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Types of Postgraduate Study

There are 3 categories of postgraduate course available to study in the UK: Postgraduate Diploma/Certificate, Masters (MSc, MA, MPhil, etc.) and Doctorate (PhD, DPhil, etc).

Here we outline the types of postgraduate courses available to graduate students in the UK to help you decide which may be best suited to you (if you're interested in doing your postgraduate studies in the U.S, take a look at our dedicated Grad School guide).

Postgraduate Certificate

  • Can take about 1/3 of a year
  • Worth 60 credits

Typically a Postgraduate Certificate is awarded to students who have completed a conversion or vocational-oriented course (for example, a PGCE), although they may also be awarded to those have completed part of a Masters course.

Postgraduate Diploma (PGDip, PG Dip, PgDip, or PGD)

  • Can take about 2/3 of a year
  • Worth 120 credits
  • Generally awarded to students who have completed most or all of the courses of a Master's programme, but did not do the Master's dissertation.
  • A postgraduate diploma will allow you to obtain 120 credits (whereas a full Master's degree is usually 180 credits).
  • The course offers a graduate student the chance to study a new academic subject at degree level, but in a short space of time. Also allows them to study a vocational course after an academic undergraduate degree, such as the Legal Practice Course or the Bar Vocational Course.

Postgraduate diplomas tend to be either professionally or vocationally related, and provide a mix of additional academic knowledge and professional expertise that students need to be able to embark on a particular career.

However, they can also be a pre-requisite for a specialist Masters course, usually offered by the same institution, or consist of only the taught elements of a Masters programme.

In this latter case the student follows the same courses as the masters students but omits the research project or dissertation that follows the examinations or assessments.

Taught Masters

  • Usually lasts for 1 full year.
  • Worth 180 credits.
  • Often the same course as the Postgraduate diploma with an additional project, placement or dissertation for the extra 60 credits.

You will find that the structure of a taught Masters programme varies from course to course, as well as from institution to institution.

This means courses with similar titles can have very different structures and content, as well as different teaching and assessment methods.

You may be taught the course material through seminars, classes, tutorials and supervised laboratory work.

Assessment can be in the form of examinations, vivas, assessed projects, group work or coursework, and the weighting of these different aspects will vary between courses.

A majority of taught Masters courses are not entirely 'taught', as they normally include a research project or dissertation.

Other courses will offer you a choice of modules, while some will have a set cirriculum that all students must follow.

When you are researching different Masters programmes on the web and in prospectuses, it should be clear who the course is aimed at, as well as the entry requirements for applying to the course.

Check these details carefully, as this is important in determining whether the course is suitable for you.

If you have specific career plans, it is vital you find out who and what the course is intended for to make sure the course will help provide you with the knowledge, skills and experience required.

If you are thinking about applying for a PhD later on, it is important to ascertain that your Masters programme includes an appropriate level of research training and specialist knowledge that will provide you with a good foundation for undertaking doctoral study.

Read our guide to Taught Masters programmes for further details on this particular type of course.

Research Masters

  • Most last for 1 year, sometimes 2.
  • Are generally MRes programmes, but you will also find other specifically research related Masters (e.g. MSc by Research).
  • Includes training in both research methods of the relevant discipline and usually a substantial research project.
  • Sometimes necessary if you are planning to progress to a PhD.
  • Useful if you are considering a career where research is your main role, but a PhD is not specifically required.

Additionally, if you are unsure whether a PhD is right for you, a Research Masters can give you a valuable experience of what studying for a doctorate might be like, whilst at the same time allowing you to gain a Masters level qualification.

Read our guide to Research Masters programmes for further details on this particular type of course.

Doctorates (DPhil/PhD)

  • Often last at least 3 years - up to 7 years if studied part-time.
  • Leads to the publication of a thesis.
  • Important if you wish to pursue a career in academic research.

Generally, you will register first for an MPhil, and after a specified period of time, you will transfer to a PhD, providing you have met certain academic criteria and reached a certain stage in the research process, as defined by your university.

This transfer process usually takes place as a formal interview and takes place approximately one year to eighteen months after you start your MPhil.

Some universities may have other additional stages and criteria that must be met before the MPhil transfer - we recommend you check with each university you are considering applying to, as these conditions will vary.

Read our guide to PhDs for further details on this particular type of course.

Professional qualifications

As well as the main types of courses above, which can be studies in most subjects, there are also professional postgraduate courses you can study.

These are often in specific subjects or are aimed towards people going in to specific careers.

Many professional Master's are similar in content to a taught Master's course, though they will often contain theoretical elements, coupled with substantial work placements. You will normally be required to carry out an aspect of research, too.

MBA (Master of Business Administration)

This course is designed to introduce students to the various areas of business such as accounting, marketing, operations management, human resources and more.

MBA programmes in the UK usually consist of a number of taught modules or courses, as well as a dissertation or project.

PGCE/PGDE

  • The PGCE (postgraduate certificate in Education) is a 1 year course that allows graduates to train to be a teacher.
  • A majority of the course is spent on work placements in local schools.
  • The PGDE (postgraduate diploma in education) is the equivalent course in Scotland.
  • In England, trainee teachers also have to pass the QTS Skills Test in literacy, numeracy and ICT.
  • Once a trainee teacher has met the Standards for Qualified Teacher Status and any other course-specific requirements to be awarded the PGCE, they become a New Qualified Teacher (NQT) and undertake an induction programme in their first post.

Law courses

  • The Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) - this is occasionally referred to as the Common Professional Examination (CPE), and is a 1 year course for graduates of subjects other than law who then want to train to be able to practise law.
  • The Legal Practice Course (LPC) - this is a 1 year course that all graduates who intend becoming solicitors must take (whether they did an undergraduate law degree or the GDL), before they can start work as trainee solicitors. The Bar Vocational Course (BVC) is the equivalent course for those who wish to become barristers.

The GDL, LPC, and BVC are all available part-time over a 2 year period.