Graduate degrees used to be a rarity, but they’ve become increasingly popular as a means of furthering one’s career. But how valuable are they as an educational tool? Are they worth it?
Nowadays, it’s common for graduate degrees to be a prerequisite for specific employers, particularly in academic positions. In fact, in academia the competition is so great that PhD graduates are often found applying for research assistant positions instead of higher-level postdoctoral fellowships. But aside from career competitiveness, what makes a graduate degree valuable?
Having smaller cohorts in graduate degree programs gives them especially high value: it allows students to work closely with friends and peers, have more challenging intellectual conversations, and form stronger long-lasting friendships. It also gives space to build relationships with lecturers and potential future colleagues, since students have more chance to gain and apply tailored feedback.
Graduate degrees also give an opportunity for more self-directed, autonomous learning, where you, the learner, have the most input into the success of your degree and student experience. Postgraduate degrees are not spoon-fed, passive learning processes in the way that some undergraduate degrees are, and they create space for you to discover your own strengths as learner and awareness of both your intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for pursuing the program.
Intrinsic motivation involves students’ engaging in a subject because they hold a deep interest in the subject or a love of learning itself. There are no external rewards with intrinsic motivation, but the force is powerful enough that it can be the driver for many deciding whether they want to pursue graduate study or not.
While extrinsic motivation may also have a hand in your graduate experience (e.g. successful testing, successful teaching activities, validation from academic advisors), you’ll find that many graduate students are present simply because they love learning. They love challenging themselves to dive deep, ask questions, and explore the intricacies of the world around them.
If you crave this type of learning environment, a graduate program with the right framework and classmates is a thrilling and intellectually challenging place to be.
As a current academic lecturer, my personal experience as a master’s student was a fantastic one. The MSc in Marine Biology at Bangor University is a one-year intensive course (with European universities normally requiring two years of study). It had a strong practical research element, which was an area I wanted to gain experience in after a very academic undergraduate degree; it was also a much smaller program than my undergraduate degree, with just 44 students. I had the opportunity to travel to Zanzibar for my dissertation and gain first-hand experience in the field I work in now: mangrove ecology. Researching the different courses on offer at UK universities allowed me to choose the right course for me, and with it came opportunities I’d never expected to find.
And this isn’t only my experience. From research fellowships to professional engagements to arts entrepreneurship opportunities, graduate programs are places of opportunity where your niche strengths and interests have a space to blossom. Regardless of what work you end up doing after graduate school, it’s a moment in time where you’re somewhat sheltered from life’s demands and have a chance to delve into the things you’re truly passionate about.
A graduate program gives you a chance to deepen your knowledge in an area that you may have only known a little about previously. The generally broad nature of undergraduate degrees means that students graduate knowing a little about a lot of subjects, but nothing in great detail. A graduate program provides an opportunity to hone your knowledge and gain exposure to new types of thinking. You should leave a graduate program feeling more confident in your analytical abilities, and, ideally, more confident in the path you have chosen to take and the person that you are becoming. Down the road, this confidence will be a positive asset when you’re applying for and interviewing with prospective employers.
In addition to becoming more of an expert in your chosen subject area, you’ll learn plenty of life skills as a master’s student. Research skills, logistics, forward planning, and self-directed learning are a few; enhanced communication skills, diplomacy, teamwork and critical thinking are others. Self-discipline and organization are fundamental skills you’ll inevitably have to develop: learning to balance life, part-time work, and study is often necessary and, more importantly, a natural segue into full time employment.
What about cost? Graduate programs don’t come cheap nowadays, with the average cost of a master’s program being £11,000 per year in the UK (see more from UCAS), and higher fees for international students. Investing in the right degree program for you is imperative. You’ll want to research options at different universities and even the likelihood of such qualifications’ being accepted for the job you are thinking of applying for afterwards. The research suggests that employers are generally more aware of the high value of employees having a graduate qualification: it’s been expected that around 15% of jobs will require a graduate degree in this year of 2022.
All in all, undertaking a master’s degree which is the right fit for you will challenge you like you’ve not been challenged before, giving you insight, skill, and focus in a professional but topically directed environment. Is it right for you? That’s for you to decide.
Dr. Amrit Dencer-Brown
Lecturer in Academic Practice