Should I do an MA? Some things to consider
At this time of year, lots of final-year students in the Arts and Humanities spend time thinking about what to do after they graduate. More and more students are enrolling to do Masters-level courses, especially at Swansea University after we started offering Centenary Scholarships for taught MA degrees, and other universities are now offering similar funding schemes based on anniversaries and other postgraduate recruitment drives.
So, how do you know if you should do an MA or not? There are lots of really useful resources already out there on the internet to help students to make their decisions. This one by findamasters.com is a great resource, covering multiple angles, while the ever-reliable prospects.ac.uk has a similarly comprehensive menu.
I decided to put together this blog, based on my own experiences as a Lecturer at Swansea University. I myself, progressed through the MA pathway around ten years ago, before watching lots of other MA students study while I was a PhD student. Hopefully, some of my experiences can add to what is already out there, and can help other students to make their minds up.
As a specialist in History, my blog is mainly of use for potential MA students studying in the Arts and Humanities.
This blog also is also accompanied by a related entry, written by a current MA student, who kindly helped with several key questions. Their identity remains anonymous.
Step 1: How does the MA degree work in the UK?
The typical full-time Arts and Humanities MA in the UK runs from September to September: all year, with study expected throughout the summer. Like undergraduate degrees, most History MA degrees comprise option modules in term 1 and term 2, and then ask students to complete their dissertation roughly from Easter to the end of September. Final marks are generally announced around a month after submission of the dissertation.
Again, rather like the undergraduate degree, courses are usually assessed through a mixture of written coursework and exams, although there may be fewer exams than for undergraduates.
You will usually be asked to attend and submit assessment for at least one compulsory module, which in history generally asks students to explore in detail, the theory and practice of historical studies (rather like a much more expanded, detailed, and more interesting version of the core modules at undergraduate).
Depending on the type of MA you do, you may also be asked to develop certain research skills, so for a medieval MA (the type I teach) we encourage students to learn medieval languages (Latin or Old English, for example) and to study manuscripts, document sources and archive use. Some MA degrees also ask students to learn a modern language, especially if the student wishes to continue to PhD study. Note that these language courses are commonly assessed through more exams than in other types of modules.
Step 2: What qualifications do I need for a UK MA?
You might ask yourself, ‘am I clever enough to do an MA?’ it is very difficult to answer this question, because students all mature at different rates.
My opinion is generally that if you have consistently achieved grades in the UK academic system of 65% and above for the duration of your degree (or equivalent in other countries) then you most certainly have the potential.
Most UK institutions ask for MA candidates to have gained an undergraduate degree of at least a 2:1, although some universities ask for a high 2:1, or even a First Class degree. Each university should advertise their entry requirements in their prospectus information (usually available online).
Occasionally, students who only just achieve a 2:1 or even those who gain a 2:2 ask me if they could do an MA. Of course they might, and there might be very good reasons why a student graduates with a 2:2. However, I usually advise caution in these circumstances, particularly if the student scores less than 60% for an undergraduate dissertation module. The dissertation is one of the purest indicators of a student’s ability at undergraduate level, and most UK MA degrees in the Arts and Humanities also include a mandatory dissertation module, typically varying between 10-20,000 words in length. So, if you struggled to enjoy or study for your undergraduate dissertation, this could be a good sign that you might not enjoy the MA one, either!
Each university is different, but many stipulate that the pass mark is 50 for work at Ma level, rather than 40 at undergraduate. So if you have consistently scored marks in the 50s, you may be closer to the line during an MA than you are normally used to!
Languages are also important. If you are a non-native English speaker, your prospective host will have its own requirements, and these vary from place to place, so check with the university that you want to apply to about what they need.
Step 3: How does the applications process work?
Firstly, the deadline for MA course applications is usually much later than for the BA. Universities normally begin accepting applications in the new year, and then continue accepting candidates through the summer. But, there are sometimes a finite number of places, so do begin applying as early as you can before the courses get full.
Most institutions take applications directly, and so UCAS is not normally required. See the prospectus of your chosen course for further information on this. Because you apply directly to a university, this means that you can make as many applications as you like at the same time, although my advice would be to limit to a few that you really want to pursue, otherwise things could get confusing.
On applying, usually candidates will be asked to:
- Fill in an application form listing details including your current qualifications (don’t worry if you are still studying: universities are used to this, and will make allowances).
- Provide the details of two people who can provide references for you. These should be people who have taught you during your studies and know your work well, and should include a dissertation supervisor, if you have one.
- Complete a personal statement, outlining why you wish to continue your studies and giving details of your progress to date. For advice on how to write your personal statement, see this MA personal statement guide by prospects.ac.uk
After applying, you’ll either be given an unconditional offer, a conditional one (dependent on your final degree grade), you may be invited for interview, or you may be turned down.
Step 4: Your decision: why do I want to do an MA? Are these the right reasons?
Lots of students simply sign up for an MA because they enjoyed their undergraduate degree, and want to learn more. I consider this the best reason for MA study, as it is usually the most interested and engaged students who perform the best (just like during undergraduate degrees). Did you absolutely love the modules taught by a particular lecturer or lecturers, or could you not stop thinking about your dissertation? Do you already know that your dissertation will not answer all of your questions, and therefore want to explore more on the topic? If so, you are on the right track.
Signing up for an MA simply because you do not know what else to do, especially if you are now eligible for a scholarship or a student loan is not the best reason (see below for funding). If you would count yourself in this bracket, I strongly advise you to read the student section, below. I have often seen MA students struggle to cope with the new challenges and increased demands placed on them by postgraduate studies.
Some students sign up for an MA because it will help them with their career choices. A good MA in any subject will almost certainly improve your employment prospects, allowing you to demonstrate advanced skills training and knowledge. Some MA degrees are particularly vocational, for example an MA in History and Heritage for a future career in museums and heritage. If you are considering this type of MA, make sure you have a good conversation with the admissions team, to establish the precise nature of the MA, its requirements, and how it might help you in your ambitions.
Lastly, some students want to do an MA simply to extend their learning, and not necessarily in their existing subject. During my MA, one of my best friends had gained First in Physics for undergraduate, moved to International Relations and got another First for her MA, and was then begged by her supervisor to stay and do a PhD! (She didn’t, and now runs a highly successful B+B business in Cornwall). So, don’t let a lack of experience in a subject put you off from applying if you are really interested in a topic.
Step 5: How do I fund my MA? Can I get a loan?
Most university undergraduate courses qualify for government-sponsored loans. Recently, this has also been extended to MA-level courses, although the precise details very according to what part of the UK you live in and are from. In summary:
- UK nationals normally resident in England can borrow up to £10,280 for the MA year in 2017/18, to cover fees, study needs and living expenses.
- UK nationals resident in Wales are offered the same, although this will change for 2018/9. Precise details are not yet available, but it is looking like the loan will still be available, and will rise to being able to borrow up to £13,000.
Remember that these are loans, not grants, and must be repaid after you have finished the course. You will probably be used to taking out student loans for your undergraduate degree, but this is not a simple commitment, and you may wish to bear in mind the extra debt if you are unsure of doing an MA. that said, the repayment is similar to an undergraduate loan, and should not put you off doing something you are really keen to follow.
Again, prospects.ac.uk has a really good website on this, with separate sections for students in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
6: Next stages:
If none of this has put you off or even has inspired you more, then you may be ready to think about applying for an MA.
The first step is to scope what is out there. You may naturally want to stay where you did or are still doing your undergraduate degree, but you might find that there are more interesting courses and opportunities on offer elsewhere. Or if you have done very well in your studies, you might want to move up the chain to a more prestigious university. Do not be afraid to move: you’ve already done freshers’ week once, and should have more than enough experience to do it again elsewhere!
Put simply, the best way to find a good MA course is to do some googling. Another thing to do would be to ask your undergraduate teachers what they think of your plans, and whether they could help recommend courses for you.
Most universities will have postgraduate prospectus pages, with lots of the information you should need. Do not be afraid to make contact with the designated individual on the website. This shows that you are serious about applying. Most institutions also put on postgraduate open days, which are also a really good chance to look round the campus, town and degree options. Again, you have done this once for your undergraduate degree, and so should know what to look for.
There is no easy way to know whether a student should study for an MA. Often, it can be based on a gut feeling: you know better than anyone whether you want to study further, and the extent to which you enjoy your current studies should tell you how you might cope with more.
But, at all times, involve your previous/current teachers in the discussion. Sometimes an opinion from the outside can help to tip the balance either way, and your teachers should be honest with you about the best path.
I hope that at least some of this blog has been useful. I am very aware that the UK system of MA degrees is very different for those in Europe, North America and other regions of the world, but since the UK is my only area of experience, I hope that this has been useful at least to those thinking of applying here.
Do feel free to share and/or comment!