This is a question that an increasing number of undergraduate students are asking careers consultants and personal tutors as a result of the increase in tuition fees in 2012.
Integrated Masters programmes are enhanced undergraduate degrees and according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, they have significantly increased in popularity (particularly in the natural sciences) but are they worth the extra year of study? What is the value of an integrated Masters over a BSc?
In an era where postgraduate study did not attract funding, a 4th year of undergraduate study funded through student loans and leading to a Masters level qualification was appealing and perhaps partly explained the surge in applications for integrated courses. Could the recent government announcement however, that up to £10,000 can be borrowed to fund postgraduate study, lead to those who are considering this option to question whether an MSc/MA offers better value for money?
Do employers make a distinction between applicants with an Integrated Masters and BSc degrees?
Anecdotally at least, it would appear not.
“In my opinion and it’s only my opinion” says Peter Laflin, a Chief Data Scientist with the Bloom Advertising Agency, “the BSc is ‘enough’ to show competence and suitability. I always recruit the person – but would use the degree classification as a way of screening out applications before interview. I’m always on the look-out for extra-curricular activities as well as the degree and would value, for example, society involvement over an MSc if the candidate has relevant work experience alongside BSc study, possibly from a year out or a sandwich course. We interview based on a point system which is relevant to the specific job you apply for – if you get enough points across a set of criteria, you’ll get an interview.”
Their graduate recruitment adviser Holly Savage highlights a tangible difference however, that the Integrated Masters is typically accredited and will meet the academic requirements for registration for approved status within an industry or profession
“for our engineering students, Masters are very important to us, as it is a requirement for chartership.”
Of course, your decision to undertake a fourth year of study may be motivated primarily by your passion for your subject, your interest, enjoyment and intellectual curiosity. On the other hand, if you are taking a more pragmatic approach, the networking opportunities, professional standards and leadership for example, that chartership infers, may be a highly motivating factor underpinning your decision to graduate with an integrated masters qualification.
If recruiters do not differentiate between the two degrees why are Masters level undergraduates more successful?
Universities are required to collect data on the destinations of their students 6 months after graduation and here at the University Warwick, the number of integrated Masters science faculty students who are employed in graduate level employment or who are in further study, is consistently slightly higher than BSc graduates.
This is a pattern also evident in the HE sector as a whole according to Charlie Ball, the deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Service Unit. (1) Higher levels of graduate employability and participation in further study for integrated masters students may contradict anecdotal feedback from employers but it is a trend that may be attributable, at least in part, to the higher number of 4 year students who achieve a first class degree or high 2:1 and who are therefore more likely to progress to doctoral and postgraduate study.
So is the 4th year of study worth the investment?
As with every career decision, it depends on your perspective and expectations. An integrated masters can develop your subject understanding and underpinning knowledge at a deeper level but you cannot assume it will automatically elevate you above other candidates with a BSc. Presenting these enhanced skills and achievements in a convincing way to an employer, in a way that highlights their transferability to the specific job role, may on the other hand make an impact.
If you have decided to undertake further study and want to apply for a PhD, the 4 year degree may demonstrate your potential and suitability for research in a compelling way and for Jon Duffy, Associate Professor in the University of Warwick’s physics department
“the MPhys is definitely the established (and the normal) route into doctoral research.”
To return to the original question, there is no definitive answer and it does depend to a large extent on the career and sector you would like to work in – if you are a STEM subject student for example, the Integrated Masters may add value if you are targeting job roles requiring high levels of analytical, problem-solving and research skills. Realistically, if you would like to pursue doctoral research, the Integrated Masters is effectively a requirement for the more competitive PhD programmes.
If the most important consideration however in your decision to graduate with a BSc or Integrated Masters, is whether it will make a difference to an employer (particularly those recruiters who do not require specific degree disciplines) Roz Lawrence, a campus engagement manager with PwC is unequivocal
“…it makes no difference, all candidates go through the same application process and graduate training programme whether they have a masters or an undergraduate degree.”
(1) Times Higher Education Supplement July 31 2014