In medieval universities, a master’s degree or doctorate often took 12 years to complete. Blimey! Thankfully though, nowadays you can get a postgraduate qualification in a much shorter time.

Generally, a postgraduate degree is a degree which you study for once you have finished a bachelor’s degree.

Some postgraduate degrees require the completion of particular bachelor’s degree, others don’t. Currently, approximately 540,000 students are enrolled on postgraduate programmes in the UK.

As a general rule, you need to have completed a bachelor’s degree before doing a postgraduate degree (although there are some exceptions).

There are four main types of postgraduate degrees: taught courses, research degrees, conversion courses and professional qualifications. Many postgraduate courses are studied at university, but some courses are taught in a commercial environment.

Taught courses

There are two main types of taught courses: master’s degrees and postgraduate diplomas (or certificates). A taught master’s degree usually takes place over one or two years and mostly involves the completion of a dissertation or project.

You can do a Master of the Arts (MA), a Master of Science (MSc), a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Engineering (MEng) degree.

You can also study integrated master’s degrees, which form part of your undergraduate degree. Bear in mind though, that not all master’s degrees are taught courses in their entirety.

For example you can do a Master of Research degree, which is more focused around independent research. A Master of Research degree is still a taught course, but 60% of it has to focus on an individual research project.

Postgraduate diplomas or certificates are academic or vocational qualifications. A postgraduate certificate normally takes around four months, whereas diplomas usually last around nine months.

You could study a subject which is completely new to you, or you could choose a course which builds on what you learned in your bachelor’s degree.

Postgraduate certificates or diplomas can provide a route to particular careers, or they can work as a stepping stone towards studying a master’s degree. However, sometimes they are awarded to those who did not fully complete a master’s degree.

Research degrees

A huge part of postgraduate study revolves around independent research. Research degrees are often referred to as doctorates. The main types of doctorates are: PhDs, DPhils, integrated PhDs and professional doctorates.

Doctorates can be taken after a master’s degree or, in some cases, after a bachelor’s degree, during which the master’s is usually earned along the way. Doctorates are generally completed over two to four years.

The main component of a PhD is the doctoral thesis. This is a research project on a specialist topic and can be between 40,000 and (wait for it) 120,000 words. It should be worthy of publication and add something new to your field of study.

Of course, there is another reason to do a doctorate (aside from immersing yourself in a subject you love): you get to put ‘Dr’ in front of your name!

An MPhil is similar to a PhD, but lower in the academic pecking order. Instead of completing that mammoth 120,000 word research project, you’ll be conducting an individual research project of around 30,000 to 35,000 words. It is still well respected, but you won’t get to call yourself ‘The Doctor’.

If you want something a little less traditional, you could look into doing a ‘New Route PhD’ or a professional doctorate. Professional doctorates combine professional skills with academic knowledge in a PhD.

These degrees are more vocationally-minded than traditional PhDs and are often taken to further people’s professional careers. You’ll still be completing an original piece of research, but there’s also a taught or directed study element to the doctorate.

Conversion courses

Postgraduate degrees aren’t all about academia and shimmying up the academic career ladder. Further postgraduate study is sometimes needed for certain careers.

Postgraduate conversion courses give you that vital lifeline if you haven’t studied a relevant undergraduate degree for the profession you want to pursue. They give you the option to transfer to a different subject area.

Conversion courses are usually one year taught courses and are often heavily vocational. There are different levels of conversion courses: certificate, diploma and master’s.

A law conversion course (or a Graduate Diploma in Law [GDL] for those in the know) offers people who didn’t study law at undergraduate level to get a foot in the door of their chosen career in law. Equally, you can do conversion courses in other subjects, including psychology, social work, business and I.T.

If you’ve come to the end of a three-year undergraduate degree course and suddenly realised medicine is your calling then there is a Graduate Entry Medicine course, which takes four years to complete; this is a fast track for people who have not studied medicine as their first degree.

And of course, let’s not forget the PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education) — a hugely popular conversion course for graduates who want to teach.

Professional qualifications

There are also a number of professional qualifications offered by professional bodies, which are essential entry qualifications for various careers. For example, if you want to be a solicitor, you will have to take the Legal Practice Course (LPC).

These qualifications offer practical training and are mainly focused on providing entry into a profession, or allowing you to develop your career further once you’ve already made it halfway up the career ladder.

So whether you want to make yourself stand out from the crowd when applying for jobs, pursue a career in academia, train for a career or simply continue to study a subject you love, make sure you pick the right postgraduate course for you. Good luck!

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