Training and progression

Scientific postgraduate study: MSc, MRes or PhD?

25 Jan 2023, 13:38

Getting a science postgraduate qualification could set you off on a budding academic or commercial research career or put you on the right path to getting a graduate science job in a specialist area. Find out what you could do and how to weigh up the benefits.

Confident woman standing in front of a blackboard with mathematical equations.

Of all postgraduates, scientists are probably the most directly employable. However, this doesn't mean you should rest on your job-hunting laurels, or necessarily take the postgrad path - you can be successful in science without further study. The key to success whether you stay in academia for another year or three, or go straight to work, is understanding your options and what they could lead to.

MSc, MRes or PhD?

The type of postgraduate programme you choose depends on your aims. Masters-level courses are typically good for going into more depth on a subject covered in your degree. They can also be useful for gaining new specialist knowledge and taking a side step into a new but related area of science, for example, bioinformatics after a biology degree. Full-time masters courses are a year in length and can be taught (MSc) or by research (MRes).

If your final-year project and courses have sparked the research bug, you might be keen to take things further with a PhD. Over three years you will conduct independent scientific research (theoretical or experimental), usually within a specialist research group at a university. Doing a PhD can be a lot of fun and you’ll build good camaraderie with colleagues and collaborators, but ultimately you are in the driving seat of where your research goes and gathering results to write your thesis.

Choosing a science masters course or PhD programme

Your current university and the postgraduate prospectuses of other universities are the best place to start your search. Most university careers services also have information on postgraduate study. In general you need to check entry requirements for postgraduate study. Make sure that masters courses cover the content you you want. Try to find out what other masters graduates have gone on to do and look at what projects and final dissertations will be on.

For scientists considering a PhD, do some reading around the subject area that interests you and talk to researchers and supervisors at your current university to find out more. Locate other research groups and universities working in the field and do a literature search to find work published in key journals. You can try starting with Google Scholar , and your university’s library services should be able to point you in the direction of other academic databases.

Check the research assessment exercise (RAE) ratings for departments that interest you. Three years doing a PhD is a long time, so you need to make sure that you find a place where you will be happy and able to do your best work.

The relationship you have with a supervisor can make or break a PhD. Once you start visiting research groups take the time to find out as much as you can about how a group runs and how much support you will receive. Make the most of opportunities to talk independently to PhD students and post-docs already in the group. If you are considering an experimental PhD, cast your eye over the equipment – does it look up to the job?

Finding funding for further study

Funding for masters courses can be harder to come by than funding for a PhD. Start by investigating whether the course or department you are applying to has its own awards, scholarships and bursaries, otherwise you need to look elsewhere.

There are a number of research councils that fund scientific postgraduate study and research of a scientific nature. The main three are:

Grants from research councils are allocated direct to departments and research groups, which pass on the money to students. You apply to do the PhD and if you are successful, you get the studentship. Some research groups may also have access to additional funding from industry partnerships. The important thing is to do your research and apply early to make sure you get the programme you want and secure the funding.

Adding value to postgraduate study

Science postgraduates are employed for their specialist knowledge and skills, their ability to work independently and think analytically and innovatively , as well as their ability to conceptualise and question . However, to be most effective in a commercial environment, these need to be combined with the essential professional skills of good communication , teamwork and leadership . During your studies, try to develop these skills and build up a portfolio of experiences.

Take up opportunities to go to conferences and present posters, attend summer schools and professional development programmes such as those organised by Vitae. Get experience of teaching undergraduates and use your university’s facilities to gain basic business software skills. These will all add value to your CV and help you to find a position whether you choose to stay in academia or enter the commercial world of science.

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