24. Masters: Mapping it Out

Final year at university. Dissertation deadlines looming. Graduation fast approaching. Fellow course mates applying for jobs, attending interviews, and preparing to embark on life in the so-called ‘real world’. But what about those interested in staying in academia? What does a Masters entail? Why should you embark on a Masters in the first place? This short blog series entitled ‘Mapping it Out’ is aimed at university students thinking about or hoping to pursue a Masters degree in Geography or a related subject. It hopes to provide a brief and light-hearted insight into life at Masters level, spanning everything from the application process to negotiating week one as a postgraduate fresher through to thinking about those inevitable and fast approaching questions of ‘what next?’. The blog is written from a very personal perspective and therefore is by no means applicable to, or representative of, all Masters experiences. Yet rather than merely recounting my own story, the blog seeks to draw out key themes, features, and questions that emerge over the course of the year with the aim of speaking to anyone interested in the transition from undergraduate to graduate level study. Indeed, the blog will offer potential tips and handy hints by engaging with fellow Masters and PhD students who are perfectly placed to reflect on their own experiences and provide a guiding hand to those at the very beginning of their academic journeys.

Without further ado, let us begin with the first blog entry listing my five top tips to consider when applying for a Masters.

  1. Research different courses and funding options. The world of postgraduate degrees can be a daunting and mind-boggling place. Navigating your way through it can take time but making sure you research your options thoroughly is important in the long run. Deciding on whether you would like a taught or research-based Masters is an initial hurdle, as is exploring various funding channels. Basic starting points to run through are hours of teaching, class sizes, course content, methods of assessment, and all importantly, application submission deadlines. Checking what previous alumni have gone on to do, and where, can be helpful when thinking about whether a Masters is the best route forward. Similarly, departments increasingly have online videos, podcasts, or blogs all designed to help prospective students decide on whether their course is ultimately for you. Nevertheless, it’s worth looking into lots of different departments and the courses they offer as you may find a course that surprises and inspires you.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your lecturers and tutors are great, on-site resources who can help you think through whether a Masters course is for you. It’s important to remember that at some stage in time, believe it or not, they will have sat in the exact same position as you are and therefore can offer helpful advice on choosing programmes and navigating application processes. Furthermore, they are the ones who may well be completing your references, so the earlier you speak to them about your future plans and potential ideas the better. In a similar vein, sending an email to course coordinators at prospective universities can be really useful for ironing out any concerns or simply gaining clarification on course content. This is particularly the case for any Masters programmes that seem to have a limited online presence! Keep an eye out for course handbooks from previous years as these can be invaluable sources of information.
  3. Attend postgraduate open days, if possible. If you are thinking about embarking on a Masters at a different university to where you are an undergraduate it can be helpful to attend postgraduate open days, time and finance permitting. It’s not necessary to labour this point as I’m aware most students will have attended many undergraduate open days in the past (!) but suffice to say that seeing a university and its departments through your own eyes can give you an idea of whether you can ‘see’ yourself in a new location. Open days also provide invaluable opportunities to speak to staff, meet prospective students, and have a tour of all the university has to offer!
  4. Focus your applications. Whilst it may be tempting to apply to lots of different and varied courses, Masters applications – like any other – take up considerable amounts of time and energy. Writing personal statements, filling in online forms, and in some cases, submitting sample essays can be par for the course. If you are in the final year of undergraduate study, you may be juggling deadlines, societies, not to mention important social commitments, and therefore limiting the number of applications you make can be essential for staying afloat in what is likely to be a very hectic year! A lecturer of mine recommended a maximum of five applications and warned against submitting any more than ten. Regardless, making sure you are interested in and committed to a programme can be vital when thinking about whether you can envisage yourself studying at a new university or indeed at graduate level.
  5. Select courses that get you excited about further study! Finally, and perhaps most importantly, only apply to courses that make you feel excited about continuing in the world of academia! Whilst you may not want to pursue a PhD in the long-term, Masters are a big commitment and should be embarked upon only if they spark your interest and imagination, or offer an exciting pathway towards your future career. Students who have studied on your chosen programmes in previous years can be a real asset, so don’t be afraid to pick their brains and probe their experiences by firing off an email or speaking to fellow postgraduates in your department. It can be tricky thinking forward to a Masters degree prior to finishing your first one, so researching thoroughly and gaining advice from those around you cannot be emphasised enough. It’s worth remembering that taking time out in between degrees is a potential option; didn’t they always say ‘slow and steady wins the race’?

Thanks for reading and keep an eye for the next blog post to be posted shortly addressing that all important question of how to negotiate Freshers’ week as an older (and wiser?) postgraduate…

Alice Watson
MSc Migration Studies, University of Oxford
Twitter_logo_blue @aliceewatson