Before you embark on a postgraduate qualification, there are pertinent questions which you, as a prospective postgraduate, can ask yourself and your prospective department. Questions designed to help ensure that you choose the correct environment for your studies and to encourage you to think and plan ahead to avoid common problems.
There are issues general and specific to the different modes of study, taught course and research course, and for different circumstances of study, for example with International student and Home student status. Most of the details you will want you should be able to get from the institutions' prospectuses and departmental guides. These are available on request from the individual institutions, although if you want to order several, you might want to look out for a centralized prospectus service, which will send whichever ones you ask for. Alternatively, please use this site's Application Form Service.
Departments are likely also to be willing to answer queries you may pose at a distance, by post, telephone, email, etc. This is particularly important if it is not practical to visit the institutions, as we might expect if you are residing in another country. If it is practical, however, we strongly advise a visit. Then you can talk to the present students, who can give you a good feel for the place and show you who your fellow postgraduates might be. You can also use the visit to find out more directly about the academic facilities available. If it is not practical to visit, you will find it invaluable to seek the testimony of those in your country who have studied or have been studying there. You may also be able to make contact with students there by remote means such as email, since departments and institutions ought to support the organised representation of their postgraduate students as a group, with a name or position as a point of contact.
At the most general level, relevant for those of you who are only considering postgraduate study as an option and not yet fully decided as to its worth, we suggest, before you take the 'plunge', as it were, that you ask yourself a few searching questions on the theme of why you want to undertake higher degree level study.
Given that you have chosen your subject area of specialism, do you really want or need to study this subject in so much depth?
How important is this course for your life aims? For instance, how will it enhance your future career prospects?
Do you really want to spend the next year or several years or your life studying?
Is it worth the cost in terms of both time and money?
What other personal skills should you seek to gain, and what courses does the prospective institution run to help you get them? And does its careers service offer a service to postgraduates?
Being a course of study at an academic institution, the next more specific questions cover academic issues:
Who are the academic staff; what are their research interests and what have they had published? Does anyone work in the specific field in which you might like to write your thesis or dissertation?
What rating did the department achieve in the most recent research assessment exercise? 5 is the highest and 1 is the lowest, a scale having importance in its own right, measuring the achievement of the department in the form of its research output. That said, a low rating does not necessarily indicate poor quality research, especially in the new areas of research; and a high rating does not necessarily mean that the all round provision for postgraduate study is correspondingly high.
To look at a complementary measure of standards you might ask what did the Higher Education Quality Council quality audit say about the institution’s postgraduate provision?
What is provided in the way of training and other seminars?
How is progress monitored; what are the conditions for the degree being awarded and procedures for complaints and appeals against decisions by your department for which you may wish to contest?
Are there mechanisms for feedback and course evaluation? The department may have a Code of Practice - make sure you obtain a copy.
You will also need to consider the facilities available for study, when choosing your department or institution:
What are the library facilities like? Does the library stock sufficient books and journals in your area? If not, what are the conditions for inter-library loan; what libraries provide reciprocal lending rights, and under what conditions?
What laboratory/computing facilities and support staff are available? Is there electronic access to the Internet, or any other academic networks or databases?
What other facilities are provided (eg desk, locker, photocopier, printers, stationary, etc.)?
What facilities are and which are not open during the undergraduate vacations? Most postgraduates study all year round and it is especially important to ensure that facilities are adequate if you will be completing your dissertation or thesis during the summer, the longest vacation for undergraduate courses.
By far the most common problem faced by postgraduates is funding. It is important to ensure that you have enough to cover the entire cost of whatever programme you wish to enrol on, including sufficient funds to cover living costs.
What do the academic fees cover and what other charges are you liable for? You should consider what expenses might be incurred through your research (for example, for equipment, fieldwork or conferences) and find out to what extent your funding agency (if you have one) or department will be able to fund this.
What fees will be charged if you need an extension on top of the normal periods of study?
What scholarships are bursaries are available?
Can you earn extra money through teaching; what are the rates of pay for tutoring, demonstrating, marking, etc.?
What happens if your funding finishes before you do, and what emergency funds are available?
In general, it is useful to find out how much accommodation typically costs, both that provided by the institution and the average cost of private rented lodgings locally.
Does the institution provide accommodation on campus; does it own or lease properties off campus?
How many years are you permitted to rent in the institutions residences? Can you rent for a whole year at a time if you want? Some institutions expect students to leave their rooms in undergraduate vacation time. Will you have to rent for a full year, even if you were to find that you would prefer to move out at some stage before then?
Is there suitable accommodation if you need to bring your family or have a disability?
Will you be living with other postgraduates? Will they all be International students?
What is the availability, cost and need for transport, and can you reclaim any of the expense?
What is available in terms of public transport between the department, campus and residences? Are there car parking facilities available to students?
FOR THE PROSPECTIVE TAUGHT POSTGRADUATE COURSE STUDENT
There is enormous variety and type of Masters course available (not to mention postgraduate diplomas and certificates). Therefore it is vital to find out all you can about the course before applying. In particular, consider whether it is the right sort of course (conversion, specialisation, vocational) and the right level for your needs:
Are you qualified enough for the course? You may need to take a conversion course first.
Are you more than qualified for the course? Your own experience may get you an exemption from parts of it.
How many staff teach on the course? You may find that more than one staff member teaching jointly enhances the quality and variety of expertise. That said, having one staff member with overall responsibility might well be better than more than one, since more might lead to failure of communication and avoidance of responsibility.
What does the course include? Find out what are the units which are available and see whether you can adequately cover what you are interested in.
How is the course assessed?
Are all the advertised modules available each year?
How freely available and flexible are the modules; can you take the combinations that you want?
Does the course include undergraduate level modules? If so, in which year are the undergraduates, and what related courses have they previously studied?
If the course includes a six-month, industry related project, how good is the department’s track record in placing students in industry?
Are exams and assessed work marked anonymously?
In selecting a suitable department, you might want to consider the size of the department, how many students and staff are involved in your course.
Are you assigned a Counsellor or second, or ‘personal’ tutor and would they be a course tutor or one who knows the course?
What were the department’s results in the relevant Teaching Quality Assessment survey?
FOR THE PROSPECTIVE RESEARCH STUDENT
For the overwhelming majority, research is a happy and rewarding experience. But things can go wrong. With a bit of care and thought at an early stage, the risks can be vastly reduced. The questions suggested below are intended to help you avoid problems later on.
Before you take the plunge, ask yourself a few searching questions:
Why do you really want to undertake research?
Are you so interested in this subject that you want to study a very specific area of it in much greater depth?
Is this the best/right time for you to undertake this research?
Is the intended programme of research a realistic three year programme; or is it too ambitious, or not ambitious enough?
How many staff, research students and other postgraduates are there in the department: what size department would you prefer to work in?
Above all do you really want to spend the next years of your life studying this subject in this place with these people?
The supervisor is the most important person in the academic life of a research student. It is especially important to find out what are his/her research interests, what he/she has published recently, and also what is his/her experience of supervising research students. If this is their first time acting as a supervisor there should be back up provisions to help both them and you.
How much time will your supervisor have for you? A supervisor who is a world leader in their field may be too busy attending conferences abroad or may have too many research students to be able to supervise them all properly, or may be about to take leave from all departmental duties including research supervision.
Given that they will be around all the time that you require, will you be able to get on with this supervisor for three or four perhaps stressful years?
It is useful to obtain an idea from the prospective supervisor about what kind of role they expect to take on and whether that fits with your pattern of working? If possible you should seek to speak to someone currently being supervised by your prospective supervisor, to ascertain what he/she is like. A useful test may be to ask the supervisor about the procedures for registering for a research degree: if he/she seems uncertain about how to do it, that is probably a bad sign. You should discuss with your supervisor the exact programme of research you intend to undertake.
Is there anyone apart from your supervisor working in the area in which you are interested ?
Are you assigned a Counsellor or second supervisor?
How difficult would it be to change supervisors in practice?
Are there staff in the department not engaged in research? If so, does this cause any conflict and division of interests?
Some other questions you should know the answers to:
What is provided in the way of research training/seminars?
Do you need to have some prior training in research?
Does the institution require that you undertake an induction course, if so, how much time does it take up and what does it teach you?
How is progress monitored, and what are the conditions for conversion from provisional Ph.D., or from research Masters, status to full Ph.D. status?
What is the average time and rate of completion for research students in the department (for full-time Ph.D. students the nearer to three years the better)?
How are the research students` interests represented separately from taught course students interests?
Representation and Social Provision
The following questions on Representation and Support could be posed to the department but you would be more likely to obtain fuller answers on contacting postgraduates themselves there.
- How is postgraduate education organised in the institution (e.g. a Graduate School)? Some institutions are more postgraduate orientated than others.
- How are the interests of postgraduates represented at the institution-wide level?
- Does the Students' Union have a Postgraduate Officer who is him/herself a postgraduate?
- Is there a Postgraduate Association, and are they active? What social activities does it provide for postgraduates?
- What social facilities are there on campus?
- How far is the nearest major town, and how easy is it to get there?
- What sports facilities are available?
- What clubs and societies are there which cater for your needs?
Issues for International Students
There are some issues specific to international students:
- What are the English language requirements for the programme, what classes are available if you need them, and how much do they cost?
- Is a comprehensive induction programme provided, and at what times in the year?
- Is there a community of students from your country, or who speak your language? Do they comprise a student society?
- Does the institution have a counsellor who understands your cultural background?
- If you are bringing your family with you. what facilities exist for them: crèche, daytime activities, language courses for spouses, etc.? Is there a community house, or central place where families can go for help or advice?
This article first appeared in TransWorld Education