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How to choose a uni to study a Master’s

It’s not all bars and beers as a postgrad.

You’ll be looking for different things from a university than you did as an undergraduate, and the social whirl might be less important. 
And so choosing where to take a masters requires a different approach.

Many students prefer to stay on at their undergraduate university, enticed by fee reductions, loyalty scholarships and the comfort of familiarity. 

But if you’re thinking of going elsewhere, you’ll need to research beyond the generic university websites and prospectuses.

“In some ways the university itself isn’t as important as the course for postgraduates,” says Emily Stevens, senior admissions officer at the University of Winchester, where most postgrads have stayed on from their first degree. “But don’t stay at the same university for the sake of it, or because it’s comfortable and familiar” says Professor Heather Dichter, who runs the MSc in sports management at De Montfort University in Leicester. “You have to think what you want to get out of it.”

How do you gauge a university’s reputation?

League tables – which often include undergraduate student satisfaction surveys - aren’t as relevant for postgraduates, but you can still look up the research rankings. If there’s a strong team of subject academics, researchers and postgraduate student who share interests, they’ll provide the kind of peer-to-peer support that makes a difference at this level, says Professor Daniel Parsons, director of the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull.

“When times are tough and your dissertation or thesis is due, having a strong cohort of peers who share your passion and are on campus and ready to grab a coffee can make all the difference.”

Look at the impact of the university department in the field of your study. “It’s important to identify a university that has a strong focus on the area of study you’re choosing,” he says. 

And while universities don’t always know what past students are up to, they might be able to put you in touch with alumni, or at least give examples of where their postgraduates have gone on to work. 

Ensure your course is accredited by relevant professional bodies, says psychologist and doctoral student Charlotte Armitage. If for instance you want to practise as a psychologist, you will need to be on a course accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS). “A friend of mine wasted a year studying an unaccredited course,” she says.

Look at location

You might want to switch to a campus or a city university for a change – or go for a different size institution. “In the three years of your degree, you may have developed academically and could go up a level,” says Armitage.  

“Although I picked a university because - as well as offering what I wanted - it was convenient and had good parking,” she adds. Proximity to businesses, to public transport, to an independent social life can help you decide. Do you want bars and cafes within walking distance? Think of your money too – on average a postgraduate spends between £8000 to £11000 on living costs, but this rises in London and the southeast.

Fancy facilities?

Try to find out if the university has invested in modernising facilities in the past – or whether any major works are planned while you’ll be a student there – you don’t want to live on a building site.

Are there separate study skills sessions targeting postgraduates, or workshops to help you refine you research skills? Is it a research university? Are there webinars and out-of-hours online support, should you need them? Is there a specialist library? Are study spaces comfy – somewhere you’d see yourself working? A postgraduate hub? Do you simply like the “feel” of a place? How dynamic is the career service, and do they have links with local and larger businesses? Does the university offer any support for postgraduate wellbeing? What opportunities do leaders lay on for you to network and make contacts beyond your course?

And where will you live? Most universities prioritise student rooms for undergraduates, and many postgraduates make their own arrangements – but accommodation services can help out with recommendations and lists of private flat shares, and sometimes university rooms.

Busy social life?

Remember you’ll generally be in smaller classes than during your first degree, so you’ll get to know most of your fellow students and academics. Masters courses tend to be far more international too – look at previous years to understand where students come from.

“I asked myself what do I like studying, and who do I like to have around,” says postgraduate Jesus Lucero, who’s taking an MSc in astronautics and space engineering at Cranfield University, and is delighted by the international mix of students, and the professional contacts of academics he’s found on his course.  

How do you find the right information?

“Make the most of any engagement opportunities in advance,” says Terry O’Donnell, senior postgraduate liaison officer at the University of Sussex. Findamasters.com lists tens of thousands of courses, and UCAS also offers an application process for some – but not all – taught masters.

Universities host open days and evenings, and the likes of Sussex offer webinars showcasing opportunities. It’s not unusual for course leaders to stay in contact with interested prospective students, says Stevens. Facebook groups and live chat help students stay in the loop, and programme leaders are usually happy to speak to prospective applicants – and it’s fine to contact them directly, she adds.

“It’s a big financial commitment,” says Stevens. “But the market is there, and universities are playing catch up. With Brexit, we’re expecting an increase of people wanting to return to study and improve their prospects.”

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