By Tegan Baker
For most students, the beginning of your final year as an undergraduate is like waking up from a good dream. You’ve just spent the past two years working hard at a subject you enjoy, and have adjusted to living without the constant watch of Mum and Dad over your shoulder. But now third year is setting in with its looming threats of dissertation, finals and the seemingly unknown abyss of life after graduation.
The words ‘internship’, ‘job prospects’ and ‘postgraduate options’ are making you want to revert to the fresher you once were, when your only worry was making sure you got by without dipping into your overdraft. However, set aside that deep feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach. The key to avoiding the panic of post-graduation blues is to start thinking about it now. Planning the next step for the summer after graduation is paramount for a third year student, even if it just means finding a part time summer job, or thinking about what kind of job you would like. You will thank yourself this time next year if you take some time now to do some preparation – no matter how small.
For many, the question of postgraduate education pops up as soon as they start thinking about the terrifying reality of university ending. Another year in the safe bosom of university life sounds idyllic and the mantra of ‘I just need one more year to know what I want to do’ will be ringing in their ears. In all seriousness, there are many different reasons for continued study – not just procrastination from getting a job. The pursuit of academia is one of the most common reasons for pursuing postgraduate education. The chance to not be in, what some consider, ‘the real world’ for another year is a choice that many find both appealing and daunting, but should be considered before you are in your cap and gown, rather than after.
Many third years look upon taking a Masters as simply a stepping-stone to gaining a PhD. However, what if that is not your long-term ambition? Is a Masters course still a good option for furthering your career? For students just starting to think about postgraduate education as a possibility, a PhD sounds like the distant future with a lot of uncertainty surrounding it.
In this case, for those starting an MA in September, students are likely to fall into two categories – those who wish to pursue a PhD and those who simply want to stretch their academic capability. Jennifer Weeks, 21, will be starting her MA in Medieval Studies at Royal Holloway this September. She said, ‘my main motivation for taking an MA was that it would be the next stepping stone in a subject that I am totally in love with’, adding that in her case, her MA will be ‘a prerequisite to a PhD.’ However, before you assign postgraduate study the stereotype of solely acting as a precursor to academia and nothing else, there are other motivations for continuing study. Sam Baker, 22, will also be starting his MA this month at Royal Holloway in Creative Writing. He said, ‘I did not originally anticipate doing anything more than an undergraduate degree, but decided shortly before I graduated to carry on with a postgraduate. I wanted to push myself to do the thing that I struggled with the most as part of my drama and creative writing undergraduate programme.’
However, to show a PhD can be an achievable goal, Verity Burke, 28, from the University of Reading, completed an MA in English Literature: Victorian Literature and Culture. Verity said, ‘the primary motivation for a Masters was to further my career, as I really wanted to work in a role that would involve my undergraduate subject.’ However, postgraduate study does not always mean that you are stuck in the education bubble. Verity said of her own experience, ‘after completing my masters degree I took a year or two away from university and worked in a variety of fascinating roles. Receiving my masters opened up a number of interesting roles for me directly after completing it.’ As Verity’s example shows, completing that extra step in academic study was enough to further her career without PhD study. Although she said, ‘I still loved my subject and decided that I did indeed want to pursue a career in either academia or in heritage and culture, for which I decided to take my PhD.’
After graduating, the fear of increased debt after completing your undergraduate degree is a primary consideration for deciding where to study and how long for. The government provides a loan of up to £10,000 for Masters degrees. This is both for tuition fees and living costs. Depending on the degree type, some people may find they have only a few thousand pounds to live on for the year.
In regards to financing her degree and living situation, Verity said, ‘money was absolutely a factor in undertaking postgraduate study. I was fortunate to be successful in my application for Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding for my Masters, without which I would have struggled to live away from home while studying.’ In Jennifer’s case she said, ‘I quickly discovered that there was a dramatic decrease in scholarships available for MA students. I have a postgraduate loan to cover my tuition fees, and I have been extremely lucky to get a residential job in a University of London hall, which has given me free accommodation for the year. However, I will still need to work regularly over term time to boost my income so it’s going to be busy, and I imagine this is what is happening to an ever growing number of students all over.’
In some cases, the prospect of completing a Masters is almost a requirement for following your desired career path. Cerys Thornton, 23, who graduated from Heriot Watt University in May 2016 with a MEng in Chemical Engineering with Energy Engineering, found that her career choice called for a Masters almost as a necessity. She said, ‘Around 90% of all job postings for graduate engineers require a minimum of a 2:1 masters degree, therefore the choice of a masters degree is pretty much dictated to you by the companies that will hire this discipline. I believe that in such a technical discipline as engineering, the choice between a masters and bachelors is very weighted towards the masters.’
Whether postgraduate education is a viable step for you, or if you are unsure on your career path after University, it is clear that planning your future before graduation is important. Don’t leave it until after to look into postgraduate study, or graduate jobs.
For more information on postgraduate loans see Student Finance (https://www.gov.uk/funding-for-postgraduate-study) or for information about postgraduate funding see jobs.ac.uk.
This article was published in our September 2016 issue.