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Which type of postgraduate qualification should I choose?

Team Prosple

No matter your discipline, each type of qualification serves different purposes. If you’re considering postgraduate study, it pays to know which would best suit you.

There are plenty of options when it comes to postgraduate study, each serving a variety of interests, schedules and careers. While they ultimately can all feed into one another, it pays to know where to start. In this article, we’ll have a look at each of the main types of postgraduate qualification and who they’re best suited to. 

Graduate certificates & diplomas

These six-month full time or one year part time courses are a great way of getting introduced to a discipline. The timeframe makes them particularly appealing to working professionals, parents, or people who aren’t really sure about their choice just yet. These could almost be considered an “appetiser!” The content of these courses generally involves the basics and keeps to a fairly broad curriculum with little flexibility in terms of unit choices. Graduate diplomas are similar, but take double the time and can provide more choice. In both these cases, units tend to be drawn from a larger master’s by coursework program, making them a great insight into those types of degrees. Universities also tend to offer advanced standing to master’s students who’ve come from a graduate certificate or diploma, with the opportunity to knock six months to a year off the course. This means there’s little downside to entering master’s programs via this route, although this options is sometimes only available to domestic students. 

If you’re not entirely sure about postgrad or a particular subject area, consider graduate certificates or diplomas. They’ll give you a good idea of what it’s like.

Masters by coursework

Coursework degrees can vary in purpose depending on the discipline. If you’re coming from law for example, a Master of Laws (LLM) is a professional qualification designed for existing lawyers looking to broaden their skillset. A Master of Commerce on the other hand can accept those from any discipline provided they have a bachelor’s degree. What they have in common is their purpose: developing the student’s knowledge as opposed to having them contribute to the field. This isn’t to say students in coursework degrees are exempt from written reports or a thesis; these are simply not the primary purpose. In some cases, these programs are the premier method of entry into a profession. Education and psychology are the foremost examples. Others are renowned for their ability to progress an existing career, as is the case for the Master of Business Administration (MBA). Some are outright alternatives to bachelor’s degrees, such as the Juris Doctor (JD), which despite its lofty name, is still technically a master-level course according to the Australian Qualifications Framework. 

Masters by coursework degrees can take anywhere from one and a half years full time to two, depending on the nature of the course and advanced standing. Part time equivalents are often available. 

These programs therefore appeal to several interests.

  • If you want to pivot careers from something totally different, a masters by coursework is the way to go. The JD or MBA are great examples. 
  • If you’re looking into specific careers, such as education or psychology, you’ll need to take their associated master-level course. 
  • If you want to develop an existing career, these courses can help you either specialise or broaden your subject knowledge. 

So why enrol directly into a master’s instead of just heading in via grad cert or diploma? Well, advanced standing is often available for a variety of reasons beyond these. Many courses have alternate entry pathways, which grant advanced standing to industry professionals, those holding other qualifications, have a high GPA or any number of other factors. It’s therefore worth considering whether or not any of these direct entry options are suited, because you could save a lot of time. 

Masters by research

These are about contributing knowledge to a field via extensive thesis (around 10,000 words). As such, they often require applicants to have had previous research experience, be it by completing an honours program or otherwise. Students undergo an independent research project into a topic of their choosing guided by a supervisor. Although sometimes required to complete units to better understand their topic of choosing, this isn’t the primary purpose of the degree.

These degrees are great for those who didn’t do honours after undergrad but still want to later do a PhD. It’s vital research experience, which will develop the student’s writing capabilities. These technically can be used to further a career, but usually the specificity required for any given research topic precludes these from being the optimal postgraduate choice for private or public sector career-oriented prospective students. They are, however, an excellent stepping stone to a career in academia, taking around two years full time to complete. Part time options are usually available too.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

These are for subject matter experts (or soon-to-be) looking to make major contributions to their field. They are essentially a vastly scaled-up version of the masters by research, requiring supervised research and thesis (70,000 - 100,000 words). They require applicants to have some kind of research experience, be it honours, masters by research or otherwise. It’s a great avenue to becoming a research scientist, research assistant or just about any career where extensive research is required. If you’re someone who’s comfortable interpreting large quantities of data and gathering original research, this is the ideal way to get in the door. Visionary companies like Google are some of the most prolific employers of PhD graduates, so the private sector isn’t out of reach either depending on your discipline. 

Now you’ve got a better idea of the variety open to you, why not have a browse of our extensive directory of postgraduate courses?