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Taught postgraduates

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

A Masters degree means developing your studying practices from those suited to being an independent learner to those suited to being an independent researcher. You will be working at a more complex and sophisticated level, with a need for broader and more independently sourced research. You will need not only to evaluate what other people have found, but also to put your own research into context. You will be expected to be meticulous and professional and show higher standards of scholarship. You will also have to make sure your time management is effective to get everything done. With only one year to complete most Masters courses, it can be a steep learning curve, but if you look ahead at the shape of the whole year and work consistently, you will keep on top of the work.

The advice on this page aims to give you a headstart by explaining some of the differences between undergraduate and Masters level study.

Increased workload and intensity of study

At Undergraduate level: You may be used to an uneven workload, with a relatively easy start to each term and the pressure increasing as deadlines approach. Tutors may have spent a number of lectures explaining basic concepts and going over the fundamentals of a topic.

At Masters level: You will start working at a fast pace from the very beginning and this will increase. Your tutors will spend less time covering each topic, and you will be expected to fill in any gaps in your understanding through wider reading and discussing with your peers. You will need to keep up with the work from the start, and be strategic in how you spend your limited time.

"A Masters is like two years of work condensed into one year." (Masters student, Applied Statistics)

Taught Masters courses are often the most intense and demanding of any academic study and they have the steepest learning curve. The most common time management problem for taught Masters students is falling behind with the volume of work. Some tips for avoiding this are:

- Aim for development not perfection: Divide your time so that you don't spend too much time on any one assignment. The important thing is to get your assignments in. It is better to hand something in on time, even if it is not as perfect as you would like, than let the work mount up.

- Take it steadily: Don't be discouraged if your first few assignments come back with lower marks than you expected. Identify one or two areas to improve and work on those, as opposed to trying to fix everything at once.

- Be selective: Split your reading and study time between 1) ensuring you have an understanding of the basic concepts, and 2) following up some of your own interests in the subject.

- It is never too early to start thinking about your dissertation topic: Have an ideas file to keep all your ideas, notes, and useful articles together.

- Divide your time appropriately: Don't spend too much time on all the small assignments as other work may mount up. Work within your time and word count.

- Have an overview: Map out the shape of your year showing when you may need time for returning home or for researching. Seeing the bigger picture helps you to plan for the intensity.

- Keep up with the reading: You are expected to read more widely so you need to set aside more time for this. However, you can't read everything; aim to get a general context and a few differing opinions on a topic. Don't spend too long on one area before moving on.

"Accept that at Masters level it will be a step up from Undergraduate study, but accepting this and being well organised, and having good time management will make it a much less stressful experience." (Masters student, Economics)

Different working relationship with tutors

"Use the most important resource available to you - your tutor. Ask for advice or guidance sooner rather than later." (Masters student, Typography)

At Undergraduate level: During an undergraduate degree you may not have had the opportunity for much individual contact with your tutors.

At Masters level: Being a Masters student is also about learning to be part of an academic community, and discussing your ideas with fellow researchers, including your tutors. If you are doing your Masters degree in the same department where you studied your undergraduate degree, it might seem strange to work more closely with academics that used to seem distant, but they will be glad to talk to you - you are studying a specialised topic that they enjoy studying too! 

"Although there is less contact time, there is more intense contact with lecturers. You get more personalised feedback and explanations; I take time to go through these with my students." (Masters lecturer, Classics)

Applying your thinking

At Undergraduate level: A key aspect of Undergraduate study in the UK is thinking critically. This means questioning everything and not accepting any information at face value without asking whether you agree or disagree with it, and what is making you agree or disagree.

At Masters level: You will be expected to apply your critical thinking to consider issues or problems within your specialised field. Masters degrees prepare you for entering a professional area, whether this is academic research (e.g. PhD study), industry, business, or elsewhere. They train you to apply your thinking to examine the theories and the practices that make up the professional knowledge in your subject.

"I ask the group to look at the pros and cons of a particular theory. But this is only the first step - this isn't original thinking in itself. So then I ask them to apply the theory to a different situation... and their initial reaction is you can't, but then they start to use what they know about its strengths and weaknesses to adapt the theory to their own situations in their companies - that's more original!" (Masters course director, Management)

Being meticulous, rigorous and professional

"I could get away with coasting a bit as an Undergrad, but not in my Masters... for example, make sure all your references are accurate - it may seem tedious, but it really matters!" (Masters student, Meteorology)

At Undergraduate level: Your lecturers may have told you (endlessly!) that referencing, avoiding plagiarism, and accurate writing were important, but they may have been more lenient when marking your work, as you were still learning these academic practices.

At Masters level: A Masters degree is training in how to be a researcher, so academic practices, like referencing and accurate writing, are now the tools of your trade. Your markers will be reading your work differently, and expecting you to demonstrate the same attention to detail and rigour that a professional researcher would.

Becoming an independent researcher

At Undergraduate level: You may be used to developing your practices for independent learning, such as taking the initiative, managing your time, and reading widely about the key issues in your subject.

At Masters level: You will build on these practices to become, not only an independent learner, but an independent researcher. Rather than just working within the key issues or debates in your subject, you will be expected to examine the edges and boundaries of your subject and understand how knowledge is constructed in your subject. This means:

 - Reading more recent research at the cutting edge of your subject.

 - Evaluating methodologies - understanding how and why researching something in a certain way constructs knowledge.

 - Identifying gaps in the existing research - seeing where the edges and limits of knowledge in your subject are, and how you might set your own research questions to fill these gaps.

This is a significant step, so don't be discouraged if your first few assignments have lower marks than you expected, as these higher-level research abilities take experience to develop. However, as a Masters course is so intense, it's important to seek help and advice early on so you can keep progressing, as soon you'll be onto your next assignment.