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Types of degrees and courses

Learn more about the degrees and courses you can study for once you graduate.

The type of postgraduate qualification you study for depends on what your career path requires and what qualifications you already hold. There are additional factors, such as if you'd like to combine practice and research or if you're looking to change careers.

Think about what you really want out of the experience and what you intend to do with a postgraduate qualification.

These tend to be vocational, providing further study that enables you to access a particular career area. They normally last one full academic year and can be useful for a change in career direction.

Diploma and certificate courses are available in a wide range of subjects such as:

  • teaching
  • law
  • housing
  • librarianship.

You can use our occupational information about different careers to find out whether this kind of training is required for the career area you're interested in.

Master's courses are either delivered as taught courses, or through research. Many master's degrees are academic in nature, but some are also vocational to give you access to a particular career area (eg social work).

Taught master's degrees

Taught courses will follow a similar structure to your undergraduate degree and are usually undertaken over one year full-time or two years part-time with lectures, seminars, coursework and exams. You may undertake a short research project with a dissertation at the end of your course.

Research master's degrees

Research master's degrees involve critical investigation of a clearly-defined topic over one to two years.  You work independently with the support of a supervisor to conduct your research and are likely to undertake training in research skills. Some students may begin a master's degree by research with the aim of upgrading to a PhD.

Different degree titles

The titles used for degrees can seem confusing. Oxford, Cambridge and four Scottish universities (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews) award MA degrees to some or all of their undergraduate students. As a consequence, they use different titles for their postgraduate masters programmes (such as MSt or Master of Studies at Oxford and Cambridge).

Other universities may award MMath, MEng, MChem, or similar titles to science students on four year undergraduate courses. Again, these are not, strictly speaking, postgraduate qualifications.

If you're in any doubt, check with the institution concerned that your understanding of the degree title is correct.

A PhD (known as a DPhil in some universities) is the highest level of academic qualification and is available across all academic subjects.

It involves at least three years of independent, in-depth research with the support of a supervisor (five to seven years if completed part-time). At the end you produce a thesis.

The thesis needs to make a genuine contribution to knowledge in the discipline as well as relating your findings back to existing work in the field. It must be original and add something new. This is reviewed by external and internal examiners and you sit a viva, which is an oral exam where your arguments and conclusions are tested. Once your PhD has been awarded you are entitled to use the title of Dr.

New types of doctorate

New types of doctorate have also been created. The DEng and DBA, for example, are more focused on practical, vocational outcomes than the traditional PhD and involve a significant industrial element, and they exist alongside the traditional models for both subjects.

Practice-based PhDs allow students of art, design and similar areas to combine practice and research in their subject.

Professional doctorates

Professional doctorates are also available in some fields. The professional doctorate is a doctoral qualification that is fully equivalent to the PhD, but it is focused on the application of research in a particular field.

Professional doctorates are undertaken by practitioners working in a particular career who want to apply their research in their roles, so it combines academic and professional knowledge.

Thesis outcomes

In the UK, a PhD is not classified. You either pass, are required to make corrections or to rewrite part of your thesis and to resubmit it, or fail. In the case of failure, you are sometimes offered a lesser degree (eg MPhil) instead.

Progress to a wide range of roles

A PhD is the first step towards building an academic career, and PhD graduates also now go into a wide range of roles, many in professional research within fields beyond academia such as the Civil Service, local government, charities, consultancies, and medical communications, for example.

Others pursue roles within universities but not as academics, for example, in university administration or a career in the education field more broadly. Another option is to pursue a career completely distinct from the PhD with a graduate role unconnected to previous studies.

Find out more

For advice on which degree is right for you, please get in touch:

Careers and Employability