Research degrees: one qualification leads to another

Increased likelihood that master’s and PhD students will already have postgraduate degree

September 11, 2014

The proportion of students starting research degrees who already have a postgraduate qualification has almost doubled in the past 12 years.

Analysis by the Higher Education Funding Council for England suggests that 59 per cent of those embarking on research master’s and PhDs now have a prior postgraduate qualification, up from 33 per cent in 2002-03.

Taught postgraduate courses “increasingly” appear to be a route into research, according to Chris Millward, director of policy at Hefce.

Research degrees in education, librarianship and business have the highest proportion of entrants with existing postgraduate qualifications, at 70 per cent and above.

The physical and mathematical sciences are at the other end of the scale, with fewer than 20 per cent of new starters having prior postgraduate qualifications, according to the research, which was due to be presented at the Vitae Researcher Development conference in Manchester on 9 September.

The analysis also finds that the majority of graduates that move into postgraduate research within a year of completing an undergraduate degree are male, white and have a degree in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. About 44 per cent have an “enhanced” undergraduate qualification, such as an integrated master’s.

Hefce was due to release two further reports into postgraduate education at the event. The first, titled Understanding the Recruitment and Selection of Postgraduate Researchers by English Higher Education Institutions, finds that there are “unwritten rules” that institutions use to recruit postgraduate research (PGR) students that may not be known to all applicants.

None of the 60 universities surveyed as part of the research said that they required a master’s degree for entry to PGR programmes, but the report found it is “increasingly being seen as the preferred evidence of research experience or aptitude”.

The second report, International Comparisons in Postgraduate Education: Quality Access and Employment Outcomes, finds an increase in global competition for postgraduate students.

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