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What are postgraduate degrees?

Postgraduate degrees range from PCGEs to PhDs – the highest level of academic education you can achieve. Use our qualifications guide to understand what postgraduate degrees there are and the differences between them.


  • Postgraduate 
  • Master’s (including MA, MSc, MBA, LLM) 
  • Doctorate (including PhD, DPhil) 
  • PGCert/PGDip (including PGCE) 
  • Conversion courses


What’s a postgraduate?

A postgraduate degree is any higher-level qualification that’s taken after an undergraduate degree. A postgraduate student is someone who has completed an undergraduate degree and is continuing in higher education. 

Postgraduate courses let you study your subject to an even closer level, where you become more specialised in a specific area. The different postgraduate levels are master, doctorate, certificate and diploma.

Courses can be either ‘taught’ or ‘research’.

Taught courses are like undergraduate courses. You have timetabled lectures and seminars and are led by course leaders. They often only take a year to complete. Qualifications from taught courses include master’s degrees (such as MA and MSc) and postgraduate diplomas and certificates (such as PGCE). 

Research courses are based around independent study where you have much fewer contact hours than taught courses. Instead, you complete original academic research with some guidance from department tutors. Courses can last three years or more. Qualifications are mostly doctorates (such as PhD and DPhil) but can also be master’s (such as MRes and MPhil). 

What’s the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate? 

Both fall under the general term of 'higher education' but relate to different levels of qualification. An undergraduate degree is taught as the first degree for students. A postgraduate degree, certificate or diploma are taught after that. 

Most undergraduate degree courses are broad in content and include lectures and group projects in their structure. Postgraduate courses tend to be more in-depth. They involve independent research and end in a final dissertation or thesis, with more opportunities for specialisation.



Master’s degrees


A master’s degree is normally taken after an undergraduate degree and before a doctorate. Courses are either taught or research-based, and common qualifications include Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc). 

What’s the difference between bachelor’s and master’s? 

A bachelor’s is an undergraduate degree and usually the first degree you’ll earn as a student in higher education. A master’s is a postgraduate degree, normally achieved after you’ve got an undergraduate degree. 

What’s the difference between an MA and an MSc?

An MA is a Master of Arts degree, which is the study of arts and humanities subjects such as history or literature. An MSc is a Master of Science degree, which covers science subjects such as mathematics and biology. For both, you usually submit a dissertation at the end of the course, where you write an extended essay on a specific topic.



What’s an MBA?

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a master’s qualification that develops your key business skills. Courses are usually taken by people who already have some professional experience. 

MBAs usually have more contact hours than other taught master’s courses. You can expect timetabled classes several days a week and lots of individual and group project work.



What’s an LLM?

An LLM is a master’s degree in law. It’s a historic legal qualification for those looking to study the subject area in depth. The abbreviation ‘LLM’ stands for ‘Legum Magister’ in Latin, which means ‘Master of Law’. 

LLM courses are like other taught master’s degrees. You have timetabled classes, work through a series of modules and complete a dissertation at the end.




Doctorate degrees

A doctorate is the highest academic qualification you can achieve. It mixes research and academic learning, and you undertake a large amount of independent study. Most degree courses involve researching, writing, and publishing an extensive thesis on a specialist topic. There are academic and professional doctorate degrees available. 

What’s the difference between a master’s and a PhD? 

A master’s degree is a lower level than a PhD. It’s usually teaching-based and is a shorter course, lasting around a year. A PhD is at a higher academic level, lasting upwards of three years and involving more independent research. 

What’s the difference between a PhD and a doctorate? 

A PhD is a traditional, academic doctorate. Spanning across almost all academic fields, PhDs demonstrate that you have advanced research skills and contributed to knowledge in a specific area. Degrees include PhD and DPhil (both mean ‘Doctor of Philosophy’). 

A professional doctorate shows that you’re advanced in using knowledge, rather than just contributing to it. They’re designed for people who have significant practical experience in a field and want to apply new research to complex issues. Degrees include MD (Doctor of Medicine), D.Ed/EdD (Doctor of Education) and PhD(Eng)/EngD (Doctor of Engineering). 

What does PhD stand for?

PhD stands for ‘Doctor of Philosophy’. It’s one of the highest academic qualifications you can achieve.




Certificates and diplomas

Postgraduate certificates and diplomas, also known as PGCerts and PGDips, are short courses where you gain a qualification quickly. 

PGCerts are worth 60 credits of a master’s degree (180 credits). PGDips are worth 120 credits. They often have a vocational focus and are useful for certain career paths, such as teaching or nursing. Many students use them towards a full master’s degree.



What’s a PGCE/PGDE?

A PGCE is a type of PGCert for students who want to become teachers. If you take a PGCert in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, you gain the necessary skills to achieve Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). In Scotland, the equivalent is the Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE).




Conversion courses

If you’re looking to go into a particular career but don’t have an undergraduate degree in the relevant area, a conversion course can help you bridge the gap.

Courses usually last one year and are helpful for careers such as in teaching, law, medicine, architecture, dentistry and social work.



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