Postgraduate study can help you train in very specific areas of interest to you, and so you must chose carefully not just what subject, but what type of course you wish to take on.
There are a wide variety of options available but students usually consider one of the three main types of postgraduate qualification. MPhils and PhDs are higher degrees mainly research based and involve anything from one to three years of research submitted as a thesis. Higher degrees by instruction; MAs and MScs etc normally last just one year if studied full-time and often involve a dissertation as well as coursework. The final main option is a diploma or certificate, which is usually a vocational course giving partial or total exemption from professional study.
"Obviously there is an enormous range but the basic division is between research-based and taught programmes," explains Graham Trickey of the Graduate Prospects editorial team. "Doctorates of which the lengthy PhD is the best known are research based - as is the MPhil. The situation is less clear cut with the year-long masters degrees because they include a major research element in the form of a dissertation or other project.
Courses leading to diplomas and certificates are entirely taught. Diploma and certificate courses usually have a strong vocational or career angle. Often these courses are the first taught stage of career-orientated masters, excluding the dissertation. The type of work involved in taught postgraduate programmes tends to echo the sort of activities included in first degrees but is more intensive since there is much less time. However, some vocationally-orientated courses do have more practical content than students are used to from their first degrees," he adds.
Although there are a lot of options, finding out about all the courses available in your field isn't as hard as you'd think. There are many places you can look and you don't have to do it all on your own. It's definitely worth contacting your local careers service which should be more than happy to help you on your search for information, but there is a lot of research you can do yourself.
For example try checking out universities on the Internet but also definitely flag two very useful student tool websites - Prospects [new window] and Hobsons [new window]. There is also a website called FindAPhd.com [new window] that has a guide to current scientific research and PhD studentships.
The national papers are also great for finding out more about further education. The Guardian on a Tuesday is worth looking at, as is The Times Higher Education Supplement. Finally, when it comes specifically to researching engineering courses, also check out the obvious places such as this website and magazines as well as any other specialist journals in your field.
Once you have found some courses that interest you, then you have to narrow down the list to those most relevant for your career plans. Consider what courses will keep you interested and motivated, plus discuss your plans with academics from your current university who will be able to highlight leading departments in your intended area of study.
Also be aware when considering courses that there may be specific entry requirements that you need to reach in order to gain entry to the course - make sure you are able to do this! On average the postgraduate entry requirement is at least a 2:1 honours degree, and depending on the type of course you plan to apply to, you may be required to have taken part in some relevant work experience too. There are also entry tests for many of the MBA courses available.
"The main route into postgraduate degree studies is via a first degree qualification. In exceptional cases, candidates from alternative routes such as diploma certificates but with long and valuable experience are considered on a case by case basis," notes Dr John Durdola, reader and head of mechanical engineering at Oxford Brookes.
Another thing to consider is that you don't have to go into postgraduate study directly after completing your first degree; there are many routes into the system at many stages through your working career. "There are a number of pathways to a postgraduate course. A traditional path has been for academically gifted students to enrol in an Honours year in their undergraduate degree and, if successful in this course, they then move onto doing a research masters degree or straight into a PhD," notes the University of Leicester Careers Service.
"It is possible, however, to enrol in a university-level graduate certificate or diploma in an academic field on the basis of relevant employment, or in some cases, life experience, and then progress to a higher level postgraduate qualification on the basis of your success in these courses," the University of Leicester Careers Service adds. "In a similar way, enrolment in a masters by coursework can follow relevant work experience and/or the successful completion of a graduate certificate or diploma in a relevant area or by finishing an undergraduate degree deemed by the university you wish to attend as suitable and adequate preparation."
Also, for some, postgraduate study can be easier as it doesn't have to be a full-time course.
"While students going straight into postgraduate study after their first degrees will probably be studying full-time, part-time postgraduate study is common since many postgraduate students are studying after having already started on a career," says Trickey.
Keep the type of study in mind when looking at courses, but don't forget that there are also e-learning options available too.
Finally, remember that postgraduate courses are products for sale and you are the customer. Ask questions, do research and then make a decision based on what is best for your career. Then enjoy your postgraduate study experience!
University of Leicester Careers Service
Oxford Brookes University