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What is the difference between a postgraduate taught master’s and a postgraduate research master’s?

PGCE, MRes, MA, MSc or PhD? If you’re considering postgraduate study, use this guide to learn the difference between the kinds of postgraduate degrees on offer

    Richard Carruthers's avatar

    Richard Carruthers

    Deputy director of the careers service at Imperial College London
    January 26 2022
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    Postgraduate courses come in many formats, ranging from vocational diplomas and certificates through to master’s and doctoral qualifications.

    The two most common categories of postgraduate study are postgraduate taught (PGT) courses and postgraduate research (PGR) courses.

    As you shop around potential postgraduate courses, you may also come across the PGCE, the LLM, the MRes, the MPhil and the PhD.

    But what is the difference between all these acronyms?

    Below is a guide explaining the differences between all the postgraduate degrees on offer, including how the application process varies between them.

    Postgraduate taught (PGT) courses

    Postgraduate taught courses are sometimes called level 7 qualifications and are one of the most common kinds of master’s degrees. When people refer to master’s courses, they usually mean a postgraduate taught course.

    These courses are typically one year in duration if studied full-time, or two years if studying part-time.

    The course will usually comprise several months of taught classes, much like undergraduate study, followed by an intensive independent research project for the final few months.

    These courses have highly specialised content, making them great launchpads for careers where specialist knowledge is required. They are also often used as a stepping stone to more advanced research degrees.

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

    Postgraduate taught courses will usually lead to either an MSc or an MA qualification, depending on the subject you choose.

    An MSc stands for a “master of science” and will focus on advancing a particular aspect of scientific research across the sciences, engineering, mathematics or a similar field that involves logic, scientific research or numbers.

    An MA refers to a “master of arts”, and covers postgraduate taught degrees in the arts and humanities, such as literature, languages, history, cultural studies and some social sciences.

    Applying for a postgraduate taught course

    To apply for a postgraduate taught course, you will normally be asked to provide transcripts showing your academic performance on your undergraduate degree, a personal statement and a CV.

    Your CV should focus on your educational achievements and interests and discuss any project work that shows you have the technical and academic skills needed to be a successful and independent postgraduate student.

    Your personal statement can be tackled in a similar way to a cover letter, where you introduce yourself and convey your interest, enthusiasm and motivation to study the subject. It is also advisable to tailor your statement to each course you apply for and to explain your interest in some of the modules offered by that specific course.

    It can also be beneficial to demonstrate some thought around where the course will lead you in the future, whether that’s into a new career or towards further study.

    With postgraduate taught courses, you often won’t have to submit a research proposal for your research project as part of your application, as the taught elements of the course are meant to help inform your research proposal.

    However, some postgraduate master’s courses may ask for you to submit a research proposal or at least have an idea of the topic you want to do your master’s dissertation on, even if this changes later.

    Applying to master’s courses is generally done through a decentralised system, meaning you apply individually to each course and university. Each institution will set different entrance and application requirements. Check the exact requirements your course is looking for, and get in touch with the institution’s postgraduate admissions office with any questions.

    What are MRes and MPhil degrees?

    The MPhil stands for “master of philosophy”. The MRes course option, which is relatively new but has grown in popularity in recent years, stands for a “master of research”.

    Much like postgraduate taught courses, both the MPhil and the MRes are technically classified as level 7 qualifications, and typically take one year to complete.

    The main difference between an MRes or MPhil and a postgraduate taught course is that MRes and MPhil courses place much more focus on individual research, with as much as 60 per cent to 100 per cent of either degree consisting of a personal research project.

    Given the heavy research focus, MRes and MPhil courses tend to contain fewer taught classes, but you will usually receive training in research techniques. As a result of the research focus, an MRes or an MPhil may help prepare a student for a doctoral programme (PGR) or a career that requires specific research skills and techniques.

    Applying for an MRes or MPhil course is very similar to applying for a postgraduate taught course, but you may be asked to submit a research proposal as part of your application, so it’s important to have an idea of the kind of research project you would like to pursue.

    Doctorate courses

    Postgraduate research (PGR) courses are sometimes called level 8 qualifications and usually refer to doctorate courses.

    These courses take about three to four years of full-time study to complete, but the exact duration of a doctorate course depends on whether you get involved in teaching, how long your research takes to complete and how long it takes you to write your doctorate thesis.

    Successful PhD candidates are awarded doctoral qualifications such as doctor of philosophy (PhD) or doctor of engineering (EngD), depending on their field of research.

    Research is the core component of a PhD programme, and you will be expected to produce original work on a specific subject topic, usually in the form of a thesis.

    Doctorate qualifications are often a prerequisite for a career as a university academic, researcher or scientist in industry.

    Applying for a doctorate (PhD) programme

    To apply for a doctorate degree, you’ll need to submit a personal statement and a CV, both providing evidence of your academic experiences and passion for the subject.

    Some PhD programmes will expect you to have already completed a postgraduate taught programme, but this isn’t always essential.

    For a PhD, you may also be asked to submit a detailed research proposal outlining a specific research question you would like to address, the subject area you will work in, and the approach you would take to solving this.

    Your proposal should demonstrate your current knowledge and discuss how your research idea could develop or challenge existing knowledge. You should also mention the potential significance of your research and why it would be a useful contribution to your chosen field.

    Usually, you will be expected to apply individually to each PhD programme you’re interested in. Places will usually be dependent on your academic achievements, but also on the funding available in your chosen university department and whether the university can provide an appropriate supervisor.

    If you’re considering applying for a PhD, it may be worth contacting academics individually to discuss whether they’d be interested in supervising you and asking about any funding opportunities.

    Other postgraduate courses

    Aside from the categories discussed above, there are many other classifications of master’s degrees, including postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

    Often these lead to a vocational qualification that is used to gain entry to a specific profession.

    Examples include the postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE), which leads to a career in teaching, the graduate diploma in law (GDL) or master of law (LLM), which opens the door to the legal professions, or the master of business administration (MBA), which is a common choice for business professionals looking to gain entry to C-suite positions.

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