What to look out for, how to prepare, and key questions to ask on the day...
If you’re contemplating doing a postgraduate course then you’ll probably want to go to an open day.
The days where you wandered around your undergraduate university as a fresh-faced youth will be a hazy memory by now, so you might need a reminder of how to approach the few hours you’ll have to inspect your prospective university...
Postgraduate open days are held throughout the year, and the sooner you can visit in the year the easier your decision will be. Many are held in the spring, so you should look at an institution’s website or consult a timetable so you can plan a trip accordingly.
Before you travel across the country, though, find out more about the course to make sure it’s what you’re looking for – you don’t want to get there and realise you’ve wasted a journey. Check the prospective syllabus online and make sure it sounds like what you want and would enjoy; that way you'll avoid any awkward conversations or questions on the day.
Open days consist of taster lectures, talks and tours around the campus or department buildings and libraries. You might need to book some of these in advance, so plan your timetable and use your time wisely. Book sessions if necessary and if there's a member of staff you want to speak to, you should email them to see if they'll be around and available.
You don’t want to arrive at your sessions unprepared, so plan questions in advance – not only will these help you learn more about the course, but they’ll also help you stand out and be remembered.
On the day
Be focused and don’t worry about seeing everything. Speaking to course directors, learning more about the syllabus and focusing on the elements you care about most, such as accommodation, will take up most – if not all – of your day.
Check whether there are any meet-and-greets arranged with staff and current students and make sure you chat to a few people who can tell you what the course is really like.
“Get the inside view of where you are applying to” says Carwyn Edwards, a third-year PhD student at York University. Carwyn believes that meeting students who can tell you what the course is really like is the easiest way to learn whether or not it’s right for you.
“Network with current students or people have been students where you want to go to and ask them to give you the warts and all view of the institution,” says Carwyn. “You can try and do this when you go to an open day, but people are very likely to self-censor what they really think in the presence of the lecturers or open day staff.”
Do a bit of digging on social media to find current students or alumni and get in touch with them for their honest take. It can’t hurt, after all, and they may reply with something you would never have heard otherwise.
You'll only get as much out of an open day as you put in, so ask lots of questions that you can't get answers to online (such as the course's links with employers). Find out if the course hosts talks from industry figures, whether it has connections to help you get work experience, and find out more about how it helps you enter the workplace.
Fundamentally, ask what difference having a postgraduate degree has as opposed to going straight into the workplace.
Remember that you’re not just there to learn about the course itself. Take time to attend talks on financing and find out about accommodation – the school may hold a separate day for you to mix and meet fellow future students to live with, so take time to find out about activities like that. It shows that the school not only cares about your studies, but your wellbeing too.
Spend an hour getting a feel for the layout of the campus and the town or city in general. Wander into a local cafe or bar and take time to think about what you've seen – it's a good idea to give yourself time to digest the day and not rush around.
If you’ve attended several open days they'll probably all blend into one once the time comes to make a decision. Make notes on each place and course offering as you go along, listing the pros and cons – this will make it easier to look back and compare.
De-brief and evaluate
If you've missed something or forgotten to ask a question, send a follow-up email to staff or students you met on the day. That way you'll continue relationships which will serve you well when you decide where to go and it'll help emphasise your interest.
Can't get to open days? Make an appointment to speak to someone over the phone – you'll be able to ask questions that you can't find the answer to online.
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