If you are coming to the end of your first degree you might be thinking about doing a Masters. Is this a good idea or not? As ever there probably isn’t a straightforward answer. Whether or not carrying on studying is a sound decision is going to depend on what subject you’re planning to study and what you might get out of it.
You need a Masters for some jobs.
The simple fact is that for some jobs you need a Masters. If you want to be a chartered engineer the easiest way is to get the MEng qualification and you’re likely to have signed up for it when you started your degree. Similarly if you want to be a Pharmacist you’re going to need that MPharm. All very clear and straightforward. Of course, it’s not always that easy. What if you want to be a research scientist? You’re likely to struggle to get the dream lab job without a Masters but you probably signed up just for the undergraduate degree. The same is true for the Economics student who wants to be an Economist rather than use the degree as a springboard to a finance career. These are just two of the areas where you really need the additional knowledge that comes from further study before you can get your foot on the bottom of your chosen career ladder.
You can get a Masters “for free” what’s not to like?
Some careers demand post graduate study but don’t require you to have a Masters. If you want to teach you’ll need a PGCE, (Post Graduate Certificate in Education). This isn’t a Masters, but some courses, including Teach First allow or encourage you to do a “bolt on” Masters by undertaking some additional study. Similarly if you’re planning to be a solicitor, the last part of your academic training is the LPC (Legal Practice Course). Many providers allow you to top this up so that you secure the LLM or Masters in Law. So should you do it? These courses can be quite intense even without the Masters element but if you think you can manage academically, then it makes sense to go for the Masters too. It may not be a career necessity but it could just be a differentiator in the future.
Does it help to get you ahead on general graduate schemes?
The evidence here is equivocal. There are some statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) indicating that the percentage of postgraduates in professional level jobs is higher than the percentage of graduates in those jobs, but there is no control on these figures to confirm that the difference is down to the Masters qualification rather than other factors. Most graduate employers are just as happy to consider those with first degrees when it comes to recruiting for their schemes and there is often no premium for possession of a Masters level qualification. Typically the selection process is the same for all candidates. Success comes down to being able to meet the competencies and “tell your story”. A Masters qualification does not necessarily mean that an applicant is any better at this.
Is the perceived advantage of a Masters greater in other countries?
Yes, probably it is. In much of the rest of the world a first degree is not considered adequate for entry to, or progression within prestigious careers. There’s an argument that the UK education system allows for more specialisation at undergraduate level and there’s an understanding here that a first degree is an acceptable qualification. This perception is not necessarily prevalent abroad! You’ll want to think about this if you see your future as working in the United States or in mainland Europe and you may want to look at some of the cost effective Masters opportunities in European universities.
Which brings me on to cost and funding…
If your original undergraduate course involved a Masters such as the MEng courses or Warwick’s MMORSE (Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics) then you are in a good position. All four years of such courses are offered with tuition fees capped at £9,000. This compares very favourably with “stand alone” Masters courses which can cost around £20,000, or even more if they are attached to a business school. You can shop around for funding or for cheaper courses abroad, but it is worth thinking about the reputation of the course and the institution at which you plan to study without getting too “hung up” about this. Student loans are not available for post graduate study in the same way as for your first degree but the Autumn Statement did provide for new government backed loans which are due to be introduced for 2016-17 .
And the bottom line?
A Masters is going to be essential for some jobs, for others it may not make much difference to your prospects. A passion for your subject and a desire to carry on learning is probably the most important reason to do a Masters.