Updating Results

How to choose a postgraduate degree

James Davis

Careers Commentator
There’s a lot of variety in postgraduate programs. Here are a few questions to ask when creating a shortlist and deciding to enrol in one.
feature-article-how-to-choose-a-postgraduate-degree-890x320-2020

There’s no denying the value of a postgraduate degree. Recent QILT graduate outcomes stats reveal Aussie postgraduates to be 14% more likely to be in full-time employment three months after graduating. Median full-time salary for postgrads was at $81,000 pa, versus $61,000 for undergrads. Overall satisfaction regarding course quality was at 81.7% for coursework and 85% for research, representing not only economic but personal advantages. But choosing based entirely on economic outcomes or general satisfaction figures would be erroneous because every person carries with them preferences. The goal of this article is to help build a compelling shortlist of postgraduate courses that’ll complement or facilitate your goals and aspirations.

If you’re a working professional looking to pivot to a new career, develop your existing one or learn simply for the joy of it, we’ve got you covered. Conversely, even if you’re coming straight out of a bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely find some useful advice here. We’ll help you decide against several criteria, including:

  • Personal satisfaction
  • Course costs, including
    • Time commitment
    • Delivery mode
    • Fees
  • Return on investment

We’ll then make a few recommendations based on several different student profiles. Let’s get going.

Personal satisfaction - what are you generally looking to achieve?

This is the crux of this issue. Whether it’s enjoyment, competition, a thrill, curiosity or anything else, there must have been something drawing you to the prospect of postgraduate study. Only you can define this, but doing so will make the entire process easier.

It doesn’t matter if you think your reasoning is silly or you’re uncertain. Just take out some paper and jot down some reasons you’re attracted to whichever choices you’re fixated on currently. Maybe it’s the subject matter of that Juris Doctor? Perhaps you like the look of that Master of Education because teaching is something you’ve always wanted to do. Maybe it’s an MBA that’ll help you make connections and grow your business. Whatever that initial ‘spark’ was, jot it down somewhere. That’ll be where you start searching from. 

If you’ve narrowed down to a select subject or discipline, start further refining why you’re drawn to them. If you’re interested in that Master of Education for instance, the most obvious answer would be ‘well I like teaching,’ but it pays to look deeper. If you can define why you like teaching, you may find the components you enjoy in teaching are present in other fields. For instance, maybe you just love talking to people in general, in which case you might make a good negotiator, brand ambassador, social worker or any number of other things. The trick here is finding the essential components of the things you’re interested in. Things your interest(s) simply couldn’t be without. For teaching, an essential component might be communicating. If you’re not communicating with your students, you’re not teaching. A non-essential component would be a whiteboard. It’s nice to have, but you can still be a teacher without one! If you can find those essential components of what you find fulfilling, you may open the door to postgraduate options you previously wouldn’t have batted an eye at. Find that and you can find personal satisfaction. 

Course costs - time commitment, delivery mode, fees and more

How and where you study could set you back significantly, but the cost doesn’t have to strictly mean fees. Here are the specifics to consider.

How long will the course take?

Time is everything to a working professional. You’ve got some hard questions to ask in order to find a course that’ll fit your schedule. 

Can I afford to commit my weekends/ evenings to this?

If you’ve got young children, a hobby you love or just like to kick back after work, the postgraduate study could be too much. Consider carefully if you’re the sort of person with the drive to commit their leisure time to study, assignments, exams or seminars. Don’t be perturbed if you’re not currently; if you suspect the sacrifice is worth it, go for it. 

Are there shorter alternatives?

Different degree types and privileges can reduce total study time. Considering a graduate certificate, for instance, can mean as little as six-months of full-time study, or one year part-time. If you have prior academic or professional experience, many master’s degrees will credit you with advanced standing, lowering the total duration of your course by six months to a year. It’s always worth exploring your options to see if shorter alternatives exist and whether they can meet your goals. 

What are my delivery options?

Delivery options are the method by which you’ll learn. This can vary quite substantially between subjects, courses, universities and just about any other variable, so look closely when making a decision. Here are a few questions to ask on this topic. 

Can I take the course online?

Online study is often just as effective as on-campus, but with added flexibility. You come out with the same degree at the end, having learned the same material. Check out our article on the online study here if you’re interested in what this entails. 

Can I take it part-time?

Some courses only allow you to do them full time. Others are part-time only. You’ll need to check what’s available against your schedule and determine which kind of study you’re after. There are benefits to each, but each has their own somewhat hidden detriments. For instance, recent government statistics reveal attrition rates to be around 16% for full-time postgraduates, rising to 23% for part-time. On the other hand, a part-time student has more time to work with. 

Is there a multimodal option?

This means some combination of online and on-campus. This is great for those who want the engagement of sitting in an actual lecture hall occasionally, but want the flexibility to study from home or after work as and when required. Some courses offer almost pure online delivery, with just the exams held in person. 

What are the fees?

This can be anywhere from the up-front cost per unit to on-campus accommodation, services and amenities fees, books, software and cost of living if you’re moving cities to study on campus and working remotely. It pays to draw up a spreadsheet and compile these somewhere when building a shortlist of postgraduate courses. Here are a few other things to be careful of. 

Can I put this course on HECS?

This basically depends on what you’ve borrowed prior. Every student gets a maximum $104k they can tap into for university study; med students are the only exception at $150k. This is your combined HELP limit, so applies to any VET study, FEE HELP or otherwise. You’ll likely have to figure out some other form of financing to cover the difference once you’ve exceeded the limit unless you’ve paid off previous debt. Bear in mind: postgraduate courses can be very expensive. A Juris Doctor can be upwards of $96k, with some MBAs going past $150k. 

Does this course have Commonwealth supported places (CSPs)?

These are government subsidies to study at university. Undergraduate courses are basically a shoe-in for CSP eligibility, but only some postgraduate courses have them. Generally, courses for which the form of education is the shortest route to employment in a field are granted these, but even then they are limited. We’re talking courses like the aforementioned Juris Doctor, which sits beside the LLB as mandatory for practising as a lawyer. If you’re doing some non-essential career development (at least in the eyes of the government!), you may have to pay the full cost. Worth checking all the same. 

Are there other hidden costs to be wary of?

Some courses, like an MBA, require the completion of an exam called the GMAT, which costs $250 per attempt and several months of your time to prepare for. Others require having specific hardware, software, books and more. This isn’t as much of a problem these days, but more antiquated courses may still have requirements like these. Don’t discount any course for having these, however; just jot them down. You may find one university costs $78k for the full run with no additional costs, but an equivalent is $56k + $2k extraneous costs. You never know what may end up more effective. 

What’s the return on investment?

This is a difficult thing to calculate prior to taking the course, so do your best to plan how and why your further study options could bolster your career, earn you more money or increase some form of other capital. Even if it’s making you enjoy a hobby more. These things can be really hard to quantify; just do your best where applicable. How you weigh quantitative versus qualitative outcomes is really just dependent on how you derive personal satisfaction.

Quantitative

This can be worked out by going directly to job postings or potential promotions that favour or outright require the kind of education you’re looking to do. If you can’t find any such positions, that’s an indication you’re better off finding some other course from a purely economic standpoint. Next, it’s a matter of midmaxing price of the course versus the reputation of the university. Take a course somewhere unknown for cheap and you may not get anywhere. Take a course somewhere illustrious and you may be paying out of the ears for years. Shop around and you can’t go wrong. 

Qualitative

How much do you think you’d enjoy the course? More importantly, how much do you value that level of enjoyment against what you stand to gain/ lose by taking a more profitable, but perhaps more unenjoyable option? After all, if you can’t muster the enthusiasm to graduate, then it’s all for nothing anyway. Finding something you enjoy at least to some extent is important for the quality of life. What’s more, picking a postgraduate field you don’t enjoy may lead to a career you don’t enjoy. So examine your priorities once again and make sure you know why it is you’re after postgraduate study. 

A few recommendations...

These are just guidelines for choosing postgraduate degrees, but ultimately it’s up to you to examine your own priorities. We don’t know your circumstances, but assuming a few things, we can make a few recommendations. Take these with a grain of salt and determine if they apply to you.

If you’re a working, mid-career professional looking to upskill

Consider online or multimodal study, leading in with a graduate certificate or diploma. Try to make it full time.

Online study is flexible and designed with situations like yours in mind. Course materials are often stored neatly in an online learning management system (LMS), with all learning materials and digital library available at your fingertips. 

As for graduate certificates and diplomas, these are a way to get your feet wet without committing to the whole hog immediately, like a master’s or PhD. They also count toward any following master’s degree in terms of recognised prior learning. In addition, their cost is proportionate to the time you would’ve spent in a master’s anyway. This means you ultimately aren’t wasting any time or money by choosing the lighter option first. Entry requirements are also lower to none at all for graduate certificates, so if you’re interested in breaking into a new, unfamiliar industry, this is the way to go. If you like what you’re doing, you can easily transfer to a higher degree later. If you don’t, that’s fine too. You come out with a qualification at the end for the six months/ year spent. 

As we’ve covered, a full-time study has lower rates of attrition among postgraduate students. It’s also a chance to get it out of the way twice as fast. If you pick a course designed with working professionals in mind, it’s possible to both work and study full time and be done in a reasonable time. If you can’t even with this in mind, going with part-time is totally fine too. 

If you’re an aspiring academic fresh out of undergrad

Study full-time on-campus at a different university to the one you did your undergrad at. Go for the whole hog. 

When academia is your primary focus, it pays to put the odds in your favour. This means reducing the likelihood of attrition. Studying on campus, full time is a great way to do this. As for studying at a different uni, this is a culture thing. It shows you’re willing to move for your work and adapt to new circumstances. It’s also a chance to build your contacts, which is invaluable for landing a job in academia once you graduate. 

As far as ‘going the whole hog’ is concerned, pick a master’s by research or PhD. These are the best representations you’re going to get of life in academia and will train you for it. 

If you’re an aspiring professional fresh out of undergrad

Pick a coursework degree, but consider doing it part-time while working full-time. Doing it on-campus is ideal, but if you have to go somewhere else for work, prioritise work and pick online delivery.

Ambition and work ethic are highly prized by employers these days. It doesn’t matter if you’re Einstein come again; if you haven’t got work experience under your belt, nobody will hire you. Simple as that. This is an exceptionally important time in your life to make an impression, get that initial graduate job and develop marketable skills.

If you haven’t found a graduate job, feel free to go full time with postgrad and use the extra two years or so to apply for internships, clerkships and any work experience you can find in your field. Being in a full-time postgraduate degree means you’re always developing, which is ideal during a job search. 
 

You should now be better equipped to build your own shortlist of postgraduate courses. You can use our site for free for as long as you like in doing this, but we recommend signing up to save courses you find interesting, build up a list of scholarships to look into and saving a couple of useful articles for reference later. Look forward to seeing you later!

For the latest in postgraduate advice, courses and scholarships, sign up for free here on PostgradAustralia.