Masters programmes are designed to help you deepen your expertise in a particular field and hit the ground running in the labour market. The truth is, however, that the impact of the degree on your professional and personal life depends largely on your energy and enthusiasm during your studies. Here is how to make the most of graduate school.
By the time you get to consider enrolling in a Masters programme, your experience must have taught you that life is much more fulfilling and challenges are less daunting when you are proactive. Conversely, living a passive life exacerbates problems and places undue stress on your life. Since higher education is not obligatory, the mere fact that you have decided to pursue a Masters degree suggests that you are willing to instigate action. However, you would be wrong in assuming that during your studies you will just follow instructions and guidance from others. Quite the contrary.
If you want to make the most of your graduate school experience, prepare to engage in various activities on and off campus. As a Masters aspirant you will have many opportunities to act. Let’s review some of them.
Building your own programme: a unique skill set
To varying degrees, Masters programmes allow you to choose electives, in addition to the fixed courses, so you can shape your studying experience according to your interests. Some universities allow you to pick electives from any discipline, while others give you a list of courses in specific fields to choose from. Some programmes enable you to choose electives from the very start of your studies, while others restrict choice to after you cover the core curriculum. Students at the Masters in Management programme at IE Business School (Spain), for instance, can pick electives such as International Business, Integrated Marketing, or Digital Business in a third, specialisation, period. During the first two periods, they cover the cornerstones of business management via fixed courses.
It is great that universities and business schools allow you to choose, but this freedom is a double-edged sword. If you are not careful you could end up with electives that do not fully correspond to your interests or professional goals. Robert Palasik, MSc Finance & Economics student at Warwick Business School (UK), admits to wondering about what strategy to use when picking his electives. “The easiest approach is probably to choose something which you know will directly boost your employability in a specialist field. Another option is to choose something which develops skills in an area that you are interested in.”
The choice may be difficult, especially if you have a long list of electives to browse through. If you feel lost or are not completely aware of your full range of options, do not hesitate to ask an academic adviser for help.
Job and internship opportunities: career exploration
If you want to find employment immediately after graduation but have limited or no work experience, consider an internship. Undergoing supervised practical training will significantly improve your chances in the labour market later on. Jay Russell, campus jobs manager at the University of Reading (UK), told careers advice website prospects.ac.uk: “Graduate employers actively look for work experience on CVs and application forms, and part-time work demonstrates responsibility, time management, and a whole host of other transferable skills that are valuable.”
Some programmes consider the internship as a degree requirement and even help students with finding a placement. In many such cases, students receive credit for the internship. But even if your programme does not have such a requirement, make sure to look around for part-time work possibilities. Again, talk to your adviser or the university’s career centre about your options.
Much like with the Masters programme, what you gain from an internship depends largely on you and your active participation. It is one thing to keep a low profile and “wait out” the internship, and quite another to be fully invested and willing to learn by actively taking on challenging tasks. Having completed an internship on paper is not enough. You need to have the knowledge and skills to show for it. Rosemary Haefner, former chief human resources officer at US job-hunting website CareerBuilder, told the BBC: “Many new graduates have one or more internships on their resumes, which makes employers think they can start at a higher level. But do they really have much tangible experience? The employer needs to tease that out in the interview and find out how much they worked on projects and how much they were getting coffee for everyone.”
Extracurricular activities: new experiences and networking
Extracurricular activities are invaluable in developing your talents and practical skills, and crucially, your leadership and team role skills. A great thing about these activities is that in addition to benefitting you, some of them like fundraising and volunteering also help others. Remember that everything you do at university can find its place in your CV. However, this does not mean that you should fill all your free time with extracurriculars just to bolster your CV/resume. Instead, be selective and engage only in activities that genuinely interest you.
So, what can you do? Many students choose to join a sports club. Along with being healthy and enjoyable, sport, especially team sport, presents a great opportunity to develop and to demonstrate leadership skills as well as team spirit. If sport is not your forte, you can participate in (or even initiate) a project, for example a fundraiser. Or what about volunteer work? Volunteering will test your sense of responsibility and maturity, in addition to benefitting others. Another option would be to get involved in student politics by joining a debating society, the school newspaper, a community, or a political group. Yet another great opportunity to demonstrate your responsibility and engagement is the student council. Bear in mind, though, that joining the student council is not easy because you have to be elected by your classmates, so building trust and a sense of commitment and responsibility as well as leadership come into play in this case.
There are countless other extracurricular activities you can participate in. There might be opportunities presented by the university department in charge of your Masters programme. For example, most university departments organise events and invite guest speakers who are typically notable experts in specific areas of your subject. Although attending guest lectures does not require much activity on your part, you can still make the effort to introduce yourself to the speaker and ask specific questions. Or you can even participate in the organisation of the lecture.
Exchange programmes: Yet more international exposure
Even if you have already studied abroad or in an international classroom in your home country, you have the opportunity to gain valuable exposure to a foreign culture by studying in one or more countries on exchange programmes. The truth is, however, that cross-cultural awareness and better language skills are not the only reasons students venture abroad. Many of them take advantage of exchange programmes because they are interested in courses that are not available at their universities. Others see them as an opportunity to expand their network and build valuable relationships with people from all over the world. Studying in a foreign country also exposes you to different teaching methods. And of course, a period spent abroad is a strong addition to your CV/resume because it tells employers that you are flexible, resourceful, and not afraid of challenges.
The Masters degree is fertile ground where you can acquire knowledge and skills, meet interesting people, gain exposure to new ideas, and get to know yourself better. The Masters has the potential to be one of the most exciting and dynamic periods of your life, so do not be passive. Go out there and go for it!
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2019-2020 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Discover the Treasures of a Masters”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.