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The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

What is postgraduate education?

What is postgraduate education? What qualifications can you study at postgraduate level? Learn this and more in our guide to postgraduate study....

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What is postgraduate education?

Postgraduate education is any higher education undertaken after a bachelor’s degree. Usually this will be a requirement to get onto a postgraduate course. This is a step up from what an undergrad would have studied and is an opportunity to focus on a particular area.


In an increasingly competitive graduate climate, a postgraduate qualification can distinguish you from other candidates who are chasing the same job positions.


In the US, postgraduate education is referred to as ‘graduate education’ and would be undertaken by a grad student at a grad school. Alternatively, students will move on to medical school, law school or business school to study these specific areas.


What’s the difference between taught and research courses?

A taught course is similar to your undergraduate degree in that it is taught by a professor and you are assessed on this subject. Research courses are far more independent and emphasise students going away to work on their own on an original piece. In both cases you may be required to attend particular classes; the difference being that on a research course, attendance of these classes and any assignments relating to them won’t be used to determine your final grade (instead your final piece of research will determine this).


Types of postgraduate qualification

Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas

Certificates and diplomas at postgraduate level are usually more vocational in nature and are tailored to a specific professional area. They are also shorter and less intensive than a postgraduate degree. Students can expect to study for a postgraduate certificate for 15 weeks and a postgraduate diploma for 6-12 months (both if studied full-time).


For more information on postgraduate certificates, you can consult The Big Choice.

Master’s degree

A master’s degree is the most common postgraduate qualification and is usually referred to as a graduate degree in America. It can be either research-based, a taught course or a combination of the two. Traditionally Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc) courses are taught courses, while master’s courses by research will include Master of Philosophy (MPhil) (an MSc can also be a research course). A master’s in business is referred to as an ‘MBA’.


A master’s degree will usually last 1 to 2 years full-time. If a taught course, it will be similar in nature to an undergraduate course i.e. taught through lectures, seminars and tutorials. A master’s will be assessed by thesis at the end of the course (though this will be much shorter than a thesis written at PhD level).


Doctorate (PhD)

A PhD or Doctorate is a research degree studied after completion of a master’s degree. A PhD lasts for 3 to 4 years full-time and is based around a much more extensive original piece of research by the student. Unlike previous study where there is more of a distinction between student and professor, PhD students work alongside their supervisor on their research which ties into what that institution’s department is already focused on. PhD students can also work as teaching assistants, teaching undergraduate classes and marking undergrad work.


Read our full guide to PhDs here.


How are postgraduate courses taught & assessed?

As mentioned above, postgraduate courses are structured differently from undergraduate courses. Yes, there are some similarities between undergraduate courses and taught postgraduate courses; however, there is a heavier emphasis on students conducting themselves as serious academics, working on their own original research. This idea is helped by the fact that they can work as teaching assistants, attend conferences as speakers and are more likely to socialise with their supervisors.


Taught postgraduate courses will be assessed through exams and oral presentations in addition to the thesis. However, the final grade for PhD students will mainly revolve around a considerably longer thesis only.


Eligibility criteria

In almost all cases you’ll need at least a 2:1 bachelor’s degree in a related subject (from an accredited higher education institution) in order to study a postgraduate course. You can take a pre-masters course if you are missing some of the required skills and knowledge. There may even be conversion courses to help you switch study paths; if you have an undergraduate degree you have proved that you have the key qualities to study at postgraduate level, so a conversion course fills in the requisite knowledge to study a new subject at postgraduate level.


If English isn’t your native language, you will also have to meet the English requirements for the course you are applying to.


Want to learn more about the IELTS and TOEFL tests?


Please note that it’s not uncommon for postgraduate courses to require slightly higher English language entry requirements than a similar course at undergraduate level at the same university.


Some international students may need to take additional standardised tests depending on the subject they wish to study or where they want to study.


You may also have to go through an interview and demonstrate that you have the funds to finance your studies abroad when applying and secure the correct student visa.


Postgraduate application process

Compared to undergraduate applications, the deadlines for postgraduate applications can be considerably less strict in many countries; this is because fewer students apply to postgraduate study. Some deadlines are just a few months before the commencement of the course. However, sometimes the admissions processing times for postgraduate applications can take longer than they would at undergraduate level, so you may have to wait longer to find out if your offer has been accepted. You should always confirm these important deadlines with the institution themselves (this might be a question you ask a university).


It is always a good idea to submit your application as soon as possible so the course you’re applying to doesn’t run out of spaces and your application is in well before the deadline.


Read our full guide to Applying to postgraduate study.

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