The Gateway Guide to...masters courses

In an ultra-competitive job market there's never been a better time to consider doing a masters
Other opportunities

In the ultra-competitive world of graduate recruitment, a masters can be an excellent way to help build the practical skills you'll need in the work place, build a strong network of contacts and learn more about the particular area you're interested in. Some masters even offer the chance for you to intern as part of your qualification, which can be an added boost to your CV. At the same time it will help you to stand out from the crowd and build a network of contacts and experience inside the business and finance industry.

At the same time, it is important not to underestimate the commitment that a masters course entails. It is not only a huge financial investment but also an investment of time and energy which could perhaps be better spent elsewhere.

As ever, The Gateway is here to give you some much-needed advice on what is undoubtedly an important life decision.

A masters gives you extra academic experience

Having a real enthusiasm for a subject invariably means that you are good at it and often brings suggestions from lecturers/ tutors that you should pursue a postgraduate qualification or a research post in the area. While there may be many upsides to such a decision - an extra year at university, potentially funded by the department or an outside body, to name but one, it is worth considering the potential downsides. Depending on what career path you choose to go into, employers have a habit of not placing huge amounts of value on a "passion for study". While postgraduate experience in certain areas - such as numerate subjects like science or maths - encourages skills that are reasonably transferable to the workplace, companies have been known to turn their noses up at English and History Masters graduates who, despite their passion for learning, are able to offer little value beyond that of their undergraduate counterparts. When push comes to shove, nine times out of ten an employer will value work experience over additional study. If a Masters in your chosen field is something you are desperate to do, great. If you can get funding for it, even better, but don't expect it to give you an edge in the real world of the job market.

You'll get the right preparation for following a specific career path

This is always a tricky one. How do you weigh up a year spend learning your chosen trade vs a year actually spent doing it hands on? Naturally, some career paths actively encourage a postgraduate degree or indeed require it. It will be hard to make a career as an economist without an economics degree, for example, or a nutritionist for that matter. Try becoming a lawyer without having completed the Legal Practise Course and you may struggle. It may also be the case, however, that in these cases a masters might be better off undertaken a couple of years down the line after you have picked up some grass roots level experience. For other careers destinations such as the financial world it is even less clear cut. A degree in a financial discipline has always been a popular route for many students with their eye on a City career. No one can deny, a Masters degree is a very prestigious award and it will not do you any harm to complete one, however, it is by no means a golden ticket. Banks, more so than most employers, like to hire a large proportion of new recruits from their internship programmes. This is particularly true in the current climate where there are only a handful of positions being offered to outside candidates. Having a Masters in finance or economics is unlikely to put you ahead of the pack, particularly those of which have substantial work experience in the area, and can be eye-achingly expensive to pursue. Obviously, even work experience in the sector is hard to come by at the moment, but we at The Gateway, having spoken to a number of professionals in the industry, would advocate getting as much experience as possible to augment your masters if you are thinking of going down this route. A Masters plus any form of experience (even if its not a front office internship) should stand you in better stead than a straight Masters.

It will avoid facing the real world for as long as possible

Many of us have at least a touch of a Van Wilder complex in us. While delaying your foray into the real world might seem sensible at a time like this, doing it via the medium of a Masters degree might not be the best way to go about it. Why? Firstly, the cost involved represents a significant obstacle. The average cost of a masters course in the UK is £2,740, while many of the more popular such as finance and management can often cost in excess of £10,000. Throw living costs and text books into the equation and you have the potential for racking up a serious amount of debt. Equally as important, however, is the time commitment involved. With Masters courses generally far more demanding than their undergraduate counterparts, a post-graduate degree generally requires long hours spent in the library and with far fewer lectures and teacher contact time than at undergraduate level. Most courses also generally offer much less in the way of a social set up so be prepared to get used to your own company

It's a second chance to prove yourself

An issue favoured by many students who for whatever reason fail to obtain the hallowed 2:1 which has become the standard cut-off point for many a corporate HR department. Sadly, the standard has become over-used in recent years as a means for employers to sort the wheat from the chaff. Out of the Times Top 100 Employers, 92 will only accept graduates with a minimum higher Second Class degree grade. So what to do if all you have to show for your time at university is a 2:2 or, heaven forbid, a third? For many students the answer is obvious - cover up the unsightly blemish on your CV with a Masters degree. A chance to wipe the slate clean and click the 'refresh button' on your job applications. Unfortunately most graduate employers are wise to this tactic. While a few corporates will demand a 2:1 or higher or a '2:2 with a Masters', most employers are shrewd enough to notice an attempt to conceal a 'poor' academic record. If your heart is set on a career with a large corporate then a Masters might be a worthwhile strategy though it is by no means a foolproof scheme. Alternatively, there are many employers out there who place limited value on your exams grades and are wiling to take into account other qualities such as extra-curricular interests, work experience and enthusiasm for the job. Once you enter the job market is soon becomes apparent that degrees hold limited value - how you perform in the job is all that matters in the long term. Degrees are essentially just a means of getting your foot in the door.

Increased employability

Masters will, generally speaking, leave you better placed when it comes to securing a job. A 2007 survey carried out by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit found lower rates of unemployment among postgraduates (4.2 per cent) than undergraduates (6.2 per cent) six months after graduating. However, there is a large disparity between vocational or professional degrees such as Law or Accountancy for instance and a postgraduate qualification in an arts subject. 6. Financial gain

The Association of Graduate Recruiters has suggested that, among employers who paid a premium to attract graduates, a significant proportion offered on average around £3,500 extra in starting salaries to graduates with an MA or MSc. However, over a longer period the financial benefits begin to fade. While, on average, a first degree gives students a 45% increase in earnings over their lifetime, postgraduate programmes only boost salaries by 5% on average, meaning that the profit you will make from investing money (as well as the wages you would have earned in that year) are relatively minor.

What, where and how

If you're still reading, it probably means that you're close to deciding that a masters course is for you. But there are a few more things you need to consider which might sway your decision either way.****

Subject area

This is the hardest area to advise on. It really depends on where you interests lie and/or what career path you are looking towards. However, it is worth considering the respective merits of different courses. You might not want to do a course aimed at a particular career but be mindful nonetheless of whether a particular subject might limit your options. A Masters in Creative Writing for example might be something you've always wanted to do but it is not going to stand you in very good stead if you then decide to want a City career. By the same token, doing something more 'constructive' because you imagine it will make you more employable might pigeon-hole you as an aspiring lawyer of financier when in reality you might not have made your mind up yet. Try and do as much research as possible on the respective merits of each course before you look to apply. Most online course guides will give an indication of what doors the course opens to graduates and the main career destinations for its students. You can also start from the other side of the fence and have a looking on careers websites to see what kind of qualifications employers look for and what kind of skills particular professions require. A job requiring a numerical or quantitative skill-set should point you in the direction of an economics or finance Masters whereas if you have your sights set on a large-international organisation it might be worth seeing if you can combine a Masters with a language course. Another point to consider is that you might not be eligible to take a certain degree or might need to take a preparation course get onto it. You'll find it difficult to find your way on to an Economics Masters course, for example, if you don't have a related undergraduate qualification. For a better understanding of what courses are available to you check out the list of resources above.

Where to study

The obvious choice is here in the UK which boasts the largest choice of Masters courses, and the most renowned institutions at which to study them, this side of the Atlantic. If you are a UK resident, prices are also relatively affordable compared to what you might pay in other countries. From here you can narrow down your search according to different criteria. London boasts a huge array of leading institutions such as the LSE Kings and SOAS which are famed for their postgraduate degrees in areas such as Economics, International Relations and Asian Studies, more so than Oxford and Cambridge whose status as leading world institutions are weighted more towards their Bachelor's courses. For Science-related Masters, Imperial and UCL are top destinations. It goes without saying, however, that studying in London is extremely expensive, even if it is only for one year. Expect to pay 50% to 100% more rent than you would in other cities, even if you manage to find a place in a halls of residence. Living costs such as travel, food and socialising are also significantly above what you might be used to. Including course fees, a year spent in the capital may set you back as much as £20,000 so be prepared to find ways of funding your year of learning.

How to fund a masters

£15,412 is the amount the University of Cambridge suggests its UK Masters students should be prepared to pay over the course of a year's study. This figure includes course fees, accommodation and general living costs. Some course fees such as Finance and Management will be higher, which will push overall costs, and, as previously mentioned, a London-based course will invariably be more costly, but this figure serves as a pretty reliable indication of what to expect.

Some courses, such as teacher training and certain scientific or medical disciplines come with funding attached in which case your focus should be on the course application itself. For the majority of postgraduate positions, however, you will need to arrange your own funding.

So how do you do this? There are various sources of funding a postgraduate degree and its important that you investigate every possible funding source and make a note of the specific dates, deadlines and criteria for eligibility.

The first port of call is to investigate what scholarships or grants are made available by the university you are applying to, either within the department itself or the central university body. Resources might include scholarships or prizes donated by private individuals or funds allocated each year by the school or department. The university website or careers department can give you a better indication of where to look. Be warned, there is generally intense competition for such awards and generally speaking the better your undergraduate degree the better your chances of success. Also worth noting is that the deadline for funding applications invariably expire some time before the deadline for the course itself. Alternatively, there are a number of charitable and educational organisations that make funding available to students in the UK. The following organisations are a good place to start: The Charities Digest , The Grants Register, The Directory of Grant Making.

As a last resort, postgraduate students in the UK are eligible for a Career Development Loan (CDL) which is similar to an undergraduate student loan in that it allows you to borrow money and pay no interest while you study. You can borrow up to a total of £8,000 for a one or two year course, or three if the course includes a work experience element.

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