Decision Time: What is the ideal postgraduate course for you?

Ensuring that your course of choice has credibility in the labour market a big challenge

Research is key to establishing what course is the correct one for you. Photograph: iStockphoto

Research is key to establishing what course is the correct one for you. Photograph: iStockphoto


Just over 30 per cent of graduates from Irish third-level institutions now progress onto postgraduate studies, a drop of 10 per cent from the highs of the crash years following the demise of the Celtic Tiger. For these individuals there is a vast range of programmes to choose from in Ireland, abroad and online.

How to differentiate between what is on offer, and more particularly how to ensure that the course you undertake will have credibility in the labour market, is a major challenge.

What kind of course do you want to take?

Before you decide what, you want to study, ask yourself what type of programme you wish to follow: research or taught.

Taught programmes

Taught postgraduate courses can be a continuation of your undergraduate studies or in an entirely new area. The length of time spent on the course usually determines the qualification: A higher certificate is generally a 30 credit programme taken over six modules. A graduate diploma is generally 60 credits and the master’s degree requires 90 credits. Taught master’s often have a research component within the course, which might be undertaken during the summer and in some cases within an industry setting.

Research programmes

Research master’s, including MLitt’s, generally take 15 months to four years, depending on whether you take it full-time or part-time. If you decide to choose a research-based course, you should explore the courses within your research area and the quality of the support and supervision on offer. You can also contact potential employers in your proposed research area to elicit their views on the strengths of programmes on offer.

Finding out the labour market’s opinion of the quality of support and supervision on offer at this stage will pay dividends when it comes to engaging with potential employers as you come close to the completion of your programme.

Some master’s programmes will facilitate an immediate transfer onto a PhD programme. A doctorate takes a minimum of three years. The topic to be studied is determined by your own area of interest and those of your supervisor. Some PhDs are designed for the “lone scholar” and you will work under the direction of a single supervisor who is an expert in your chosen area. There are also structured PhDs where groups of students are brought together to gain “transferable skills”. Once you have identified your area of interest it is worth talking to the programme director so that you can decide which structure suits you and your work style best.

Validation and Credibility

Validity and recognition are central to choosing a programme. Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), a Department of Education and Skills agency responsible for the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) validates all qualifications from literacy programmes at level one to doctoral awards at level 10 within the State. Postgraduate diplomas, master’s degrees, and PhD programmes, offered by Irish colleges which lead to qualifications on the National Framework of Qualifications, are listed here today.

The validation of any qualification is central to its ultimate value to the learner; in Ireland this is usually demonstrated by its relationship to the NFQ. The universities, the Dublin Institute of Technology and the Institutes of Technology make their own awards under legislation, or under “delegated awarding power” from QQI.

These awards are on the NFQ for both undergraduate and postgraduate level, and are listed by the higher education institutions themselves on their websites. QQI also makes awards in higher education mainly for programmes offered by private or independent higher education colleges. The programme database on lists higher education programmes offered by private institutions leading to awards at levels six upwards.

The website has comprehensive information on all postgraduate opportunities on offer on the island of Ireland including those not validated by QQI, (for example courses in Northern Ireland which fall outside the remit of QQI).

Qualifax lists 2,782courses at postgraduate level in 85 institutions in Ireland, including 301 programmes in Northern Ireland, an increase of 68 on last year. They range from accounting in Athlone IT to zoology in NUIG. Qualifax also lists some programmes offered by private providers only where awards are aligned to the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) or are on the NFQ. There are a further 100 plus courses offered by private colleges, with degrees awarded by external awarding bodies such as the Universities in the UK.

Aside from programmes on Qualifax, highly reputable postgraduate degree programmes are now offered by the top-ranking universities worldwide, given the phenomenal growth educational offerings online. Unfortunately, there are also many worthless postgrad offerings online from colleges with little or no academic credibility.

So, for those considering programmes other than those validated by QQI, caveat emptor or buyer beware. It can be difficult to verify the recognition of a qualification in another country. The European Network of Information Centres and National Academic Recognition Information Services (ENIC NARIC offices) in the relevant country is if you are considering studying overseas. See and

Researching your options.

The Qualifax website is the source for all postgraduate courses offered in Ireland which are validated by QQI. The website will allow you to search for programmes under a wide range of criteria, location, cost, and key search words relevant to your area of interest, etc.

For those interested in courses in Northern Ireland and the UK, the website has a comprehensive postgraduate section. There are a growing number of postgraduate programmes offered through the medium of English in European universities. Full details of European programmes can be found on Online, highly reputable postgrad programmes can be found offered by bodies such as “The Open University” and by prestigious universities throughout the world.

“We see students selecting one of three types of course – depending on their own goals and motivation,” Eilis O’Brien, director of communication at UCD explains. “They fall into one of the following categories; progression students, who wish to become more expert in their bachelor subject; conversion students, who have a degree in one area but want to add skills and knowledge from another and professional students, who want the qualification that goes with a particular graduate course.”

This third group generally have their career path mapped out so the choice for them may be more about where and when to take their qualification. For the first two groups, the thinking generally begins around this time of year in the final year of their studies and it is worth doing some research to explore the options available.

Traditional conversion courses such as law, business and computing offered by universities and IT’s throughout the country continue to offer students a cross-over route into the workplace.

Job-ready courses

The high-quality STEM graduates emerging from our universities and IT’s have opportunities but the competition has also increased, so many choose to go on to graduate level to enhance their skill set and employability.

Edel Carraway, programme internship manager for science at UCD offers practical advice to final year students thinking about taking master’s or even PhD: “Many students want their graduate degrees to open career doors and having an internship is very beneficial on your CV and can lead directly to a job offer from the placement company”. Many colleges, increasingly offering internships as part of the taught master’s degrees, particularly in the STEM subjects.

“Seven of our science master’s degrees offer 12-15-week internships in semester three. “Carraway says. “Students go through an interview and are matched with suitable companies and organisations. They undertake a specific industry research project, which is carefully supervised and assessed.” Getting this type of experience can be invaluable.

Science graduates with a background in life sciences or chemistry who might be thinking about setting up on their own can take a further step with an MSc in biotechnology and business, which includes completing a business plan with a biotechnology company in perhaps the ultimate hybrid conversion degree.

As a hub of biotechnology, Ireland is a good place for science graduates and an increasing number of international students are enrolling here. The MSc in biotechnology at UCD is another course that includes a four-month internship with biotechnology companies such as Pfizer and Genzyme, as well as regulatory authorities such as the Food Safety Authority. Biotechnology master’s and doctorate programmes with appropriate internships are also offered by DCU, UCC, NUIG and the DIT.

Support within your current institution

The careers services within our colleges have traditionally provided an interface between the undergraduate and the world of employment. Given that more than 30 per cent of undergraduates are taking postgraduate programmes, colleges support students in clarifying their occupational aspirations and help them to identify the most appropriate postgraduate options available.