Postgraduate study

Postgraduate study includes postgraduate certificates, Masters degrees and PhD programmes. It is a popular choice among University of St Andrews students, allowing you to study a subject you enjoy in more depth, gain further skills, and enhance your career prospects. Postgraduate study is available for almost any academic subject. Find out more about postgraduate study options at St Andrews.

This page focuses mainly on postgraduate study within the UK. Though you may be able to apply much of this advice outside the UK, there can be some significant differences between countries. For advice on postgraduate study outside the UK, see Prospects’ postgraduate study abroad pages.

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Benefits of postgraduate study

There are many benefits of postgraduate study. It can help you to:

  • stand out from other applicants when applying for jobs
  • enhance earnings in your future career
  • increase your ability to make connections with others
  • learn skills and gain experiences that you did not get from undergraduate study
  • continue to explore a subject you enjoy in greater depth.

Though there are many benefits, it’s important to consider whether postgraduate study is the right option for you. Choosing to pursue postgraduate study is a significant commitment of your time and effort, and likely to be much more academically challenging than undergraduate study.

If you are considering postgraduate study, you should think about whether you:

  • are sufficiently passionate about the subject you intend to study
  • can use a postgraduate degree to help achieve your career goals
  • can realistically afford to complete the degree
  • enjoy an academic, university environment enough to study further
  • could do better things with the time you would need to invest in the degree.

Masters degrees

Masters degrees involve deeper consideration of the issues raised in undergraduate study. They tend to involve more independent research, a level of specialisation, and a greater emphasis on developing research skills. For more information, see differences between undergraduate and postgraduate study (FindAMasters).

There are three types of Masters degrees: taught, research, and professional (or vocational).

Taught Masters degrees include qualifications like the MA and MSc. These usually last one year and involve a large element of teaching. In addition, you will usually need to complete a dissertation of between 15,000 and 20,000 words. (A small number of older universities, including St Andrews, award Masters degrees, such as the MA, at the end of undergraduate study. These are not postgraduate degrees, and are equivalent to Bachelors degrees from other universities).  

Research Masters degrees include qualifications like the MPhil. These usually last two years and require you to produce a large, supervised dissertation, usually of about 50,000 words. They may sometimes be awarded while you work on a PhD, or occasionally instead of a PhD.

Some Masters degrees are professional qualifications. For further information, see the professional qualifications page.

PhD programmes

PhDs programmes involve even deeper study than Masters degrees. Unlike Masters degrees, however, they must add to the existing body of knowledge within your field.

PhDs are always research degrees and usually involve producing a large, supervised thesis, commonly of about 80,000 words. You can study for a PhD in almost any academic subject, and they tend to be the highest qualification you can study for within your field.

PhDs usually last three to four years and end with an oral examination, called a ‘viva’ (short for ‘viva voce’, Latin for ‘with living voice’). The viva usually lasts about two hours and involves an external and internal examiner discussing your thesis with you.

For more information on the way PhDs work, see what it's like to do a PhD (FindAPhD).

Entry requirements for postgraduate study

Entry requirements for postgraduate study vary by the type of degree, the institution to which you apply, and your subject. You should always familiarise yourself with the specific entry requirements for your preferred course.

  • For Masters study, in general, you will be expected to hold at least a 2.1 undergraduate degree in a related subject.
  • For PhD study, within the Arts and Humanities, you will usually be expected to hold at least a merit in a Masters degree in a related subject. In the Sciences, it is often acceptable to begin PhD study without first studying for a Masters, providing you performed well (usually at least a 2.1) in your undergraduate degree.

In some cases, these requirements can be waived, such as when you have relevant professional experience. If you are unsure, contact the admissions department of the institution to which you are applying.

Applying for postgraduate study

There is no central admissions system for most postgraduate courses: you usually apply directly to the institution that offers your course. Most courses do not have official closing dates, but popular courses can fill quickly, so submit your application as early as possible.

As part of your application, you will usually be asked to include the following:

  • CV (and sometimes an application form)
  • personal statement explaining your reasons for applying
  • essay on a specific topic or a sample of previous written work (not generally required in the Sciences)
  • academic transcript from your current course of study
  • research proposal (for research Masters and PhD programmes only, usually within the Arts and Humanities)
  • two or three academic references.

For help with your CV and personal statement, see the applying for a job or internship pages.

For help with what academic references are, and how to request them, see the guide on how to request an academic reference.

Applying for a research degree

When applying for a research degree, there are some additional things you should consider:

  • You will need to write a research proposal, usually between 500 and 1,000 words. For advice on how to do this, see writing a research proposal (Vitae).
  • Speak to academics in your academic School. They may be able to suggest related areas of study and institutions specialising in your chosen field.
  • Consider potential supervisors carefully, and contact them ahead of your formal application. They will be pleased to hear from students who show a genuine interest in their research and may be able to help you find and apply to funding opportunities. They may also be able to put you in contact with current or previous postgraduate students they have supervised.
  • If you have a unique research area in mind, you may need to write a research proposal with your potential supervisor and submit it to funding bodies.

For further advice on applying for a research degree, see applying for a PhD (FindAPhD).

Funding for postgraduate study

There are many ways of funding postgraduate study. Funding may be scholarships, grants, and bursaries (which are yours to keep) and loans (which you must repay). The process for applying for funding can vary depending on the type and source of funding.

Sources of funding include:

  • government loans
  • research council scholarships (sometimes called ‘studentships’)
  • charities and businesses
  • university scholarships, often School-specific.

Some sources of funding are unique to the institution or school to which you are applying. Check with the institution to understand what funding opportunities are available to you.

Be aware that not every funding source will cover all costs associated with your course (for example, they may only cover your tuition fees). Some sources of funding can also be extremely competitive, particularly where the funding is comprehensive. This may mean that you have to fund part of your studies yourself. For jobs that you can do while studying, see part-time local jobs.

For advice on funding for postgraduate study, see funding postgraduate study (Prospects). For information on postgraduate funding available at the University of St Andrews, including the Saint Andrew's Society of the State of New York scholarship (value $35,000 (US dollars)), see the postgraduate scholarships page.