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When you have completed your undergraduate degree and want to continue your educational career, you will most likely be looking to study for a postgraduate degree. If this has you wondering ‘What is a postgraduate degree?’, then we are here to help. We have put together this handy qualification guide and explained the term postgraduate meaning you can start your research into the highest level of academic education with a solid understanding of what postgraduate degrees there are and the differences between them.
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.
Both undergraduate and postgraduate 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. Postgraduate courses tend to be more in-depth and have opportunities for specialisation. They involve independent research and will usually end in a final dissertation or thesis.
Taught courses are most similar to undergraduate courses. You have timetabled lectures and seminars and are led by course leaders. They can often be completed in one to three years. Qualifications from taught courses include master’s degrees like the MA and MSc, as well as PGDip, PGCert and PGCE courses.
Research courses are based around independent study. You have much fewer contact hours than taught courses, instead you will be using your time to complete original academic research with some guidance from department tutors. Courses can last three years or more. Qualifications are mostly doctorates such as the PhD and DPhil but can also be master’s degrees like the MRes and MPhil.
A master’s degree is normally taken after an undergraduate degree and before a doctorate. Courses can be either taught or research-based, and common qualifications include Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MSc).
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A bachelor’s degree is an undergraduate level course which is usually the first degree you’ll earn as a student in higher education. A master’s degree is a postgraduate level course which is normally studied after you’ve got an undergraduate degree.
MA means ‘Master of Arts’, which is a qualification that looks at arts and humanities subjects such as history or literature. MSc means ‘Master of Science’, which is a qualification that covers science subjects such as mathematics and biology.
MBA means ‘Master of Business Administration’, which is a qualification that develops your key business skills. Courses are often 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.
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LLM stands for ‘Legum Magister’ (meaning ‘Master of Law’ in Latin) which is a master’s degree in law. It’s a historic legal qualification for those looking to study the subject area in depth. 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.
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A doctorate is the highest academic qualification you can achieve. Mixing research and academic learning, you undertake a large amount of independent study on doctorate courses. Most degree courses involve researching, writing and publishing an extensive thesis on a specialist topic. There are academic and professional doctorate degrees available.
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PhD stands for ‘Doctor of Philosophy’. It’s one of the highest academic qualifications you can achieve. Spanning across almost all academic fields, PhDs demonstrate that you have advanced research skills and contributed to knowledge in a specific area.
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A professional doctorate shows that you’re advanced in using knowledge, rather than just contributing to it like in a PhD. 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).
A master’s degree is a lower-level academic qualification than a PhD which often lasts between one to three years. A PhD is at a higher academic level, lasting upwards of three years and involves more independent research.
Postgraduate certificates and diplomas, known as PGCerts and PGDips, are short courses where you gain a qualification quickly. Master’s degrees are worth 180 credits, whereas PGCerts are worth 60 credits and 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.
A PGCE is a type of PGCert for students who want to become teachers. If you take a PGCE 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).
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Conversion courses can help you bridge the gap between your undergraduate degree and a particular career that you want to get but do not have the qualifications to achieve. Courses usually last one year and are helpful for careers in teaching, law, medicine, architecture, dentistry and social work.
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