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Postgraduate study - how to apply

A postgraduate or 'higher' degree is awarded after the successful completion of either a taught course or a period of research. Taught courses can be at Masters, diploma or certificate level. Typical postgraduate awards include: Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE); Master of Arts (MA); Master of Science (MSc); Master of Business Administration (MBA); Master of Laws (LLM). Postgraduate students are normally required to submit a dissertation or thesis at the end of the course.

Diploma or certificate courses sometimes consist of the taught elements of a Masters course without the dissertation, and some courses are offered with the opportunity of transfer from a Diploma to a Masters on successful completion of the taught Diploma course. Research degrees are awarded to students who have completed a period of original research and submitted a thesis for examination. Two of the most common qualifications are: Master of Philosophy (MPhil) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD or DPhil).

Postgraduate taught degree courses can take from nine months to two years to complete. Most postgraduate diploma and certificate courses last nine months and taught Masters courses generally last for twelve months. Although most courses are based on the academic year which begins in October, a few courses run from January to December. An MPhil degree is usually awarded after at least two years of research, and certainly no less than one, and indicates a higher level of attainment than a Masters degree in the same subject. Doctorates are awarded after a minimum of three years original research.

Choosing a postgraduate course

To make sure you get maximum value from your study in Britain, you should carefully research the range of programmes available and, if you are considering an MPhil or PhD, the research interests of individual academics. Details are available in postgraduate course directories, eg Graduate studies or Postgraduate study in Britain, and in the university's postgraduate prospectus.

If you are considering a research degree you should also consult relevant departments to request details of their research activities, ask for advice from your departmental head at your own institution, and write to the head of your chosen departments, explaining your background and outlining your research plans.

Another factor to consider in choosing an institution is the Research Assessment Exercise, carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council. Universities are assessed according to a five-point scale, where five relates to research attaining levels of international excellence. The ratings are used by the Higher Education Funding Council to determine the level of grant for research at each university.

You should also consider the region in which you will be studying: it is important to take into account your own personal preferences, such as the choice of a city or rural area; distance from any friends or relatives you may have in Britain; accessibility of transport.

Entrance requirements

Most institutions require a British first degree (or overseas equivalent) in a relevant subject for entry to a postgraduate diploma or Masters degree. For example, you would be expected to have a first degree in physics before taking an MSc in physics. There are a few exceptions, such as library and information studies, and management and education, where graduates in any discipline are accepted and no prior specialist knowledge of the subject is assumed. In such cases students may sometimes be required to have a certain amount of relevant work experience. An Honours degree from the University of the West Indies is generally accepted as sufficient for entry to postgraduate study in the UK.

Entry standards are very high because of the degree of specialization, so in some cases overseas students are required to take a diploma before progressing to a Masters course. Some institutions offer bridging courses for postgraduate admission, which increase a student's chances of being accepted on a postgraduate course. In some circumstances, successful completion of the bridging course may guarantee a place on the postgraduate course, but policies differ and students are advised to check the position with the institution concerned. PhD students are usually registered for an MPhil in the first instance, and if their research progresses well it can later be converted to a PhD registration.

Application procedures

Enquiries concerning admission to a graduate course should be sent to the institutions at least twelve months before the proposed start date. Most institutions do not have a formal closing date for receipt of applications, but admission may have to be submitted by a specific date, depending on the course.

Most taught courses begin in October, but students who have been accepted to take a higher degree by thesis may be able to begin their research at other times in the year. Each university has its own policy on this.

Each institution has its own postgraduate application form which is available from the university. Applications are made direct to the institution with no restriction on the number of applications which may be made to other institutions. Further details of application procedures are available from individual institutions and departments.


Useful resources are available at British Council offices. To make an appointment to use our reference materials, call us at 929 6915 (Jamaica) or 628 0565 (Trinidad).

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