How to select the right postgraduate course for you

Ask yourself what the type of programme you wish to follow: research or taught

With more than 40 per cent of undergrads going on to postgrad, careers offices in colleges are crucial in advising undergraduates of their options. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

With more than 40 per cent of undergrads going on to postgrad, careers offices in colleges are crucial in advising undergraduates of their options. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images


More than 35 per cent of undergraduates go on to study at postgrad level and there is a vast range of programmes to choose from in Ireland, abroad and online.

How to differentiate between what’s on offer and more particularly how to ensure your course has credibility in the labour market, is a major challenge.

But before you decide what you want to study, ask yourself what the 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 a course usually determines its qualification: A higher certificate is generally a 30-credit programme over six modules. A graduate diploma is generally 60 credits and the masters degree requires 90 credits. Taught masters often include a research component, possibly during the summer and in some cases in an industry setting.

Research programmes

Research masters, including MLitt’s, generally take 15 months to four years, depending on whether it’s full-time or part-time. If you choose a research-based course, explore the courses in your research area and the quality of the support and supervision offered. You can contact potential employers in your research area for views on the programme’s strengths.

Finding out the labour market’s opinion of the quality of support and supervision at this stage will pay dividends when engaging with potential employers near completion of your programme.

Some master’s programmes will facilitate an immediate transfer on to a PhD. A doctorate takes a minimum of three years. The topic is determined by your area of interest and those of your supervisor. Some PhDs are designed for the lone scholar under the direction of a single expert supervisor.

There are also structured PhDs where groups of students come together for transferable skills. Talk to the programme director to get help deciding 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 1 to doctoral awards at level 10 within the Stare.

Postgraduate diplomas, master’s degrees and PhD programmes offered by Irish colleges and leading to qualifications on the NFQ are listed on pages 8-11.

The validation of any qualification is central to its value; in Ireland this is usually seen in 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 on their websites.

QQI also makes awards in higher education mainly for programmes offered by private or independent higher education colleges. The database on lists higher education offerings from private institutions leading to awards at levels 6 upwards.

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

Qualifax lists 2,714 courses at postgrad level in 85 institutions in Ireland, including NI which provides 303 programmes.

They range from accounting in UCD to zoology in NUIG. Qualifax also lists some programmes at private colleges, where awards are on or aligned to the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). There are another 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 degrees are offered online by top ranking universities worldwide. Unfortunately, there are also many worthless postgrad offerings online from colleges with little or no academic credibility.

So for those considering programmes not 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 invaluable if you are considering studying abroad. See

Researching your options

The Qualifax website is the source for all postgraduate courses in Ireland validated by QQI. You can search for programmes under a range of criteria, location, cost and key search words relevant to your area of interest.

For courses in NI and the UK, has a comprehensive postgrad section. There’s a growing number of postgrad programmes through English in European universities – see and page x.

Online, highly reputable postgrads are offered by bodies such as the Open University and prestigious universities internationally.

“We see students selecting one of three types of course – depending on their own goals and motivation,” says Eilis O’Brien, director of communication at UCD.

“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 a career path mapped out so the choice may be more about where and when. The first two groups start to think of postgraduate options around now in the final year of studies.

Job-ready courses

The high-quality Stem graduates emerging from universities and ITs have opportunities but the competition has also increased, so many go on to graduate level to enhance their skill set.

Edel Carraway, programme internship manager for science at UCD, offers practical advice to final-year students thinking about taking a master’s or 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 offer internships as part of taught master’s, particularly in the Stem subjects.

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

Science graduates with a background in life sciences or chemistry, and thinking about setting up on their own, may consider a hybrid conversion degree such as a MSc in biotechnology and business, including completing a business plan with a biotechnology company.

As a hub of biotechnology, Ireland is a good place for science graduates and an increasing number of international students are enrolling here. Biotechnology master’s and doctorate programmes with appropriate internships are also offered by DCU, UCC, NUIG and the DIT.

With more than 40 per cent of undergrads going on to postgrad, careers offices in colleges are crucial in advising undergraduates of their options by running events to promote master’s and PhD options to their final-year students and preparing applications for graduate studies.

According to the European Commission, 80 million jobs will be created in Europe over the next 10 years and seven million of those will be in new technologies. How our third-level sector responds to the economic and individual needs of undergraduates shows their awareness of the need to be ahead of the curve in developing Ireland’s postgraduate sector.