The humble master’s degree has experienced a surge in popularity over the last decade. Every year a significant proportion of undergraduates decide to swap those BA or BSc letters after their name for an MA or MSc. So what’s the draw? What exactly is a master’s degree and is it worth it?
What is a master’s degree?
As a general rule, you’ll need to have an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in the bag before you can do a master’s degree. Broadly speaking, there are two types of master’s degrees: taught master’s and research master’s. A master of research isn’t about lording it up in the library; it’s still a taught course, but 60% has to focus on an individual research project. Most of the time you’ll only be able to do an MA, MSc or MRes related to your first degree; although there are exceptions to the rule.
A master’s usually lasts one or two years, except for integrated master’s degrees which take place over four or five years. The reason for the difference is that an integrated master’s is essentially an undergraduate degree with the add-on of a final master’s year. It’s like ordering a meal deal at McDonald’s rather than paying for your fries and drinks separately – except your university education doesn’t come dipped in fat.
Is doing a master’s degree worth it?
Here are two reasons why you shouldn’t do a master’s degree:
1. You want to prolong your time at university before you head out into the big bad world of work;
2. You’ve already tried a year in work, had a massive culture shock and are now itching to scurry back to the safety of university.
Plenty of students do exactly that and some have even earned the nickname “work-shy hedonists” (although we don’t quite see how a year spent completing a thesis is hedonistic). In any case, we believe you can still be a “work-shy hedonist” and astutely pick a master’s degree that will benefit your career. Which brings us to the next part: your master’s should be an investment in your future.
A master’s costs a lot (usually the price of a new, nippy, no-frills hatchback car), and you’ll also have to support yourself whilst you study. Therefore, you should be fairly confident that the money you invest in your master’s degree will be returned to you (with interest) later on. Indeed, you should get more out of your master’s than you put in.
So what should I consider?
To put it baldly, the majority of students will be taking a master’s to improve their career chances. Even if you’re completely academically-minded, you’ll need a master’s in order to further your academic career.
You have to assess whether a master’s is worth it. You can do this by talking to people who are already in your chosen industry. Do you know many people in the industry with a master’s degree? What kind of roles are they in? Do they feel their master’s helped get them where they are?
A good tip when considering various master’s degree courses is not only to check the employment rates of students, but also to contact the department and ask about what kind of jobs their students got afterwards. You can tell a lot from the destinations of former students.
A master’s degree with strong industry connections, where other students went on to exciting jobs with good employers, might just be worth the investment. In this sense, you should also choose a master’s that is as specific as possible to your career aims.
Sometimes you’ll have to take a master’s degree to prepare yourself for a particular career route. For example, if you want to become a social worker, but your first degree is unrelated, then taking a master’s is a necessary step for your career. Equally, with careers that place big emphasis on academic ability, such as becoming a human rights barrister, a relevant master’s degree will be a bonus.
The key thing to emphasise is that a master’s isn’t a one way ticket to a graduate job. You will need to prove the value of your master’s degree to prospective employers and the edge it gives you over other candidates.
How do I apply for a master’s degree?
Unlike at undergraduate level, the application process for master’s degrees isn’t completely centralised. You’ll need to apply directly to individual institutions. Be warned that application deadlines vary from university to university. It’s also a good idea to apply as early as possible.
Usually the application process will involve completing an online application form and providing academic references. Entry requirements for master’s degrees vary; for most you’ll need a BA or a BSc, but relevant work experience might be considered in lieu for certain courses. Academic requirements will also differ from institution to institution.
Some courses will ask for students who got a first, others might expect a high 2:1, and others will be happy with a 2:2. If you’re still doing your undergraduate degree when you apply, most universities will give you a conditional offer that you’ll have to meet.
A master’s degree isn’t something to be taken on a whim. You need to decide whether it’s the right option for you and it’s really important to find the perfect course. It’s a big investment, so you really have to make sure it will pay off.
To search for master’s degrees, check out our postgraduate course finder.