Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

1 Master’s-level study and how it differs from undergraduate study

Let’s begin with a short reflective exercise. Pause to consider, based on your prior knowledge and experience, how studying for a postgraduate course may differ from undergraduate study (i.e. your first degree).

Activity 1 Checking your expectations

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes
  • What are your expectations about postgraduate study, and what this may involve?
  • What do you suppose are key differences between postgraduate and undergraduate study?

You may wish to structure your thoughts and jot these down. We will return to these questions shortly.

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You may have noted down some of the following as key differences:

  • level of proficiency and specialist knowledge
  • career focus and relevance
  • independent or self-directed study requirements
  • demands on the student (time, organisation, motivation, commitment etc.)
  • learning style and course materials
  • depth of inquiry, scholarship and communication
  • organisation and assessment of coursework
  • study environment
  • student cohort, peer and tutor interaction
  • study intensity and workload.

In the following two videos you will hear from two students, Nick and Rachel, on their perspectives.

Download this video clip.Video player: Interview with Rachel
Skip transcript: Interview with Rachel

Transcript: Interview with Rachel

My name is Rachel Ward. I studied my undergraduate degree in environmental science and graduated in 2011. And I decided to begin my Master's studies in 2013. And I wanted to do a Master's for my own personal development and to challenge myself and test myself and to see that I could do it. I'm now on my third module as part of that Master's, coming up towards the end of the Master's degree. So I'm set to finish at the end of 2016. It will have taken me three years to complete in total.
Going from undergraduate to postgraduate study, I expected that there'd be quite a big step up. I suppose I was quite apprehensive that I would not be able to cope with that step in terms of the depth of writing you'd need to do, things like critical analysis skills, whether I'd have developed mine to a degree that I would be able to cope with the MSE study. But now, I'm on the other side of that and I've done some of my studies, I feel that as you go through your studies, you develop those skills as you go. So there's really nothing to be daunted by. And I'm glad that I did it.
Because I'm studying my Master's as a part-time, distance learning course, there's, I suppose, a greater degree of taking on responsibility yourself for managing your studies and managing your time and developing your skills and also being proactive. With my undergraduate degree, I suppose I had more peers around me, students studying with me that I could talk to face-to-face. And I suppose I felt that I might feel a little isolated from Master's study, taking on a project on my own as it were. But it wasn't the case at all that I felt isolated. And there's actually a huge community of support online, which is the way that I study the modules, which was great.
It is a very high demand on your time. And I think that's something that you really need to think about before you take on postgraduate study. But as long as you pace yourself and develop your time management skills as you go through your studies, it is something that is manageable. You just need to be prepared for that before you take it on, I think.
The best piece of advice that I received before going on to Master's study, about studying at postgraduate level, was that it is a marathon and not a sprint. So as long as you put the effort in and keep up to date and manage your time successfully, then it is definitely achievable.
Once I've finished my Master's studies, I hope that eventually it will open some doors for me in the future in terms of career development. I think the things that I've gotten from it now in terms of personal development have been really rewarding. It's given me a lot of confidence. And I certainly wouldn't rule out going on to study further because coming towards the end of it and looking back, you can see how far you've come in it. And it is genuinely really rewarding.
End transcript: Interview with Rachel
Interview with Rachel
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Download this video clip.Video player: Interview with Nick
Skip transcript: Interview with Nick

Transcript: Interview with Nick

I'm Nick Adams. And I'm on the Master's in Education. I'm on stage two of three, so it's 180 points. And I'm on the second 60 points of that. So I'm coming up to 120 points of study.
I suppose, initially, I thought having done an undergraduate degree in Biology and moving into Education that it would be not only a complete sea change, but a step up in terms of the level that would be expected of me, that I'd be expected to engage more with the primary literature, to go off and do my own searching, not necessarily to be given the materials that I would need to study, that I would need to go and find them myself. And actually, that was quite enjoyable when I first started because I wasn't just having to learn something that was prescribed. I actually had some scope to go off and find my own path through it, which was really interesting.
I was a little bit apprehensive to begin with that it may not have been supported that it would be a go off into the wilderness and you know you're on your own. But it really wasn't. It was just a case of here's some stuff to really give you a grounding in where you need to look and where you need to search, the kind of things that we're after, and then the skills to go off and do those kind of searches and to find the relevant material. So it was not as bad as I was originally thinking.
It'd been some years since I'd studied. So the volume of work was something that, when I initially came to, I was a bit unsure about.
I think when you're on undergraduate study, obviously, the intensity of the work, the level of detail that you might need to go into in being critical with the reading is not as great as when you're at the Master's level.
If you enjoyed doing your project, if you enjoyed that independent work when you were at undergraduate level, it's really an extension of that. You're given some more free rein to be independent in your studies when you go onto Master's level. And really, that's a big, big positive that you get to explore something that's fairly at the cutting edge of the research, of the literature and just to go for it really. It's not as bad as it sounds. It's a bit scary to think, well, I have to search all these materials through the library, and there's so much. It's so vast. But it really isn't as scary as it seems from the outset.
I began my Master's study because I wanted to formalise some of my Education knowledge and for career progression particularly. And it's helped me do that quite nicely. And it's set me up really to do some doctoral level study later on, which I'm quite looking forward to exploring.
So really, just think about where you want to go and what you want to do. And if it's for a career reason, it's absolutely brilliant.
End transcript: Interview with Nick
Interview with Nick
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How well did these perspectives match your own thoughts on the key differences? You may have identified some (or possibly all!) of these points in your own notes. Somewhere along the line, we hope that you picked up on the nature of the first activity, namely the focus on ‘reflection’, as being important to postgraduate study. Taking the time to reflect on key issues and questions, revisiting and reflecting on your evaluation and appraisal (based on your prior knowledge and experience), and recognising that you will continue to develop this ability, and further your knowledge and understanding as you make progress with your studies, feature prominently at this level. You will already have begun to cultivate these skills. Reflection and reflective analysis will become progressively vital to succeeding at postgraduate level, as you continue in your academic pursuits, in your professional practice, and beyond these, as part of your lifelong skills. We will examine reflective thinking in more detail in Session 2, and consider its application (reflective practice) later on in the course (Session 7). For now, let’s take a closer look at some of the key differences between postgraduate and undergraduate study.

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