What is a master’s degree?

Three smartly dressed postgraduate students talking animatedly about their masters degrees

When you’ve graduated from your undergraduate degree, you’re likely to be on top of the world; and rightly so, it is a fantastic achievement! But you’re also likely to be thinking about what is next, and continuing your studies might be an option you’re considering.

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Of course, not everyone thinks about taking a master’s degree immediately after they have finished studying their undergraduate qualifications. Whether you are about to finish your undergraduate degree, you have taken a year out or you have been working in industry for a while, if studying for a master’s degree is on your mind then there’s a lot to consider. Whatever their current personal circumstances, many students are looking for answers to questions like: 

  • Should I study independently, so I can prepare for a Ph.D.? 
  • Would a taught programme like an undergraduate degree suit me better? 
  • How can I pay my fees? 
  • How long does a master’s degree programme take? And can you study part-time?
  • How can you plan for your living expenses while you study?

On top of these questions, specific groups of students have even more questions. For example, international students, and students with disabilities have other things to consider – and with so many things for all students to think about, we thought we’d offer some guidance to get you started.

What is a master’s degree?

A master’s degree is a postgraduate degree, and students study for a master’s degree to further their knowledge in the subject that they studied for their undergraduate degree (or other equivalent undergraduate qualification). It allows students to learn higher-level skills and gain a much deeper understanding of the industry they plan to work in. Some courses (dependent on the subject) will also include practical, vocational elements that may include time in industrial settings or laboratories.

There are two different ways in which the master’s degree can be studied: as a taught master’s programme, or a research master’s route. 

What types of master’s degrees are there?

There are several different types of master’s degrees that may be awarded to students. The majority of master’s degrees that are conferred are MSc (Master of Science) or MA (Master of Arts), but as with undergraduate degrees, there are also industry-specific master’s degrees. These include:

  • LLM (Master of Laws)
  • MArch (Master of Architecture)
  • MEd (Master of Education)
  • MEng (Master of Engineering)
  • MFA (Master of Fine Arts)
  • MLitt (Master of Letters)
  • MMus (Master of Music)
  • MSt (Master of Studies)
  • MPhil (Master of Philosophy)
  • MRes (Master of Research)
  • MBA (Master of Business Administration)  

In addition to the different degrees that can be awarded, there are two different ways in which the master’s degree can be studied: as a taught master’s programme, or a research master’s route. 

What does a master’s degree involve?

How you study for your master’s degree will depend on the type of master’s degree you decide to apply for.

Studying a taught master’s degree will feel a lot like studying an undergraduate degree in the way the course is delivered. There will be lectures, as well as seminars and practical work, and depending on the course, assessments can include group projects, essays, dissertations, and exams. Although you’ll be taught by the course team, you’ll also be expected to complete plenty of independent work, both for your dissertation and to aid your understanding in general. 

To complete your taught master’s programme, you’ll need to achieve 180 credits, with dissertations usually worth 60 credits. 

Research master’s degrees are more oriented towards learning through independent study and research, and if you’re planning to study for a Ph.D., studying a research master’s degree is a good way to prepare for that higher level of study. Further to this academic preparation, many funding bodies will allocate funding to Ph.D. candidates who have completed research master’s degrees, which can be a huge help if you’re planning to take that step. 

Students working on research master’s degrees will collect data and present analysis with the aim of having their work published in a research journal. Assessment tends to be through professional judgement of the research that has been completed, and an oral exam. Research degrees are usually given one of the titles: Master of Philosophy (MPhil), Master of Research (MRes), Master of Arts (MA by Research), or Master of Science (MSc by Research). 

What are the entry requirements for a master’s degree?

The entry requirements for each programme will vary between institutions, depending on the emphasis of the study. As a minimum, most universities will require applicants for master’s degree programmes to have an honours degree at 2:1 level or above. 

Students that hold qualifications that are not academic in nature but that are at undergraduate degree level may be given a place on the course, depending on the suitability of their previous study and the grades they achieved. 

Applicants that don’t have a degree might be admitted to a master’s degree programme depending on the level of their experience. If this applies to you, contact the university that you want to study with in the first instance.  

Some universities offer integrated master’s degrees as part of a four year undergraduate programme, which means students can get their master’s at the same time as studying for their undergraduate degree. In this case, students would need to have achieved the required entry at A-level or equivalent to be offered a place on the course. 

In the UK, both taught and research master’s degrees usually take one or two years to complete if studying full time

How long does a master’s degree take?

In the UK, both taught and research master’s degrees usually take one or two years to complete if studying full time, and part-time options can take up to four years to complete, depending on the requirements of the institution. 

How are master’s degrees graded?

When you complete your studies, you might receive a pass or a fail, but for a taught master’s degree, most UK universities will award a fail, pass, merit (or credit), or a distinction, depending on your grades. Each university will set their grades independently of other institutions, but the average tends to be 50% for a pass, 60% for a merit, and 70% for a distinction. 

If you have studied a research degree, you’re more likely to receive a pass or fail, although some institutions may offer a distinction where it is appropriate. 

How much does a master’s degree cost?

In the UK, the costs of master’s degrees are set by the institution, but they cost an average of £8700 for home students. 

International fees are generally higher, and costs will differ between universities. Although fees for international students are higher, the experience of studying in the UK, and the prestige of being awarded a master’s degree from a UK university means that thousands of international students choose to study for their master’s degree in the UK each year. 

How can I pay for a master’s degree?

Not everyone has £8,700 (as well as money for living expenses!) in the bank to be able to study for a master’s degree – especially if they have just completed three years of undergraduate study. Some universities offer scholarships and grants which can pay some (or all) of your fees, and depending on the field that you’re studying and your circumstances, you might be entitled to a bursary towards your fees. 

Students who have a disability, long-term health condition, mental health condition, or specific learning difficulty (such as dyslexia) may be able to apply for other funding that can cover some costs. 

If you aren’t entitled to a bursary, you don’t qualify for a scholarship or grant, and you don’t have that amount of cash in the bank, then UK/EU students can apply for a student loan to fund a master’s degree. You can get a Postgraduate Master’s Loan to help with your fees and living costs, and these are available for up to £11,222. There is more information about the master’s Loan from the UK government on this page.  

Although you’ll need to pay that loan back once you are earning more than the threshold amount, your studies will likely be worth the investment. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggests that postgraduates earn on average 18% more than first degree holders, six months after graduation.

Online master’s degree programmes can be a great option for people who can’t attend university because they can’t get to campus

Do I have to attend a university to get my master’s degree?

If sitting in a lecture theatre isn’t appealing to you, then you might be looking for an alternative way of studying. There is an increasing number of universities that are offering online master’s degree programmes. These are usually taught online, and are flexible, allowing you to study anywhere that you can get a stable internet connection, and often with regular start dates. Online master’s degree programmes can be a great option for people who can’t attend university because they can’t get to campus (such as people who are serving in the forces, live overseas, have a disability or other circumstances that would prevent them from studying on campus), and online programmes can be more affordable than on-campus options too, which may appeal to students with different financial circumstances. 

How can I find advice about studying for a master’s degree?

If you’re still studying at undergraduate level and you’re considering postgraduate study, then talking to your current course team is a good place to start. If you’re planning to stay with the same institution for your postgraduate study, then your course team will know about current programmes and research opportunities. Some universities also offer financial incentives such as reduced fees for their undergraduates to progress to master’s programmes with them. 

Applicants that aren’t currently studying can get advice from careers and employability services. Postgraduate study fairs can be attended in-person at your preferred institution, or you can attend virtual events – which are great if you are planning to study in the UK and are currently in another country. If you’re committing to a year or more studying, and especially at postgraduate level, if you can visit at least once before you make your choice, it is a really good idea to do so. 

You can find advice from students who have studied the programme you are considering, either through social media or on forums like Reddit and Quora. There are also student-specific online discussion boards that you can post to, and you may receive advice about things that you hadn’t even thought about yet.

How do I apply for a master’s degree?

You’ll apply directly to the university that you want to study with, usually through an online application system. Each course will have different requirements for applications, but you are likely to need: 

  • Your master’s degree personal statement
  • Transcripts of previous academic study (if you don’t have these, you can request them from your previous college or university) 
  • Your CV
  • Your portfolio (if you studied a course that you created one for)
  • References (you will need two)
  • Research proposal

Institutions have their own timelines for applying, so be sure to know these in advance, and apply early to give yourself the best chance of being accepted. Applying early is even more important if you are applying as an international student since you’ll need to arrange student finance, accommodation, visas and more. If you are applying to a UK university from overseas, you’ll also need:

  • A copy of your passport 
  • Proof of your English proficiency
  • Your visa to be arranged – whether you enter the country on a Tier 4 Student Visa, F1 Visa or the J1 Visa, it must be sorted before you get here
  • To include the reasons why you want to study in the UK in your personal statement

There may be other documentation or requirements, and to ensure you have the best chance of being accepted on the course, you should check what is required for your application before you submit your application. To see the documents required when applying for a course at UWS London, please see here.

Final thoughts

Studying for a master’s degree is hard work – but if it was easy to get, there would be less value to be gained! Master’s level study is the next level up from undergraduate degree level, and so you’ll need to be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort. While it is hard work, many students enjoy the experience of studying for their master’s, and whether you decide to go on to study for a PhD or doctorate, master’s degree study will give you an advantage when it is time to start applying for jobs. Want to learn more? Discover PhD fees in UK universities!



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