Why do a postgraduate degree?
Simon Felton

The reasons for undertaking a research postgraduate degree are diverse and usually driven by personal needs and desires. These include expanding knowledge of a specific subject, improving career progression, increasing the chances of getting a graduate job, a love of the subject and to enable lifestyle changes by raising salary

In the National Survey of Postgraduate Funding and Priorities conducted by the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC), nearly half of students who were asked why they chose further study said it was to improve career prospects. One of the most popular reasons aside from career advancement was an interest in the particular subject or to continue studying.

With an interest in a specific subject discipline and career motivation, there can be a natural progression from undergraduate to postgraduate study, although there is considerably more required than an undergraduate degree particularly being more responsible for yourself and your progress. Not all students will have an idea of their career aspirations when they begin their research degree and it is important to consider what your personal motivations are for undertaking a postgraduate research degree as Ben notes below.

I'd got the academic 'buzz' during my Bachelors, the dissertation was the key factor, and decided to go further than just my Masters - you need to be clear you really want to do this as its costly in time, money and relationships.
Ben, AHRB Student, Queen Mary, University of London.

Your reasons

It is important therefore to consider what you want to achieve from your qualifications and how this influences your motivations for undertaking a research postgraduate degree.

Benefits of a Postgraduate Research Degree

One of the benefits of a Postgraduate research degree and the purpose of research is the output of original contributions to knowledge.

For those seeking the employment potential of a research degree, a degree can demonstrate capability and tenacity to undertake an extended piece of investigative work. A research degree can also develop important transferable °•life skills°¶, employability skills such as public speaking, presentation writing, writing proposals, specialist knowledge and maturity.


QAA Guidance to Skills and Knowledge at Masters Level
Students should be able to:
- deal with complex issues both systematically and creatively, make sound judgements in the absence of complete data, and communicate their conclusions clearly to specialist and non-specialist audiences;
- demonstrate self-direction and originality in tackling and solving problems, and act autonomously in planning and implementing tasks at a professional or equivalent level;
- continue to advance their knowledge and understanding, and to develop new skills to a high level; and they should have acquired the skills necessary for employment requiring:
- the exercise of initiative and personal responsibility;
- decision-making in complex and unpredictable situations; and
- the independent learning ability required for continuing professional development.

Source: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, The framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland January 2001 (http://www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/nqf/ewni2001/contents.htm).

QAA guidance relating to skills and knowledge at doctoral level
Students should be able to:
- make informed judgements on complex issues in specialist fields, often in the absence of complete data, and be able to communicate their ideas and conclusions clearly and effectively to specialist and non-specialist audiences;
- continue to undertake pure and/or applied research and development at an advanced level, contributing substantially to the development of new techniques, ideas, or approaches;

and they should have:
- the qualities and transferable skills necessary for employment requiring the exercise of personal responsibility and largely autonomous initiative in complex and unpredictable situations, in professional or equivalent environments.

Source: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, The framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland January 2001 (http://www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/nqf/ewni2001/contents.htm).

Postgraduate study encourages skills that apply beyond the lecture theatre or laboratory and these skills impact on the postgraduate research students employment prospects.

Questions to consider

There are a number of questions to consider if you are thinking of undertaking a postgraduate research degree such as reason for studying, motivation, when to study alongside the costs and benefits.

Academic Background: Normally you will need to have achieved an upper second or first class degree in a relevant subject, though sometimes there are higher criteria for funding bodies.

Money: There is a financial commitment to studying a research degree, particularly if you are considering part-time study. A Local Education Authority will not fund postgraduate study and you would need to consider how finances impact on your decision to study a postgraduate research degree. Look at the financial guide for ideas on where to seek financial support.

Motivation: This is especially important as the reality of a research degree is very different to an undergraduate degree. You need to consider whether you will enjoy the research techniques you will use.


Drawbacks

While there are considerable benefits from skills development to increased employability there are also drawbacks such as delaying employment and the financial cost and associated living costs of undertaking a postgraduate research degree.

Employment costs

While pursuing a research postgraduate degree to gain an employment advantage you are also delaying your entry into the job market.

Financial Costs

The cost of a research degree needs to be considered as a key factor in choosing to undertake a postgraduate research degree. Postgraduate research degrees can cost significant amounts. There are also associated living costs and research specific costs such as travel to conferences, and training costs.


Conclusion

In summary there are a number of benefits and costs to pursuing a postgraduate research degree.

Questions to consider are:
- Academic background ask your current / prospective supervisor
- Cost - Financial support, self-funded or employer, funder funded
- Motivation - Be clear why you want to do a postgraduate research degree. Increased employment opportunities, necessary for job, interest in subject discipline.
- Time - After your first or masters degree, after working, part-time.


Other sources of information

http://www.ukgrad.ac.uk

NPC (2002) National Survey of Postgraduate Funding and Priorities. Troon: The National Postgraduate Committee of the UK (available at: http://www.npc.org.uk/page/1083342227.pdf)

http://www.prospects.ac.uk


This is a draft version for a forthcoming postgraduate handbook. These are the authors opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Postgraduate Committee.