Is it worth doing a master’s or PhD?
Unsure if postgraduate study is right for you? Whether you're thinking about doing a master's or a PhD, this guide will talk you through the key things to consider.
Not only are postgrad degrees brilliant opportunities to let you specialise in particular areas of research and study your chosen topic in-depth, but they can also increase your employability.
Let's face it: going back to university for a while can be tempting. However, while there are plenty of advantages to doing a master's or PhD, there are also a number of aspects of postgraduate study that are slightly less ideal – not least the financial cost of continuing your studies.
To help you weigh up the pros and cons, we've put together a list of the main things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to continue with your studies as a postgraduate student.
What's in this guide?
Should you do a master's degree?
Master's degrees boost employability
One major perk of studying for a postgraduate degree is that it can help you to first get onto the career ladder by giving you a boost above the competition.
It's an extra selling point on your CV that can give you a competitive edge – especially if you're planning to pursue a career that's directly related to your master's.
And, as well as helping you get your first job, it can also be super useful as you progress through your career.
If you have a master's, you might not necessarily start on a higher wage than people with just an undergraduate degree. But, research suggests that further on in your career, you'll likely be earning more.
You'll study a subject you love
Academia can be a wonderful thing. If you genuinely love getting stuck into research and developing your knowledge on your favourite subject, a master's might be a great route for you.
It's important to remember that, no matter how much you enjoy a subject, a master's degree still won't be easy. It'll take hard work, dedication and ongoing self-motivation – but if you really do care about the course and you have the drive to study and learn, this will pay off.
Having a master's can help you get on a graduate scheme
As we mentioned earlier, having a master's can really boost your employability, and this is especially the case when it comes to graduate schemes.
While there are some graduate schemes that accept grads with 2:2s, a lot will specify that they're only open to those with a 2:1 and above OR a postgraduate degree.
So, particularly if you did get a 2:2 at uni, a master's degree could help to improve your chances of being accepted on to a grad scheme.
You can meet industry contacts
On a master's degree, there can be amazing opportunities to attend industry events and network.
Your tutors will likely be very well-connected within their field – if you make a good impression on them, they might invite you along to conferences and research seminars where you could meet other people from the industry.
Whether you're planning to stay in academia by doing a PhD, or you're thinking about finding a non-academic job within a related industry, it will make a big difference if you start networking early.
You can change career direction
If you're thinking about entering a new field but have little in the way of experience or relevant qualifications, postgraduate study could be the stepping stone you need.
Whether your undergraduate degree wasn't quite what you'd imagined, or your subject's not directly linked to many careers, you won't be alone in reaching the end of uni and wanting a change of direction.
It might NOT help you decide your career path
While a master's degree can help you get into particular career paths, it's by no means guaranteed that the course will help you figure out your job route.
Ultimately, if your reason for doing a master's is that you have no idea what else to do, there's every risk you could finish the course and still not know what career to follow. The key to avoiding this is research – and lots of it.
Do as much research as you can into your chosen course and university, finding out how they can support you with your career preparation.
For example, do they run careers workshops? Or would they host networking events where you could meet potential recruiters? These kinds of opportunities could really allow you to get good value for money for your master's degree.
And (importantly!) look into what jobs people generally go on to do with the master's that you're interested in. This will give you a good indication of whether or not it's right for you.
Master's degrees can be expensive
When thinking about doing a master's, it's essential to recognise that they can cost a lot – and unfortunately, the government's Student Loans for master's students aren't always as generous for postgraduate students as they are for undergrads.
The amount you can receive will differ depending on whether you're from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. To help, we have some guides to talk you through the available funding in your part of the UK:
- Postgraduate Loans in England
- Postgraduate Loans in Scotland
- Postgraduate Loans in Northern Ireland
- Postgraduate Loans in Wales.
While the cost of a master's degree is, of course, something that needs to be considered, we'd urge you to not let it put you off entirely. If the Student Loan isn't enough for you, there are plenty more funding options available to you.
You can get good jobs without a master's
If your main reason for doing a master's degree is to get a good job, bear in mind that it's not the only way to improve your job prospects.
For most graduate jobs, you'll only need an undergraduate degree. And while a master's could help you stand out among the competition, so could work experience, extracurricular activities and even freelance projects that you do in your spare time.
In fact, continuing as a full-time student for a bit longer could mean you'll end up with a year less work experience compared to others who go straight into work after graduating. This brings us to our next point...
Other job applicants might have more work experience
It goes without saying that university (especially at postgraduate level) can teach you huge amounts.
However, what studying doesn't teach you is how to act professionally, manage a hectic email inbox, navigate office politics and many more key work-based skills. You can only really learn these skills from first-hand experience in a workplace, but employers will really value them.
Again, if your reason for choosing a master's is to find a good job at the end of it, keep in mind that spending the year working full-time could be very beneficial too – especially as you'll be earning money while doing it.
It could be difficult to get a job related to your master's
Particularly if you're planning to study a master's that is related to a niche and/or competitive industry, remember that your dream job won't be guaranteed at the end of it. In this respect, a master's can be a risk.
But, that's not to say that it's not worth doing a postgraduate degree because of this. It's up to you to make the most of the course, and there's every possibility that it will lead you down your chosen career path.
When you genuinely care about the subject and your chosen industry, it comes across. Working hard and remaining dedicated will give you the best chance of success, both during the degree and afterwards.
If you've weighed up the pros and cons and feel confident that a master's is right for you, then go for it. It might not be easy to get a job related to it, but it's possible, and your efforts and enthusiasm during the course will take you a long way.
Is it worth doing a PhD?
You can become an expert in your field
Without a doubt, one of the best parts of doing a PhD is becoming an expert in a subject you're fascinated by.
During your doctoral degree, you'll be spending years doing extensive research on your chosen topic. There's the opportunity to make exciting discoveries, and you could end up sharing your work with leaders in the industry at academic conferences and seminars.
What's more, you could see your findings published in journals and as a book, which could then help to inform the research of others.
Your PhD could lead to travel opportunities
Already liking the sound of attending (or even speaking at) conferences? Well, your PhD could end up taking you around the world to attend global research events in different countries.
Universities often have travel grants available to postgraduate research students who need to travel abroad for conferences, allowing you to experience these great opportunities without being held back by the costs.
To find out if your uni can fund your trips abroad for conferences, have a chat with your PhD supervisor as they will be able to talk you through what's available and how you can apply.
Your time will be devoted to research
If the thought of spending all day, every day, absorbed in research appeals to you, this in itself is a very good indication that you would be well-suited to a PhD.
Admittedly, there will be days throughout the course of a doctoral degree where you probably won't love studying – no PhD will be perfect from start to finish.
But as long as, despite all the challenges, you have a continued drive to push through and keep researching, it could be an incredible and hugely rewarding experience.
PhD theses can be influential
As we mentioned earlier, a PhD can lead you to become an expert in your field. But, not only this – your research has the potential to really make a difference.
For example, you could shed new light on Shakespeare's approach to writing, or write a groundbreaking mathematical theory, or you could even contribute to the discovery of a life-saving drug.
There is so much good that could come from your work. If you're able to create a lasting, positive impact through your research, this would definitely make a PhD worth it.
You can pursue a career in academia with a doctorate
If you dream of spending your career writing, researching and teaching, it's definitely worth considering a PhD – it will set you up perfectly for a life of academia.
Luckily, if you are interested in becoming a lecturer, you're in the very good position of already knowing people who can give you expert advice on this: other lecturers.
Whether from your undergraduate or master's degree, get in touch with any tutors that you get on well with and see if they'd be happy to meet with you for a chat.
Ask them about the realities of doing a PhD, what it's like working in academia, and what other things you can be doing outside of your studies to increase your chances of getting a job as a lecturer.
Poor PhD supervisors will make the experience harder
Your experience throughout the course of your PhD will be hugely shaped by the academic who supervises your research.
A good supervisor could leave you feeling like a doctoral degree was definitely worth it, while a bad supervisor could make the whole process unnecessarily difficult, draining and stressful.
When looking into doing a PhD, do plenty of research into potential supervisors. If possible, identify a handful of lecturers you'd be interested in working with, and approach other people who were supervised by them for their PhDs to find out about their experiences.
Ask them as much as you can, like whether the supervisor gave good feedback, was reliable, could be approached with problems and offered support and clear guidance when needed.
PhDs last several years
Carrying on from the last point, if you don't have a good experience with your PhD (e.g. if you have a bad supervisor), you could end up spending several years in a position that you're not enjoying.
Also, if you go on to pursue a career that isn't related to your doctorate, the years you've spent on the degree could put you at a disadvantage when you start applying for jobs. During the years you'd have spent studying, other job applicants could have been working and gaining experience that would be difficult to compete with.
But, having said that, if you do intend to go into a career that's directly linked to your PhD, the fact that the degree lasts several years would instead be an advantage – they might well end up being the best years of your education so far.
Doctoral courses can be high-pressured
At such a high level of education, PhDs can be extremely challenging for a lot of reasons. There will be big deadlines to meet, complex projects to complete and you'll be expected to finish your work to a very high standard.
Plus, as well as being high-pressured, PhDs can also feel like quite isolating experiences at times. A lot of your research will likely be done independently, maybe in a library, lab or from home, and this can take its toll.
If you do decide to do a PhD, it's essential that you make time for self-care and spend time with your friends and family as much as you can.
Your uni's student union might also put on social events for PhD students, which would be great opportunities to meet others who are going through the same thing.If you struggle with your mental health at any time during your studies, whether as an undergraduate or postgraduate student, please reach out for help when needed. 💜
A doctorate is not needed for most jobs
Unless you're hoping to go into a research-focused career like academia, a PhD won't be required for most jobs.
Granted, it will help you stand out if you have a doctorate – but arguably not enough to make up for the lack of full-time work experience you'd have compared to other people your age who started graduate jobs straight after their undergraduate or master's degree.
Academic jobs are very competitive
A big perk of doing a PhD is having the chance to work in academia. But please remember that, if your goal is to find permanent work as a lecturer after your degree, these jobs can be pretty tough to get – particularly when you're straight out of uni.
Instead, though, you might find that your PhD can initially lead you to find work in a postdoctoral research assistant role. These positions would still be competitive, but if there are any vacancies at the university you studied at, this could give you an advantage.
These roles would allow you to gain valuable experience working at a university which, hopefully, could help you go on to find more senior academic jobs.
We hope this list will give you a bit more of an idea of whether you should study for a master's or PhD.
But, ultimately, if you have the drive to study for a postgraduate degree, this is the most important factor in deciding whether it would be worth it – and only you can decide this.
Whatever you feel is the right option for you, we wish you the best of luck!
Wondering what the highest-paid graduate jobs are? Our guide reveals all.