What’s it really like to be a postgraduate student?

Imogen Knox is studying MA History at the University of Exeter, Streatham Campus. 

Imogen Knox, MA History, Exeter

Fairly early on in my undergraduate degree, it occurred to me that I could make a career out of doing what I love – research! This initially seemed somewhat of a pipe dream, as I was unsure about a lot of the elements of studying at postgraduate level. How would I fund another year? Did I want to go on to become a lecturer? What would my parents think of me spending another year in university and not getting a graduate job? Would I even still want to do further study after completing my third year dissertation?

So for a while these thoughts floated around in my head, and as I moved up through second year and into third year, I decided I ought to give this some serious consideration and properly look into my options after graduating from my BA.


As I saw it, the main obstacle to a Master’s course would be how I would pay for it. The introduction of the Master’s Loan from Student Finance resolved the matter of paying fees, though I still had to consider rent and other living costs. Before the introduction of postgrad loans, I had considered taking a year out to earn the money to pay for another year of study, but with the promise of a loan of around £10,000, I calculated that I could save up money from my part time job during my third year, work full time over the summer, and then pick up my part time job again during my Master’s, which would give me enough funds. If you are aiming to secure a part time job while studying, think about how much time you can reasonably spend working without sacrificing your studies; I started out this year working 9 hours a week, which I found I had to reduce to 6 hours in order to fit in my course, reading, and other activities to maintain a balanced life.

Something to bear in mind while thinking about your costs is the course fees, which can differ between universities and courses. While a £10,000 loan may sound like a lot, the course fees may deplete most of this, meaning that you will have to look elsewhere for living costs. The location of your course will also impact on living expenses and the cost of rent; most obviously, rent in London will be higher than other areas of the country. Keep this in mind when calculating how much money you will need for your course.

Another avenue to explore is scholarships, which you might receive from your university, or an external funding body. For me, the progression scholarship made staying at Exeter particularly attractive, as I received £1,000 off my fees for continuing to study in Exeter. You might be able to find additional financial help depending on a range of factors such as your background, or your proposed research. Check out the information on finance for the universities you are considering. The following websites are also useful:



Choosing your course

Finding the right course for you has got to be the most crucial element of your research into postgraduate study. I was extremely lucky in that Exeter catered to my research interests, and therefore I decided to stay on for another year. That being said, I reached this decision through researching a variety of courses at multiple universities, including Manchester, York, Durham, KCL, Edinburgh, and Cambridge, before settling on the Exeter course. University webpages will often give quite a lot of detail regarding the sorts of modules they run, their approaches to study, and the methods of assessment they use. If you are unsure about anything, I would definitely recommend getting in touch with the admissions team or relevant department to ask further questions. For example, it was paramount to my decision to study at Exeter that there would be enough modules focussing on the early modern period to fill my credits, something which the departmental team were able to clarify for me.

Of course, there is no need to continue in exactly the same subject area. Simply check out the entry requirements, which will often ask for a 2:1 in any relevant degree, and will consider 2:2s and other courses on a case by case basis.

Once you come to the stage of applying, check out our blog post on how to write a good personal statement, and utilise the Career Zone services in order to get your application checked over: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/careerzone/category/postgraduate-study/

Career Prospects

Arguably, I’m following quite a ‘traditional’ career path in terms of academia. However, not everyone doing a Master’s will want to follow this, and you shouldn’t feel like you can only do postgraduate study if you want to go on to teach in higher education or conduct research.

For some career paths, such as becoming a lawyer or teacher, a Master’s is an essential qualification. In other cases, the completion of a Master’s increases your knowledge and specialism in your chosen field. In a society where having a degree has become the norm, taking your study to another level can give you the edge, while also allowing you to study the things that fascinate you to a further degree.

If you’re considering doing postgraduate study, why not book in for an appointment with a Careers Consultant who can discuss your ideas with you.

The opinions of others

I think that I had always known that the typical corporate grad scheme path was not for me. I distinctly remember a phone call with my dad in my second year where I was discussing my options with him, and he bluntly replied, ‘Well, we both know you won’t cope in an office job’. So while I’m extremely lucky to have the support of my parents in my choice to pursue post graduate study, I think the story would have been different without the introduction of post graduate loans, or if I was asking them to support me through further study. Additionally, they know that a Master’s is a necessary stepping stone for me to get where I really want to be – completing a PhD, and conducting historical research at post-doctoral level.

Of course, not everyone doing a Master’s has the same career in mind as myself, as discussed above. I know friends who have gone onto to study MA courses whose parents initially viewed their decision as an attempt to stave off entering the ‘real world’. While your main motivation for doing an additional year should not be to buy time, the introduction of the loan does mean that postgraduate study is far more accessible than before, enabling a wider range of people to further pursue their interests. If a Master’s is something you want to do, go for it!

The workload

That brings us to life on a Master’s course, and the workload that comes with it. If you continue your studies without a real interest in what you’re doing, it probably will be difficult to motivate yourself to get the work done. Though that is not to pretend that just because I love history, I never feel stressed or even overwhelmed by work which I at other times profess my passion for. All I’m saying is, if your motivation for doing a postgrad is that you think it will be easier than getting a job, I would seriously suggest rethinking your position.

The picture will be different in all universities and across different courses, but to give you an idea, I’ll describe my own experience. While I only have 4 contact hours a week, it is the independent study which really fills my time, as well as optional seminars and supplementary courses. Alongside my core modules, I have recently started studying Palaeology to develop my research abilities.

My Master’s course has further developed my skills as an independent researcher. We are very much left to work with our own initiative as post grad students, which does require self-discipline to get everything done.

As I mentioned above, it is really important to maintain balance. Particularly if you are headed to a new part of the country, make an effort to join some societies and get involved in meeting new people. This will really help you settle in, and give you things to do which will prevent overworking yourself. Even though I’ve stayed in the same place and am living with friends from my undergrad, I have joined several sports societies and regularly attend the departmental research seminars, which has broadened my social and academic horizons, meaning that this year comprises much more than my Master’s course alone.