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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.

woman studying with graduate cap and books symbols

Credit: Flamingo Images – Shutterstock

Not only are postgraduate degrees brilliant ways to specialise in particular areas of research, but they can also increase your employability.

Let's face it: going back to university can be tempting. There are plenty of advantages to doing a master's or PhD. But, there are some aspects that are less ideal – including the postgraduate funding on offer.

To weigh up the pros and cons of postgraduate study, read on for an overview of the key things to consider.

Should you do a master's degree?

To decide whether it's worth doing a master's, consider these 10 things:

Students with text 'Advantages of studying a master's'

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  1. Master's degrees boost employability

    One major perk of studying for a postgraduate degree is it can help you get onto the career ladder. It's an extra selling point on your CV that gives you a competitive edge. This is especially the case if you're planning to pursue a career directly related to your master's.

    As well as helping you get your first job, it can be super useful as you progress through your career.

    If you have a master's, you might not necessarily start on a higher salary than people with only an undergraduate degree. But, research suggests that further on in your career, you'll likely be earning more.

  2. You'll study a subject you love

    Academia can be a wonderful thing. If you love getting stuck into research and developing your knowledge, a master's could be a great route for you.

    Remember that, no matter how much you enjoy a subject, a master's degree won't be easy. It'll take hard work, dedication and ongoing self-motivation. But if you really care about the course and you have the drive to study and learn, this will pay off.

  3. Having a master's can help you get on a graduate scheme

    As we mentioned earlier, having a master's can boost your employability. This is often 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.

    Particularly if you received a 2:2 at uni, a master's degree could help to improve your chances of being accepted to a grad scheme.

  4. You can meet industry contacts

    During master's degrees, 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, they might invite you along to conferences and research seminars. And while there, 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 makes a difference to start networking early.

  5. You can change your career direction

    Thinking about entering a new field but don't have much experience or relevant qualifications? Postgraduate study could be the stepping stone you need.

    If 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.

    Or, if you have a clear idea of what you do want to do, a master's focused on that area could help you achieve your goals. But, it's also important to keep the next point in mind...

    Man studying with text 'disadvantages of studying a master's'

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  6. A master's 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 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.

  7. Master's degrees can be expensive

    When figuring out whether doing a master's is worth it, it's essential to recognise that they can cost a lot. 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:

    While the cost of a master's degree is 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 of other ways to fund your postgraduate studies.

  8. You can get good jobs without a master's

    Remember that a master's degree isn't the only way to improve your job prospects.

    For most graduate jobs, you'll only need an undergraduate degree. And while a master's can help you stand out, so can work experience, extracurricular activities and even freelance projects.

    In fact, by doing a master's, you could have less work experience than those who go straight into work after graduating. This brings us to our next point...

  9. 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 learn these skills from first-hand experience in the workplace.

    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 earn money while doing it.

  10. It could be difficult to get a job related to your master's

    Particularly if you're planning to study a master's that's 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.

    That's not to say 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 chance 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. Your efforts and enthusiasm during the course will take you a long way.

Should you do a PhD?

When deciding whether it's worth doing a PhD, make sure you consider the following:

woman on laptop with text 'Advantages of studying a PhD'

Credit: Jacob Lund – Shutterstock

  1. 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 chance 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.

  2. 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.

    To find out if your uni can fund your trips abroad for conferences, have a chat with your PhD supervisor. They'll be able to talk you through what's available and how to apply.

  3. Your time will be devoted to research

    Does the thought of spending all day, every day, absorbed in research appeal to you? If so, this in itself is a good indication that you would be well-suited to a PhD.

    Admittedly, there will be days throughout the course of a doctoral degree when you probably won't love studying. No PhD will be perfect from start to finish.

    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.

  4. PhD theses can be influential

    As we mentioned earlier, a PhD can lead you to become an expert in your field. But your research also 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. 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.

  5. 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 in academia.

    Luckily, if you are interested in becoming a lecturer, you'll already know 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 for a chat.

    Ask them about the realities of doing a PhD and working in academia. You could also ask about what else you can do alongside your studies to increase your chances of getting a job as a lecturer.

    We're sure they'll be happy to help. Plus, the tailored advice (based on you and your skill set) would be incredibly useful.

    man studying with text 'Disadvantages of studying a PhD'

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  6. 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. A difficult supervisor, on the other hand, could make the whole process feel harder and more stressful.

    When looking into doing a PhD, do plenty of research into potential supervisors.

    Identify a handful of lecturers you'd be interested in working with. Then, approach other people who were supervised by them for their PhDs to find out about their experiences.

    Ask them as much as you can. For example, try to find out whether the supervisor gave good feedback, was reliable, could be approached with problems and offered support when needed.

  7. 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've spent studying, other job applicants could have been working and gaining experience.

    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.

  8. Doctoral courses can be high-pressured

    At such a high level of education, PhDs can be challenging for a lot of reasons. There will be tough deadlines to meet and complex projects to complete. On top of this, you'll be expected to finish your work to a very high standard.

    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. This can take its toll.

    If you do decide to do a PhD, it's essential you make time for self-care. Also, 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, please reach out for help when needed.
  9. 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. However, it might not be 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.

  10. 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, 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. This, hopefully, could help you find more senior academic jobs.

We hope these lists will give you a bit more of an idea of whether you should study for a master's or PhD. 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. 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.

Laura Brown

WRITTEN BY Laura Brown

Laura Brown, Head of Editorial at Save the Student, is an award-winning writer with expertise in student money. She project manages influential national student surveys and has presented findings to MPs in Westminster. As an expert on student issues, Laura has been quoted by the BBC, the Guardian, Metro and more.
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