and these are awarded entirely on the basis of your own independent research. The designation of a masters course is important as for some subjects it shows the emphasis of the course as some subjects such as Anthropology can have courses with radically different approaches depending on the designation of the degree. 

MArch and MEng

Some masters courses like an MArch or a Masters of Engineering (MEng) are taken after completing the relevant undergraduate course with a long-term view to qualify as an Architect or Engineer. These masters programs are essential parts of the qualification routes and those who wish to become architects or engineers must complete them to be able to practise in their chosen career.

Other masters courses are about specialising or focussing on a career choice, especially those in the law or medical professionals. There are some masters courses that are for those graduates who already have a first degree but wish to retrain in another subject, such as a Masters in Town Planning or Journalism, for these courses it is assumed that the student has a number of academic skills that are transferable to the new subject.

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A PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) is the highest level of postgraduate qualification available that can be studied. This advanced postgraduate degree involves an element of both research and working at an institution.

The majority of students who go on to complete a PhD have already undertaken a masters course in a relevant subject. Often, this will be an MPhil or MRes, but this is not exclusively the case. It is mostly those who wish to go into academic research or teaching who decide to complete PhDs. The whole point of a PhD is further specialisation and it's not an option for changing career path.

Postgraduate diploma 

Postgraduate Diplomas are taught courses that do not require students to complete a dissertation or thesis. This type of postgraduate qualification offers the same level of study as a masters degree, but is completed over a shorter period of time because it doesn’t require a dissertation.

If you undertake a masters course but do not complete the dissertation this is the postgraduate qualification that you will probably find yourself finishing with. Postgraduate Diplomas can be a great way for those who are unsure about whether they need or want to complete a full masters course, whilst still finishing with a postgraduate-level qualification to specialise their knowledge and career skills.

There are some UK professions, such as teaching, that involve a Postgraduate Diploma (PGCE in Education) that allows graduates who did not study teaching to quickly qualify in an education profession. 

Postgraduate certificate

Postgraduate Certificates are similar to postgraduate diplomas, in that they do not require the completion of a dissertation or thesis in order to get the final qualification. This postgraduate course allows students to gain specialised knowledge in their chosen area in a shorter amount of time. A Postgraduate Certificate is shorter than a Postgraduate Diploma, making it one of the shortest postgraduate qualifications to attain.

Entry requirements

The entry requirements for postgraduate degrees will vary depending on the level of qualification, the course and the university. In most cases, you will need to have completed an undergraduate degree in order to obtain a postgraduate degree, although some postgraduate qualifications may accept students who have a suitable level of work experience in the subject area.

Higher postgraduate level qualifications, such as a PhD will usually require you to have both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in order to have a place on the course. You should always check the specific course requirements when choosing a postgraduate degree.

Postgraduate degrees: summary

A postgraduate degree is an excellent way to specialise, retrain and develop new skills in your chosen subject and career path. Postgraduate degrees tend to be shorter than undergraduate degrees, letting you efficiently gain further qualifications once acquiring basic academic skills from an undergraduate degree. 

Further postgraduate study gives students the opportunity to learn and gain a deep understanding of their chosen subject and is well worth the time and money. Having a postgraduate qualification can also help improve your future career prospects, since you have demonstrated both a deeper understanding of a subject area, and a determination to complete further academic studies.

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