How to Choose the Right Master’s Degree in 10 Simple Steps

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Choose the Right Master’s Degree

Regardless of what stage you’re at in your career – whether you’re a wide-eyed graduate or a seasoned professional – there are huge benefits to doing a master’s degree. But before you put everything on hold and head back to campus, you’ll have to first confront an even tougher choice: selecting which programme to sign up for.

This may sound like a straightforward question, but it’s anything but. There are a wide variety of factors that you need to consider before making a decision – some of which may not have been apparent at first.

Fear not, though. As always, we’re here to help. This handy guide contains a number of tips that will help you to decide on a master’s degree programme that is right for you.

1. Ask yourself why

The first thing to consider is why you want to study a master’s in the first place. Is it so that you can progress in your career? Is it a requirement to pursuing a particular field? Or are you just doing it for the sake of learning? Whatever the reason, it can help you to narrow down your options.

Careers advisor Chantelle Francis claims that you should choose a course that fits your own goals – not anybody else’s. ‘Don’t be tempted to ignore an interesting-looking programme simply because it isn’t mainstream,’ she says.

Indeed, specialised master’s degrees could be your golden ticket to a new job. Postgraduates who specialise in niche fields are often sought out by companies because of their skills and knowledge. By conducting thorough research and considering the needs of the industry you’re hoping to work in, you’ll know if your choice could be an asset to you when job searching later on.

Likewise, ‘don’t be tempted to pick a degree just because you feel it might look good on your résumé either’, says Francis. There are a various useless degrees you need to try avoid.

2. Consider how you’ll learn

It’s important to remember that postgraduate study is drastically different to undergraduate study. That includes the structure and learning style, which may be something you’ve not experienced before. Therefore, Francis believes that you should take into account the delivery method of the course.

‘The approach I took was to list the main components I wanted from a master’s degree, such as more autonomy, less classroom-based learning, fewer essays and more community-based research,’ she says. ‘Finding suitable degrees was easier as a result. Having identified my own needs, I could quickly see which programmes would cater to them, and which would not.’

Usually, a master’s programme is either taught or research-based. The former bears many similarities with an undergraduate course in that it involves set seminars, workshops and lectures. This also means that your professors will be leading your course and that you’ll be orchestrating your independent studies outside your timetable. If you enjoy the process of guided learning, then a taught master’s might be a good choice for you.

Meanwhile, the latter will grant you more independence and may not even involve taught modules. Instead, you’ll find yourself working on different projects, conducting your own research, but you’ll still have support from your academic supervisor. So, if you enjoy independent study, you may be better suited for a research master’s course.

3. Do your research

This kind of goes without saying, but make sure you research your options thoroughly. Don’t just go off the university’s own website – read student testimonies and reviews, utilise independent platforms such as The Student Room and College Confidential, and try to speak to current students if possible.

Don’t just look into the course, either. Check out the university and, more specifically, the department. Pay particular attention to their reputation for research – many university satisfaction surveys don’t take this into account, but for master’s students, this is one of the most important factors.

Indeed, education consultant Rosemary Stamp says that the credibility of the department should be at the top of your list: ‘Does it have a national/international profile? Are staff renowned and active in their research areas?’ she asks. ‘And what about the programme’s alumni? Check the employment rates and success stories of those who have gone before you.’

Blogger Charlie Pullen agrees: ‘Make the departments your point of focus rather than the institution’, he says. ‘This is a much more fruitful way to pin down exactly what you want as a postgraduate student.’

4. Meet the course supervisors

Tying into the previous point, Francis believes that attending graduate fairs and open days is a valuable tool as it allows you to network and meet the people who will be running the course.

‘Getting to know those that could potentially teach you on a prospective course not only gives you a feel for the content, but also how well you might get on with those running it,’ she says. ‘Knowing that your prospective supervisor shares your interests and approach is a definite bonus.’

The great thing about meeting course supervisors and professors is that you can ask them questions about the programme, discuss potential areas you would like to explore during your studies and get an insight to the course’s structure.

As well as giving you a better idea of the course, getting out there and making yourself known will also make you stand out when it comes to applying, which could increase your chances of landing a place in the programme. Admissions staff will recognise your enthusiasm and diligence, which will undoubtedly work in your favour when you’re called forward for an interview.

5. Consider the financial cost

Although total costs vary between universities, master’s degrees are generally not cheap. Therefore, you need to consider whether you can afford it, as this can influence the choice you make.

Scholarships and loans are available, and working a part-time job is also possible, but no matter how you tackle it, cost should be part of your final decision. Remember: you’re not just paying for your course fees, but for your accommodation and living costs too.

Your best bet is to speak directly to each of the universities you are applying to and find out what options are available. Francis also recommends seeking out external funding bodies to take advantage of any financial help that you can get.

6. Consider the course length

Depending on your previous experience and qualifications, and the purpose of your study, the length of a master’s degree course can vary greatly. Although the standard is between one to two years, there are courses that can run for anything between six months and five years – something you need to be aware of before you start.

It can also have a bearing on how your qualification is viewed, according to MBA lecturer Dimitrios Diamantis: ‘The duration is down to the course’s accreditation,’ he says. ‘Choosing a master’s that is less than a year in length, for example, runs the risk that it will not be recognised or respected.’

Depending on the length of the course, you may need to conduct an opportunity cost analysis, too. For example, if the programme you have your eyes on takes three years to complete, consider what other opportunities you would be giving up in the meantime – this could include pursuing a different job, staying within your current industry or more personal goals, such as travelling.

A master’s degree is a big commitment, so weigh up these scenarios and consider what other things you may be giving up on for the duration of your studies.

7. Weigh your choice against your strengths

It might sound like common sense but many students often overlook this step. It’s important to base your decision on your current skills, experience and expertise.

For example, while you may have a passion for environmental conservation, a degree in climate change science might not be the best fit for you if you only have a background in arts and humanities. Instead, a master’s in environmental management may be a better suited for you as it plays up to your strengths and skills.

That said, some courses allow some leeway for you to learn and adapt to a new discipline. A two-year master’s in law, for example, often welcomes graduates from a variety of disciplines, allowing them to study the subject without previous experience.

However, it’s still important to weigh your interests and strengths when picking a course, so if maths and science was never something you excelled in, it could be wise to find a course that favours your own skillset.

8. Consider the location

While the course and the department are the most important aspects, you should still bear in mind where the university is located and the effect this will have on your personal life. If your dream course is located in the middle of nowhere, then that’s fine – but will you be able to cope with leading a quieter lifestyle?

Of course, this is down to the individual and their circumstances, but it’s worth seriously considering. If possible, visit the local area of the university you have applied for and ask yourself if you can envision living there.

A master’s is a perfect opportunity to try living abroad, and programmes such as Erasmus+ offer scholarships to those who are looking to study in a different country.

Immersing yourself in a foreign culture is a highly rewarding and valuable experience that will significantly enhance your personal development; it also impresses employers who are always keen to recruit culturally aware and independent employees.

9. Look into the details

Stamp argues that you should be clear on the finer points of the course before you commit, ensuring that you’re in the know on at least the following issues:

  • The availability of study/library/IT services
  • The teaching facilities (eg: virtual technologies)
  • The exact number of contact hours you will have with teaching staff
  • The size of your cohort

These are factors that can have a significant impact on the quality of your study experience.

‘Check the return on your fee in terms of the support and guidance available from teaching staff’, she says. If you’re paying high fees but will only receive 1–2 hours a week of teaching support, alarm bells should be ringing. If the library isn’t open on weekends, or the student-to-teacher ratio is very high, you should consider if you will really be getting the support you need.’

While you may enrol in a reputable programme, the university’s facilities, or lack of, could negatively affect your overall experience as a postgraduate student. A great way to ensure you’ll have everything you need is to read through student reviews of the university and department.

Meanwhile, another important factor to consider is the student satisfaction rates. For example, the National Student Survey releases an annual ranking of UK universities, based on students’ feedback and experiences. It’s easy to get swayed by glossy brochures, but if the student satisfaction at the university or programme you’re leaning towards is low, then you may need to reconsider.

10. Check the requirements

It’s pointless applying to the ‘perfect’ course if you don’t match the entry requirements for it – therefore, the first thing you should check is your eligibility.

Don’t lose heart if you’re not quite qualified, though – many institutions are flexible with their entry requirements. For example, if you’re missing an academic qualification but you have proven professional experience in that area, most universities will accommodate this.

Be proactive, too. If you need to complete a certain module or short course, look into obtaining the relevant qualification, or something similar. As well as making you eligible, taking on the extra work will demonstrate your commitment during the interview process.

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when choosing a postgraduate degree. It’s one of the most significant financial investments you’ll likely ever make, as well as the highest educational level you’ll have experienced up to that point – both things that should not be taken on lightly.

Follow the steps above and cover as many bases as you possibly can in the research process – the more you can find out, the better.

Are you currently studying for a master’s degree? Do you have any tips? Let us know in the comments below!

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 4 January 2018, and contains contributions from staff writer Melina Theodorou.