Is a Postgraduate Arts Degree for me?
Undertaking a postgraduate qualification can be a very exciting and rewarding experience. Increased job prospects, further engagement with interesting material, or conversion to a new career area are all positive reasons to commence on a postgraduate degree. However, as these qualifications can come with increased financial burden and heavy personal commitments, it is important to be clear with yourself about your motivations, and to research your career path thoroughly. Not all job sectors or employers will prize these extra qualifications, particularly if they are undertaken in lieu of practical work experience and skills training.
Remember to do your research, and find the right programme for the right reasons. Some good resources can be found at the Careers Centre, in our Information Room (which contains detailed information on job sectors), on our website, and through discussion with academic staff and our Careers Advisers.
If you're interested in pursuing your Postgraduate Arts Degree in the US, please visit Postgraduate Study in the US.
When should I start?
- Straight after your degree: This route is particularly appropriate where the knowledge gained in your undergraduate degree is very relevant to your postgraduate programme. Some vocational courses would expect appropriate work experience before entry. Financial issues may be important with this option, particularly if you are intending to fund yourself.
- Taking a year out: Many graduates take a year out before they start their postgraduate programme. You can use this time to work, to help you fund your studies and gain experience, or maybe you want to travel. If you are travelling, remember to apply for courses at the right time, and that you may be asked to attend an interview or an admissions test. You will need to plan well ahead, as long as 18 months in the case of some overseas programmes, and put together a schedule of action before focusing on your time-out activities.
- Break after working full-time: Although this is a viable option it is fraught with more challenges. Will you have lost the habit of academic study? What implications will there be for you financially once you are no longer earning and have to meet the costs of your study? What is the funding body’s attitude if you have been out of academic life for more than two years? What are your plans for re-entry to work and are they realistic? Be honest with yourself and be thorough in your research into undertaking a postgraduate degree.
- While working: Would part-time study or distance learning be a more feasible option? Part-time students make up the largest proportion of the postgraduate population. Study and work in some career fields will be inevitable as the study is an essential part of career progression and development. The concept of lifelong learning is not new but is now taking on more significance as new and updated skills and knowledge are constantly required. It is more likely that you will take this option if you can see real benefits to your career progression. Working part time or full time can also be a way of funding the study in which you are interested.
Different types of PG Arts degrees
So you’ve decided that a postgraduate qualification is the route for you, but then you find you are bombarded with a plethora of programs, at as many universities in countries all over the world! Where do you start?
Firstly, it is important to get the various types of postgraduate degrees clarified. Despite the multitude of abbreviations thrown at you (MA, MLitt, MRes, MPhil etc.), these qualifications in the UK can be broken down into four main categories:
- Diploma/Certificate course: Broadly, these courses are similar in structure to the taught masters, however they generally do not include a large project or dissertation.
- Professional Qualification: An example in the Arts is a Teaching Qualification (PGCE)
- Taught Masters: With a duration of usually one year, the taught masters is an in-depth treatment of a subject through coursework and examinations, followed by a dissertation.
- Research Degrees: Research degrees involve a deep understanding of a specific topic to produce a longer dissertation, defended by oral exam (viva). The exact structure of a PhD research degree is treated more fully in the following section.
Once you have decided on the investment (in terms of time and finances) that you want to make, it is then important to search for a course that really meets your needs. Give yourself plenty of time, and for further information and relevant resources please consult Choosing the Right Course and Applying for Postgraduate Study.
This table summarises the main arts postgraduate qualifications.
|Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip)/Postgraduate Certificate (PG Cert)||Usually a first degree in a relevant subject||9 months full time||Taught (usually continuous assessment but can include exams)||Certificate courses tend to be shorter and at a lower level. They can sometimes be converted to a Masters by project work or dissertation|
|Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE or PGDE)||First degree in subject you want to teach (this can be flexible)||One year full time||Taught (assignments and practical teaching||This is the common route to teach in state schools in the UK|
|Master of Letters (MLitt)||First degree (usually honours level, 2:2 and above)||One full year full time||Taught (assessment usually includes coursework, exams and dissertation)||Sometimes can be used in preparation for a PhD, and some instituions do allow students to roll the M.Litt year into a PhD|
|Master of Arts||First degree (honours, usually 2:2 and above)||One or two years full time||Taught or Research||Might include some training in research methods. In the UK, international students may be asked to do a PGDip first as entry can be very competitive.|
|Master in Research (MRes)||First degree (honours level, 2:1 or above)||One year full time||Taught (assessment by thesis)||Relatively new qualification designed to prepare students for doctoral research|
|Master of Philosophy||First degree (honours level, 2:1 or above)||Two or years full-time||The MPhil is at a higher level than the MA/MLitt as it involves a longer research thesis (around 40,000 words) Many institutions provide transfer from an MPhil (or other Masters by research) to a PhD for suitable candidates|
|Doctor of Philosophy (Phd; DPhil)||First degree (2:1 or above) in a relevant subject, or more usually a Masters degree. Occasionally a transfer from a masters course||Three or four years full time||Research (Thesis plus oral exam)||Usually a prerequisite for any career in Academia, the PhD is designed to test your research abilities, and the candidate must prove the originality and importance of their final thesis|
Structure of an Arts PhD degree
The structure of a PhD course can vary greatly not only by country, but also by institution within one country. In the UK, a PhD is generally completed over a three to four year period, consisting of the following phases:
- Coursework Phase: The coursework phase usually runs throughout the first year, and involves general training in research methods and skills. This can include language training, quantitative methods, qualitative methods, and specific skills training in your particular discipline.
- Dissertation Phase: Following the coursework phase (or alongside it), you will commence the research and writing of your dissertation. While some people will start the writing up process early on, others might involve themselves heavily in research only to write up in the final year. This is an individual decision to be undertaken with your supervisor.
- The Viva: The final phase of the PhD is the submission and defence of your thesis, in front of a panel of experts in your field. Following this process you will be awarded either a pass, with or without corrections, or a fail (although this is fairly rare).
The PhD degree structure in North America is similar, although the process is generally expected to take much longer (usually four to five years). The coursework phase can run for two years, and rather than merely concentrating on research methods, these courses will also seek to provide a solid subject-specific foundation. The coursework is usually followed by a series of exams, known as ‘comprehensives’ or ‘qualifying exams’ (comps or quals), which will test both writing and oral understanding of your field of study. It is only following the successful completion of these exams that a student is permitted to commence the dissertation phase of the degree.
Although this section has provided a general overview of the structure of a PhD degree, it is by no means all-encompassing. When deciding to undertake a research degree it is important to look into the specifics of the structure at any potential university, and to ensure that it meets with your expectations.
Life after a Research Postgraduate Arts degree
Employment opportunities can vary according to the field of study. You can expect opportunities to exist in academia, in industry and in the public sector but competition can be fierce (particularly in the former). A PhD is now usually a prerequisite for an academic career as a university researcher or lecturer, and it is not unusual to hold a series of one or more postdoctoral positions before securing a permanent post. Moreover, unlike the sciences, opportunities for arts postdocs are not as common. Permanent posts can be difficult to come by and opportunities are often on a short-term contract basis and it is this lack of security that is often cited as a primary reason for leaving academia.
There are many careers for which a research degree is desirable or essential, such as work as a researcher for an international think tank or as a commissioning editor for a specialist academic journal. For other areas you will be able to emphasise the transferable skills you have gained whilst undertaking your research. For further guidance, you can speak to a Careers Adviser.
The Bottom Line
As stated at the outset of this handout, a postgraduate degree can have a positive impact on your employment prospects and can be a valuable experience, both personally and professionally. However, the report Employers' Perceptions of Recruiting Research Staff and Students cited concerns when recruiting candidates with higher degrees. These include: specialisation and narrowness of interest; difficulties in integrating into a business environment; and unrealistic salary expectations. Conversely, it also cited positive candidate attributes such as: problem-solving, analytical and project management skills. Think about activities (e.g. with university societies or through work experience) you might undertake either prior to, or whilst pursuing your research that could counter these concerns if you are considering a career outside your specialist field. It is important to realise that even in academia, a PhD is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite. The more work experience you can obtain, and extracurricular activities you can cite will undoubtedly increase your employability following academic study. And as with all career planning, it is important to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and to develop a realistic approach to achieving your career goals.