The Oxbridge Editing Blog 3rd December 2019

Everything you ever wanted to know about starting a master’s degree

3rd December 2019

When it comes to postgraduate study, the master’s degree is the most common, popular and internationally renowned qualification. It is the stepping-stone to a PhD, an auspice for increased employability, and, most importantly of all, a whetstone by which you can sharpen your knowledge.

A master’s degree can do wonderful things for a person in terms of both career and personal development – but, when compared to a bachelor’s degree, it is a different monster entirely. Before embarking on what could be a very formative few years, you should probably know exactly what it is that you’re getting yourself into.

What is a master’s degree?

To put it simply, a master’s degree is a qualification that is a level higher than a bachelor’s degree and a level below a PhD. Although they come in different shapes and sizes (depending on the course and the university), all master’s degrees share certain commonalities. For example, they are generally taken after a bachelor’s, they are more intense than a bachelor’s, they often focus on a particular area of a wider subject, and they are either research-based or taught.

A taught master’s degree would be more recognisable to an undergraduate; students select modules, attend seminars and lectures (though class-sizes are usually smaller), take exams, write essays and a dissertation, and undertake independent research with supervision from a tutor or tutors. Research-based master’s (commonly an MRes) are just the opposite; no classes, complete independence, and students focus on one specific topic, producing a comprehensive thesis with guidance from a supervisor.

How long is a master’s degree?

Generally speaking, a master’s degree is one to two years if full-time or two to four years if part-time (sometimes longer for dual degrees). However, the length of a master’s degree depends on the course and the university. There are online programmes that may be longer than an on-campus course, dual degrees that necessarily take more time to complete, and accelerated courses that can take less than a year.  Each type has its pros and cons, but really the amount of time spent doing a master’s should be defined by your own pace and learning style. Just make sure to do your research into the length of the course you are applying for – you don’t want to anticipate studying part-time only to find out that you’re on an all-intensive 9-month accelerated course!

Spelling it: is it masters or master’s?

This is actually a pretty simple one. The correct way of spelling master’s degree (as you can see), is with the apostrophe. This is because it is possessive: it is the degree of somebody that is recognised as a master of their subject. The alternative – masters – indicates that the degree is plural. Another commonly confusing point is whether ‘master’s’ should be capitalised. Unless it is at the beginning of a sentence, you do not need to capitalise ‘master’s’ as it is not a proper noun. However, if you are naming the title of the specific degree (for example, Master of Science), the ‘M’ should be capitalised along with the rest of the title.

Master’s degree abbreviations

Master’s degree abbreviations are always derived from the title of the degree in question. Two good examples would be the most common degree titles: Master of Arts and Master of Science. Master of Arts is abbreviated to MA (sometimes written as M.A), and Master of Science is abbreviated to MSc. Sometimes, as in MSc, additional letters are included. This is to prevent confusion with other degrees with similar starting letters (i.e. Master of Studies – abbreviated to MSt). Here is a list of some others:

  • LLM (Master of Laws)
  • MArch (Master of Architecture)
  • MEd (Master of Education)
  • MEng (Master of Engineering)
  • MFA (Master of Fine Arts)
  • MLitt (Master of Letters)
  • MMus (Master of Music)

How much does a master’s cost?

The money question is one of the biggest variables from course to course, ranging anywhere from £4,900 to £94,130 (Cambridge’s Doctor of Business degree). On average they cost around £11,000 per annum. The cost for one year’s tuition can seem insurmountable – especially when considered alongside rent, food, travel expenses, and of course the inevitable library fine for that one book you forgot about. Not only this, but some cities are more expensive to live in than others (London, for example), and some universities with a collegiate system (i.e. Oxford, Cambridge, Durham) may have additional college fees.

Luckily, there are plenty of options available to help ease the financial load. There are postgraduate loans, scholarships, bursaries, and Research Council grants. The best thing you can do is jump onto the websites of Student Finance, your own university and the Research Council to see what options are available to you.

Is a master’s degree worth it?

This is a biggy, and not easily answerable. Whether a master’s degree is worth it is entirely dependent upon you. Of course, the fundamental idea behind a master’s degree is that it will benefit your career. It is, for all intents and purposes, an investment.

It’s no light commitment either – it can cost as much as a small house and requires hard work. This is why, before undertaking such an academic feat, you should be assured that you will get out of it exactly what you put into it – with bells on.

Make sure you think seriously about why you want to do a master’s degree, and if the answer is either:

  1. You have decided that you don’t enjoy work and are looking for another brief foray into the university comfort-zone;
  2. Or you simply can’t face the real world yet…

Then a master’s probably isn’t for you.

Student loans for master degrees

Though the student loan for postgraduate students is significantly smaller than for undergraduates, it can still provide a huge helping hand when it comes to tuition fees and living expenses. Student Finance is able to loan a maximum of £10,609, and the money will be repaid at the same time as any other outstanding student loan. Like any other loans from Student Finance, your monthly bill is dependent upon your income, and you’ll only start repaying it when you start to earn £21,000 a year or above (correct as of December 2019). This means that you should never be out-of-pocket or over-encumbered.

Like any loan, there are innumerable finance companies that will offer larger amounts of money. However, each finance company will have different stipulations, APR rates and repayment policies, so you have to be careful when deciding whether or not to take out a loan. And, as with any loan, do your research!

Benefits of a master’s degree

Where to begin?! The benefits of a master’s degree can be both plentiful and invaluable. In a world where the job market is saturated with Bachelor degrees, a master’s can really stand out. It can completely set you apart from other candidates, it can increase your salary, it can give you the skills needed to do higher-paying jobs, it can facilitate a career change. The list goes on!

And it’s not only good for employment prospects. Master degrees are also fantastic for developing new skills, discovering new passions and meeting new people. Sure, the latter may sound like a cliché, but you should never underestimate the value of networking and where it might take you.

How to apply for a master’s degree

Unlike Bachelor degrees, applications for Master programmes do not need to go through UCAS. This means that there is no limit to the number of courses you can apply for. Unfortunately, this also means that it is completely up to you to find out the exact requirements for the specific course in question. Yep, it’s time to get organised!

The first port-of-call is to find a course that interests you and check that places are available and applications are open. More often than not, each course will have a different deadline. Secondly, check all relevant deadlines for funding (scholarships and bursaries) as these may have different deadlines to the courses themselves. After that, you need to just ensure that you have all supporting documents (a well-written personal statement, letters of recommendation, etc.) completed and sent in on time.

There is a great list of tips here: Top Tips for Applying for Your Postgrad to help you with the application process.

How difficult is a master’s degree?

The first thing you notice when beginning a master’s degree is the step-up in intensity compared to a Bachelors. There is a level of expectation for postgraduate students that is simply not there for undergraduates. There is no longer the option to mill quietly in the back of the lecture hall, nor to quote flippantly from any old book. Instead, active and pragmatic engagement is enforced by conferences, presentations and fearless tutors (so you better have done the reading!), and you’re expected to know (or at least find out) what scholarly editions you should be quoting from. Then there is the master’s dissertation, which can be signifcantly different to the one required at the end of an undergraduate course.

So, you can probably guess that, at times, a master’s can be tough-going. The good news though is that there are always tutors and other students there for support. You’re not alone and, what’s more, the amount of pride, satisfaction and intellectual engagement available as a consequence is, if you’re willing to put in the work, worth the difficulty ten-times over.