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Science and engineering

Deciding to study science or engineering in the UK or Ireland isn’t just about reputation. It’s also about knowing you can find exactly the right programme for you. David Williams outlines the choices

More than anything else, the one thing that characterises postgraduate provision in science , engineering and technology is choice.

To many, science and engineering are regarded as the cream of UK and Irish higher education, and, whether you want to place yourself near to the research-driven edge of development in your subject, learn about a subject specialism that is unavailable in your home country or even take your career in a whole new direction, you are sure to find a course that will suit.

Everything and anything is on offer, from the purest science qualifications in subjects like astrophysics (run, for example, by Manchester, Sussex and Queen Mary University of London) through to interesting hybrids like the MSc in Science Communication , which prepares journalists and public relations communicators to work in the gap between the scientific experts and a non-technical audience (variants of which are available at the University of the West of England, Imperial College London, and Bath, Glamorgan, Cardiff and Dublin City Universities).

The fact that there are so many institutions offering postgraduate programmes in the two relatively niche subjects of science and engineering testifies to the multiplicity of choice. It should also be realised that even very similarly titled programmes can be very different, offering different modules, different types of academic expertise, different outcomes and different costs, both in terms of living expenses and fees. Yet all partake of the overall reputation of higher education.

‘The main reason for me to choose a postgraduate course in the UK is the reputation and qualification of UK universities,’ says Feng Zhai, a 24-year-old Chinese postgraduate student who recently studied at University College London. ‘Also, the particular programme I chose is a unique course in the UK and it provides me with the opportunity to specialise my knowledge. The MSc in Technology Ventures and Foundation of Entrepreneurship will provide me necessary skills and knowledge for my future career. After the completion of this course, I can either found my own company, or work as an investment consultant or project manager.’

What postgraduate programmes in science and engineering are on offer?

Fundamentally, there are two types of postgraduate programme in the UK: taught and research. Taught programmes are those in which a large proportion of the learning is facilitated through classroom, seminar, tutorial and supervised laboratory work, and which are at least partially assessed by examination or coursework. The learning on a research programme, on the other hand, will take place through the pursuit of a self-directed project that aims to make a new contribution to human knowledge (although it will almost always be part of a broader research programme at an institutional level).

Despite this fundamental division, all master’s programmes will contain some self-directed research, while there are also programmes, such as the Doctor of Engineering (DEng), which combine both taught and research elements, and which are aimed at engineers who are established in their careers. There are also integrated and funded four-year programmes that are much coveted. These are known as ‘1+3’ programmes because they are made up of a one-year master’s followed by a three-year PhD.

Another variation of taught programmes is the conversion course. Instead of just being a means to continue your understanding of a subject you already know well, some taught programmes are aimed at students from outside the discipline who wish to change the direction of their career. These conversion programmes will be characterised by an intense and in-depth introduction to the subject.

Conversion courses can be very attractive to students who do not have the opportunity to study a subject at undergraduate level, either because it isn’t taught in their home country or because it is not usually covered at undergraduate level. For example, some Master’s in Neuroscience programmes offer graduates with related or cognate degrees an opportunity to specialise; in this case, these might be biologists, medics or computer scientists, among others. The entry criteria and programme description will always make it very clear what type of programme is being offered.

Taught postgraduate programmes

Most international students will start with a stand-alone taught postgraduate programme and then consider whether to move towards doing a research degree. Indeed, in many circumstances, UK universities insist on this.

There are three levels of taught programme to look out for: postgraduate certificate (PGCert), postgraduate diploma (PGDip) or master’s (those in science are usually designated an MSc). Postgraduate certificates and diplomas are short (under a year) and can be part of continuing professional development (CPD) or preparation for entry on to a master’s programme. In some cases, diplomas can be awarded to students who follow a taught master’s programme (one year full time, two years part time), but who do not complete the final (up to) 20,000-word dissertation. These programmes will usually be designated an MSc/Diploma.

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It is also worth pointing out as well that a Master of Engineering (MEng) is awarded after an extended period of undergraduate study that lasts typically one year longer than a standard honours degree programme. In contrast, MSc programmes in engineering are stand-alone one-year programmes designed to focus on a specific area of the discipline.

One-year taught master’s can cost anything between a few thousand pounds to well over £10,000, although there are different rates according to whether you are a European Union (EU) or non-EU student. Applications for funding or scholarships must be made well over a year in advance (information on the various institutional scholarships is available from the British Council website) and funding should always be arranged before you leave your home country.

Research-based postgraduate programmes

Research programmes at master’s level might be called a Master of Research (MRes) or, regardless of the actual subject studied, Master of Philosophy (MPhil), which usually take two years. The highest research degree is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). This takes a minimum of three years to complete.

Apart from some training in research skills, there will be very little taught content on research programmes. The dissertation will also be longer, 70,000 to 100,000 words for a PhD. It should also be original and, in theory, publishable. Essentially, possessing a PhD should mean that you are one of the leading experts in your specialism in the world.

Graduate destinations

Information on graduate destinations for non-UK students will be held at the programme level and will often be quite anecdotal. Anyone wanting to know exactly where the graduates of a course end up needs to talk to the academics in charge, who will always be aware of the sort of thing people have gone on to do.

To take one example, the MSc in Integrated Petroleum Geoscience at the University of Aberdeen has, in various forms, been running for over 30 years. ‘We have had about 400 graduates of the course since it started in 1973,’ says David MacDonald, Head of the School of Geosciences at the University, ‘and, when we tried to get in touch with them to arrange a celebration for the 20th anniversary, we were able to get responses from over 75% of our former students, simply because so many of them were still working in the industry. I think this fact speaks for itself.’

Programme co-ordinators will also be extremely aware of the prevailing conditions within their industry and be able to advise accordingly. ‘At the moment, employment prospects for non-UK graduates from resource-rich countries are extremely good,’ comments Professor MacDonald. ‘For financial and representative reasons, companies want to avoid employing expatriates in the places in which they operate and would much prefer well-qualified nationals of those countries.’

This is the sort of insider knowledge about employment prospects that should always be available from course leaders if you choose to ask them.

David Williams is a freelance journalist reporting on higher education and graduate careers. He is the co-author of How To Get The Best Graduate Job (Pearson, 2005) .


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