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Transitioning from undergraduate to postgraduate study

9 mins read

You finished your undergraduate degree, and now been offered a place to study on a postgraduate course. You don’t have any clue on what to expect at postgraduate level? Well fear not. I’m here to help you out.

Postgraduates like me know what it was like to be in your exact position years ago. Therefore we are always happy to give guidance on what to expect.

Sometimes people take a gap year or two before deciding they want to do a postgraduate course. And that means having to transition into something you’ve not experienced before. Most people have felt like this. It’s very natural. But the prospect of postgraduate study doesn’t have to be scary.

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Finance is always on the minds of people wanting to study at this level. And it’s not hard to see why. In the past, you would need funding from a scholarship to be able to pay tuition fees in universities. However, back when I was finishing my undergraduate, there was a breath of fresh air because now you can apply for postgraduate loans.

You might have to deal with some slow bureaucratic practices just to get the finance, as I’m sure most of us students do anyway. But postgraduate degrees such as Taught and Research Master’s are shorter in length and therefore, less in tuition fees.

Like undergraduate study, postgraduate study requires costs for textbooks. If you’re doing a PGR course, you’ll probably use textbooks for basic theoretical knowledge. If you’re doing a Taught Masters, any recommended reading will be given in the modules, as before.

The main difference between undergraduate and postgraduate is the level of independent study that is required. In a Taught Masters or Research Masters, you’ll complete a dissertation /project unit in which whoever supervises you becomes your tutor. This is important, as postgraduate study requires a good professional supervisory relationship.

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It is essential to find a postgraduate course that you’re happy with. You need a good supervisor who understands you, and your needs. A bad supervisory relationship can lead to problems with engagement. And your mental health is always important.

Signs of a bad supervisory relationship include: little to no meetings, little to no communication via email or course page, and little to no interest in the topic you are studying.

If you’re doing a Taught Master’s first, you will have other units on top of a dissertation/project unit and may not have to think about supervisors straight away. This gives you time to settle in, and ensure the course is right for you.

But for Research Master’s, MPhil and PhD students, you have to seek out a supervisor before you are even offered a place. This is because it is such a huge commitment to make that you have to be honest with yourself and make sure the topic and supervisor you pick is the right one.

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The second big difference at postgraduate level is the workload. For a Taught or Research Master’s, the duration of the course may be shorter, but the workload is huge so you need to be absolutely committed and ready. A dissertation at Master’s level is often twice the length of an undergraduate dissertation.

MPhils and PhDs are different. There are no units, no lectures or workshops. And you have 2-3 years at MPhil or 3-4 years at PhD to produce a thesis of your topic. The PhD thesis is often 80,000 words long, 10 times the amount of a typical undergraduate dissertation.

You may have also heard of an Integrated Master’s. This simply adds an additional year of study on top of an undergraduate degree which is usually a Research Master’s, and you are then awarded with a Master’s degree.

The amount of time required per week for study is also important too. If you’re doing a Taught Master’s you might have lectures or workshops that span a few days compared to a week. But don’t let that fool you. Your independent study will take up a large portion of your study week.

Are there exams at Masters level? The answer is that it depends on the type of Masters. If it’s a MSc course, you might have to do exams. You’ll almost certainly be doing oral and poster presentations yourself, compared to the group ones you might have done at undergraduate.

A lot of what happens in postgraduate study is down to you. The magic happens at the end when you present your Master’s thesis and presentation. But to get to that point, you need to build a good work ethic. Because topics are often specific and to your liking at postgraduate level, you might find that you don’t procrastinate.

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Another thing that happens at postgraduate level is you pick up more advanced skills. For instance, if doing a science course, you might pick up a bit of coding experience. You’ll almost certainly pick up professional research skills, and without a doubt you will enhance your CV.

Postgraduate students often attend or take part in conferences, where they’ll also communicate with many other researchers in their field. In contrast, undergraduate students might do a small conference in the form of a poster or oral presentation assignment somewhere at their university, with only a limited number of external researchers attending.

The difference is that professional conferences that postgraduates take part in, aren’t assessed. So my advice is that if you want to study at this level, ensure you get something out of your oral presentation skills at undergraduate. But you will be refreshed if necessary.

Grades at Master’s level are slightly different. You’ll be awarded with a Pass from 50, a Merit from 60, and a Distinction from 70. At MPhil or PhD level, you’ll simply get a Pass or Fail. On the bright side, it’s very difficult to fail a postgraduate course.

The final verdict really is down to you. A postgraduate course is enjoyable, and rewarding. So long as you’re willing to put in the effort to complete it. Ensure you always have your mental health and wellbeing in mind. Look for opportunities and take them.

And remember, if you decide that this is not for you, that’s okay. Nobody should pressure anyone to go up or down a level. If you decide to leave university after you graduate or leave after starting a postgraduate course, no one should stop you. The future is yours to decide.

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PhD - Environmental Science. Aspiring research scientist. Like to blog things science, and how it affects us.

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