How to Choose a Master's Degree in 10 Easy Steps

female masters student studying

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 Masters degree. But before you put everything on hold and head on back to campus, you’ll have to first confront an even tougher choice: how are you going to choose what to study?

This may sound like a straightforward question, but it is 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 are here to help. This handy guide contains a number of tips that will help you to decide on a program that is right for you.

1. Ask Yourself Why

The first thing you should ask yourself is why you want to study a Masters 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 program simply because it isn’t mainstream,” she says. “And don’t be tempted to pick a degree just because you feel it might look good on your CV either”.

2. Consider How You Will Learn

It is important to remember that postgraduate study is drastically different to undergraduate study and that the structure and learning style 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 Masters 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”.

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 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 as well. Pay particular attention to their reputation for research – many university satisfaction surveys don’t take this into account, but for Masters 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 program’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 Lecturers

Tying into the previous point, Francis believes 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,” she says, “but how well you might get on with those running it. Knowing that your prospective supervisor shares your interests and approach is a definite bonus”.

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. Admissions staff will recognise your enthusiasm and diligence, which will undoubtedly work in your favour when you’re called forward for an interview.

5. Be Able to Pay for It

Although total costs vary between universities, Masters degrees are generally not cheap. Therefore, you need to consider if you can afford it; this can influence the choice you make.

Scholarships and loans are available (working part-time is also possible), but no matter how you tackle it, cost should be part of your final decision. Remember, you are 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 and all 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 Masters can vary greatly. Although the standard is 1 - 2 years, there are courses that can run for anything between 6 months and 5 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 Masters that is less than a year in length, for example, runs the risk that it will not be recognized or respected”.

7. Weigh it Up Against Your Strengths

It might sound like common sense, but many students often overlook it. If writing essays is not your biggest strength, then maybe you should consider something more practical; alternatively, if you produce your best work out in the field, then maybe you should avoid a course that is entirely classroom-based.

While there will undoubtedly be elements of the course that are not your forte, try and play to your strengths as much as possible.

8. Consider the School / University

While the course and the department is the most important aspect, 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 is 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.

Alternatively, a Masters is a perfect opportunity to try living abroad – 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. The Devil Is in the Detail

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

  • The availability of study/library/IT services
  • The teaching facilities (i.e. 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 are 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.

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. For example, if you are 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 is a lot to consider when choosing a Masters. It is one of the most significant financial investments you will likely ever make, as well as the highest educational level you will 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 Masters? Do you have any tips? Let us know in the comments below…