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.

8 Top Tips for Writing a Great Postgraduate Application

Clare Johnson, Senior Career Zone Information Officer

You’ve decided further study is for you and there’s a fabulous course at a fantastic university which you’d just love to attend.  Writing a great postgraduate application will put you in a strong position to do just that.  The personal statement is perhaps the trickiest part to get right, so here are my 8 top tips to help you: 

Doing your homework on the Institution and the Course is crucial

1  Plan ahead
Preparation, as so often, is the name of the game. You’ll need to submit your application as early as possible, particularly if the course is very competitive.

Consider having a one to one appointment with a Careers Consultant to discuss any aspect of applying for postgraduate study. Think ahead to who you could ask for feedback and references; more on this later.

Read the Rules and Guidelines provided: It’s vital to read the instructions supplied by the Institution regarding completing your personal statement. Many universities will have a particular procedure they want you to adopt and will give you advice about this. Also check the selection criteria.

2  Structure your personal statement
Your statement should have an introduction, main body and conclusion and should grab the reader’s attention from the beginning.

Roughly half of the main body should focus on you and your interests and the other half on the course. Finally summarise why you’re the ideal candidate.

Regarding length, check the guidelines given by the university you’re applying for, otherwise it should be one and half sides of A4, around 1000-1500 words.

3  Show you’re ready to undertake postgraduate study
Give the admissions tutors evidence of your enthusiasm, commitment and motivation for further study and research.

Give evidence of your skills, academic and non-academic, and how they’ll fit with the course. Demonstrate how you’re motivated to do high levels of independent research, and mention completed projects and dissertations.

Show you can manage yourself and meet tight deadlines and show your academic credentials such as critical analysis and communication skills.

“The Career Zone offers one to one appointments for feedback on postgraduate personal statements. It’s also a very good idea to show your statement to an academic in the field.”

4  Do your homework on the Institution and the Course
Researching the course and the Institution will pay dividends. Show admissions tutors you know something about the Institution you’re applying to. Say why you want to study there and what makes the Institution stand out from others.

Are there certain modules exclusive to this Institution, a specialisation which particularly interests you, links to industry or an academic you’d like to work with?

Be specific, and if you’ve visited the institution or spoken to a course tutor or current student, remember to mention it in your application. 

5  Show how the new course links to your past studies and your future career
Is this course a completely new direction for you or is it a development of what you’ve studied before? If the former, you can show how you will deal with the academic challenges which might arise.  If the latter you can demonstrate how your current academic study is relevant, and outline particular skills you have to offer.

Express your interest in the subject, perhaps including some academic references or readings. Giving some indication of which career you might want to get into will show selectors you have a good motivation for doing well on this course. Show evidence that this is an informed and mature career decision.

6  Thoroughly check your grammar, spelling and punctuation
Your written communication skills are also being assessed so taking the time to get these right will be time well spent.

7  Ask for feedback
You may have read your statement a hundred times over, but it always helps to have others look over it too. The Career Zone offers one to one appointments for feedback on postgraduate personal statements. It’s also a very good idea to show your statement to an academic in the field.

8  References In many cases you’ll need to give the names of two academic referees.  These should be lecturers or tutors from your course since they need to comment on your academic capabilities and suitability for the programme of study you’re applying for.

A great personal statement shows just how much you’ve got to offer the programme, as well as what you’ll get out of it and also why you deserve a place on it above other candidates.

Good luck with your applications!