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Dating all the way to the natural philosophers of ancient Greece, we can see that Europe has a long history with science. Beginning with the early mathematicians of Athens, then being taken up by great thinkers of the Renaissance, to the development of the modern scientific method in medieval European universities – many of which are still going strong today – Europe has had a profound impact on our scientific study of the world around us.
Today, we see strong scientific investment in European nations, with collaborations leading to projects like CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), the European Space Agency, and major contributions to the recent Human Genome Project. The continent of Europe is rife with universities, and many, such as Oxford, Cambridge and ETH Zurich consistently rank in the world’s top 20 universities across all of the sciences, both for undergraduate and postgraduate programs.
Masters Degrees and PhDs in Science
So, what does a postgraduate degree entail for a science student? Well, that depends on a number of things, firstly, whether you’re studying for a masters degree or a PhD. A masters degree is essentially an extension to your undergraduate study, generally lasting one or two years. Depending on the course you choose, this could either be a research project, extra study in a specific area, or, more often, a mix of the two. The extra study will often take a similar form to your undergraduate degree, with lectures and classes.
Taking on a research project, however, really puts you in the shoes of a researcher, teaching you valuable skills for investigating systems.
Tim, a recent graduate from Sheffield, says, "Doing a masters in Chemistry (focusing on organic synthesis) was exactly the lab freedom I was looking for; rather than following methods, I had to find my own pathways and piece together new reactions from old papers. It finally felt like I was making new contributions to my subject."
If you’re lucky, you may even end up doing entirely new research, although this, again, will depend on the course you choose.
A PhD will really let you immerse yourself in the world of academia. Depending on where you study in Europe, some courses will involve a little further study. However, whatever course you end up signing up to, you will be doing research. And not just a research project that’s set for every crop of students, year in, year out. No, if you choose to do a PhD you’ll be working with a supervisor, usually a professor or other senior academic, to study an entirely new area of science, and becoming an expert in your specific field; many doctoral positions will actually have you doing the same work and hours as experienced academics.
Initially, this may seem intimidating, Jessica, from Oxford, says, “It felt a little scary to be doing research for a seasoned academic, but after a few months, it’s reassuring to know that you’re working with someone who really knows what they’re doing.”
To finish off your course, you’ll be required to submit a thesis summarising what you’ve learned, but you’ll often end up publishing a few papers along the way, too.
Areas of Study
So, what sort of areas can you choose to study? In no particular order, here are a few of your options.
Biology is the study of life in all it’s forms, and everything related to it. If you choose to go into this discipline, you’ll be looking into the building blocks of life, physiology of all kinds of species, ecology and many more topics besides. Biology is definitely on the more practical end of science, with research aimed at understanding the processes in living bodies, as well as the relationships between them and their environment.
Read our Spotlight On: Biology in the Postgrad Blog.
Famous European biologists: Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming.Find postgraduate programs in BIOLOGY
From the formulation of grand theories to the studies of very specific phenomena, it is Physics that has paved the way for much of the mechanical and technological advancements in history. While the exact details of your study will depend on your university and course, you’ll generally be looking at fundamental parts of science – the basic forms of matter, the forces which link them all together, and how it all relates to the way they function on a larger scale, usually from a theoretical standpoint.
Famous European physicists: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking.Find postgraduate programs in PHYSICS
Chemistry is possibly the broadest area of study within the science family, often linking the more fundamental concepts explored in physics to the practical elements of other sciences. If you choose to study a course in chemistry, you’ll be looking into the structure of matter, how it all interacts, how that leads to the properties we observe, and most importantly, how we can make things with the properties we want.
Famous European chemists: Antoine Lavoisier, Michael Faraday, Marie CurieFind postgraduate programs in CHEMISTRY
Often called ‘the language of science’, maths may not be immediately spring to mind when thinking of science, but it’s by no means any less vital. At a postgraduate level, you’ll be studying high-level mathematical concepts, whether for their own sake, or for their relevance to more practical subjects.
Famous European mathematicians: Archimedes, Alan Turing, Paul Erdos.Find postgraduate programs in MATHEMATICS
Of course, these aren’t the only science courses you can choose. While most European universities will offer these four courses, many will provide a host of alternatives. Materials science is great for those who want to take a more practical look at the way we use the substances available to us to make our lives easier. Geology is a good choice if you want to cast a scientific eye over the very earth we live on. If you want to mix disciplines, you could try a subject like biochemistry. Meanwhile, students of natural science will look at the theories, which enable them to describe and explain the natural world. And if you really want to specialise, there’s no reason not to pick a course like neuroscience or astronomy.
Still, that’s not to say that you’re restricting your choices by choosing the specialised subjects, or only scratching the surface if you choose a broad one. As mentioned earlier, postgraduate courses often involve research, and any good project can and will involve mixing disciplines to lead the way into new area of study.
Find out more about studying Science and Engineering .
As for fees, these vary wildly across the continent. If you’re lucky enough to be a European student, many universities, such as those in Finland and Sweden, will offer to cover your tuition fees for free. If you’re not an EU student, or you choose to study in one of the countries that charge, you’ll see a wide variety of charges – Germany and France charge only an average of about €400 per term, while in the UK and Switzerland, you’ll see fees closer to €3,000 per term.
Unless you’re choosing to self-fund, you will also need to consider outside funding. For masters students this is largely irrelevant outside of scholarships, which will differ from university to university. However, if you are doing a PhD, due to the length and time involved in doing the research required for a doctoral thesis, there is a range of grants available to you. When applying for your postgraduate course, it’s best to ask your potential supervisor what funding they can provide, as many research groups will be given money for this specific purpose.
If you have no luck here, there are dozens of other possibilities, from government grants to charitable foundations, and many more besides. See our European funding section for more advice.
As for entry requirements, the standard requirement for a masters degree tends to be a 2.1 (or equivalent) in a relevant field, while a PhD will usually require either a masters degree or professional experience in the area. Many courses will require proof of language skills (usually an IELTS score of 6.5-7.0 or equivalent for an English course), so it’s best to check before applying.
After Your Science Program...
Finally, what can you actually do with a postgraduate degree? Well, for starters, doing a full course of postgraduate study is pretty much a requirement for anyone with an interest in academia. This isn’t just a necessity for your CV – doing a master’s or doctorate will give you vital skills and contacts necessary to advance in academia that simply can’t be taught elsewhere.
Ele, from Oxford, adds, "Doing a masters gave me time to consider continuing on to a PhD after experiencing the freedom of research while writing my thesis."
However, if you’d prefer to leave the university life behind you once you’ve finished, then you’re by no means doing yourself a disservice by studying science at postgraduate level. Many technical jobs in science, such as research and development positions and chemical engineers, require a minimum of a master’s degree in a relevant subject. Even if you decide to leave the field of science entirely, successfully completing a postgraduate degree by will prove to your potential employers that you have both ability and initiative, making you a far more valuable applicant.
As Edward, from Cambridge, simply puts, “I did a masters degree in maths. I probably wouldn’t have a job today if I hadn’t. Well, not one that I liked.”
Looking for funding for postgraduate studies? Check out the exclusive bursaries on offer from Postgrad Solutions.Find postgraduate programs in SCIENCE