Getting the right advice: How to choose a postgraduate course

Choosing a course that suits you doesn’t have to be difficult

When it comes to choosing a postgraduate course there are more flexible options available these days than ever before: students can still immerse themselves in a one-year full-time or two-year part-time masters programme, but they can also take shorter courses leading to a postgraduate diploma or certificate, or get specific training through an online course with Solas or a private provider such as Digital Charity Lab.

We spoke to three experts about how students can ensure they get the right course and the right advice.

Seamus Hoyne is dean of flexible and work-based learning at the Technological University of the Shannon (TUS) Midlands-Midwest, which formed from a merger of Athlone Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology. Marie McManamon is an independent careers consultant, qualified guidance counsellor and owner of Clearcut Career Guidance (Clearcut.ie). And, Prof Martine Smith is dean of graduate studies at Trinity College Dublin.

What are the worst reasons to do a postgraduate?

Seamus Hoyne: People who are successful in their studies are doing it because they like the subject. Some may have commenced a masters because it has become the trend in their sector, even though they don't really want or need to do it. It's so important to choose something that you will enjoy.

Marie McManamon: If you don't have clear career goals. I see too many graduates who either didn't like their primary degree but finished it and then moved on to postgraduate study without taking time to do any career planning. I've seen graduates take on unrelated masters and still not enjoy the course because there was no strategy behind it. Unrealistic expectations are a real factor for undergraduates, with a mistaken belief that every third-level course has a direct pathway into a specific job or career area. When this doesn't happen, panic can set in and jumping into another course is seen as a short-term fix – but it's not.

What should guide a person’s course choice?

Marie McManamon: They should be guided by a strong career decision-making process. So engage with college career services, available for a year after graduating, generally (although this varies from college to college and some offer career guidance to their graduates for years or even decades). If unable to do so, consider getting professional help: it's worth the time and investment. Some services, like the Adult Guidance Service at the local education and training board are free, if you can access them. Build your own self-awareness. See also CareersPortal and GradIreland resources online.

Martine Smith: Students should think carefully about the time they have available to them. Full-time (or even two-year part-time) courses generally best suit students who know exactly what they want to do and who have few other demands on their time and energy. Those who are less certain about their key interest, or their ability to juggle a new course with other demands may find that shorter commitments offer them the opportunity to ensure they have made a good choice, that the environment suits them and that they have found the course they hoped they would. Other key things to consider include the scheduling of classes, the potential to engage online, the extent to which access to the campus might be necessary – such as for libraries – and how those demands can fit within all the other pulls and pushes on postgraduate students.

Seamus Hoyne: The real value of a postgraduate is in the taught components and dissertation: you are building skills for analytical work, including synthesis and analysis. You will learn something from every course, and you will develop real-life skills that can be applied across any sector of society or the economy.

What different ways are postgraduates delivered now?

Martine Smith: Postgraduate students need multiple different options in order to pursue their educational ambitions. For a long time, most programmes have offered the option of doing a masters full time in one year, or else completing the taught components in the first year and then doing a research dissertation over the second year.

Increasingly, new courses are configured so that students can pursue a masters degree over 12 months, 24 months or 36 months, with multiple exit points. They may choose to stop with a postgraduate certificate (30 credits) and change tack entirely or decide they have met their career aspirations. Alternatively, they may go on to study for a further 30 credits and get a postgraduate diploma the following year. Some students know from the start that they really want to pursue a piece of research – something they can choose for themselves and really explore in depth. This is the 30-credit element that leads to the award of a masters degree.

With so many job and career opportunities available at the moment, are they worth doing?

Marie McManamon: Graduate recruitment programmes offer excellent opportunities including training and experience across functional areas. If you are unsure about courses, perhaps work first to gain experience and better understanding of your preferred roles. You can always return to study later. There are endless options. Also consider Springboard (not for newly graduated) or other Human Capital Initiative (HCI) courses which are funded.

The cost of a postgraduate course can run anywhere from €4,000-€8,000, while some MBAs are over €20,000. How can I afford it?

Seamus Hoyne: The Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) doesn't offer the same level of support to postgraduates as they do to undergraduates (see Susi.ie for more details) but there are courses offered through Springboard.ie where the State will cover up to 90 per cent of the costs. Many companies will also support their staff in pursuing postgraduate study.

Where can graduates get good advice and information about courses?

Seamus Hoyne: There's good information on all the third-level websites, and colleges, including TUS, are open to phone calls and discussions. People can also check out research postgraduates that will allow them carry out a project with a third level while working with their company on a part-time basis. And then there are sites like GradIreland.com which are great for information on jobs and postgraduate learning.

What else should postgraduates know about?

Marie McManamon: Check that any courses are accredited by the relevant professional body (so that your qualification is recognised where you need it to be – although sometimes you simply need a skill for an existing or upcoming role in, for instance, graphic design, and you don't necessarily need formal professional accreditation), such as CIPD for HR management and PSI for psychology courses.

Martine Smith: Other innovations that are emerging are an increasing emphasis on short courses, such as continuing professional development options, Masterclasses and Micro-credentials. The Government's recent Human Capital Initiative gave significant support to the sector to start work on developing these smaller learning options focused on very specific skill needs and linked carefully to enterprise demand. They offer learners the opportunity to make very targeted decisions about specific skill needs, as well as a "taster" that might help to guide decisions about embarking on something bigger in scale.

Note: Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) is the formal and official accreditation body for courses in Ireland, and they accredit public and private courses providers for in-person and online learning within the National Framework of Qualifications. For many short online courses which simply help build a specific skill as part of continuous professional development, such as massive online open courses (MOOCs) or courses provided over Udemy, however, QQI accreditation may be less important.