Choosing the right field of study and university requires considerable research and understanding of your own priorities. Some of the stepping stones that pave the way to a well informed decision are career goals, reputation, and value. Here is why.
Broad, narrow or all-new
According to Steff Young, an MA in Literature student at the University of East Anglia (UK), the Masters degree is a considerable step-up from undergraduate studies, as it teaches personal skills such as time management, self-discipline, and working with deadlines. In an interview with the UK’s Independent, the young graduate asserts that the Masters has “a distinctive way of preparing students for the working world that enables you to walk into a workplace as a professional, rather than a graduate or intern.“
The Masters programme’s purpose is rather straightforward: to confer practical skills that can be used to enhance and advance your career. The general rule of thumb is to choose a broader field (e.g., Masters in Linguistics) if the goal is to have an encompassing understanding of the professional field, or to pick a narrow specialisation (e.g., Masters in Financial Markets) if the goal is to be able to operate intricately with the instruments of the job. The choice between these two is defined by your career aspirations, and those vary depending on academic, work, and life experience, but we will talk more about this later.
The third outcome of the Masters degree is its ability to change your professional field altogether. If there is considerable hesitation as to the relevancy of the Bachelor’s field of study to your career goals, the Masters degree can help alleviate that doubt. Whether this irrelevancy becomes clear immediately after completing the first university degree, or after a couple of years in the job market is not that important. The focus is that the intended field of study of the Masters degree should be considered as an opportunity to boost your professional credentials. In this case, the course will accomplish one of two things: it will either provide the necessary skills and knowledge to begin entirely anew, in a different professional sphere; or it will complement an existing knowledge base if the goal is to pursue a professional occupation that requires an interdisciplinary background.
Right after college or in a couple of years
There are two timings that govern the way a Masters degree is approached: enlisting in a Masters programme immediately after completing a Bachelor’s degree, or diving into work for some time before considering a postgraduate programme.
This is an important distinction to make because, more often than not, it can dictate the choice of programme. Factors such as life experience, practical knowledge of the professional field, and existing work skills make the choice of a Masters programme more relevant to the job market. If students consider the field of study of their Masters degree after having spent time in the professional arena, they could draw from their practical experiences, and make a more educated decision based on both their past studies and more recent work exposure.
That is not to say that the latter is categorically better than the former. Rather, these are two different approaches that carry different outcomes and cater to different career goals. Certainly, internship opportunities, work-study and part-time jobs provide an opportunity to become immersed in real business while still in college, and enough confidence to go directly to graduate school. But, if Bachelor-degree holders decide to explore different career tracks in greater depth, they are free to spend a year or two out of school, which will naturally result in a slightly different choice of a Masters degree than if they were to go for it right after college.
Here is an illustration. If the Bachelor’s concentration was Economics, then it is quite possible that a student without work experience would choose exactly the same or very similar field of study for their Masters programme – an MSc in Economics. However, in the same case, but with a bit of work experience, say a year as an intern at a bank, or two as a trainee at an investment company, that same person could well choose to enlist in a Masters in Banking and Finance.
When competing for a job at a bank, the advantage would go to the graduate in Banking and Finance, whereas a think tank or an analytical group would most likely prefer to employ a Master in Economics.
The same principle applies to virtually any field of study, be it management, business, marketing or STEM, so the question that needs answering is this: “Is broad theoretical knowledge at a younger age more important, or is narrow practical experience at an older age more relevant to my career goals?” There is no right or wrong here, but it is a crucial distinction to make as it could determine not only the field of study, but how that choice is made in the first place.
Reputation, location, and financial equation
The field of study should be considered a priority when choosing a Masters programme. This is important because practical knowledge will be instrumental to career growth, whereas the university’s name alone could open doors to employment at first, but cannot keep them open forever as, with time, work experience becomes much more sought-after than education.
Therefore, the next thing to consider is the university’s value. The key question here is: “What is valuable to me?” The possible answers are the university’s reputation, location, faculty, tuition fee, scholarship programme, alumni networks, internship initiatives, careers services, and more.
Let’s take a closer look at some factors:
Reputation, at the postgraduate level in particular, relates not only to the university’s general reputation, but rather, to the university’s traditions with regards to the already chosen field of study. Reputation can vary per region as one university can be highly recognised in one country or region, and not that famous in other parts of the world. Checking out the list of employers for the chosen field of study and the alumni success of different universities can give a good indication of where your Masters degree will be well perceived.
Location should not be about the sunniest or most fun place to spend a year or two, but rather about the country’s traditions in promoting the field of study. Moreover, Masters programmes taught in English are widely available around the globe, so the language of instruction will not be a limitation. Some countries have traditions in Economics and Finance (UK, US, Germany); others have a history in Design (Italy, France), Banking (Switzerland, UK) or Avionics (France), and others still have established a lead in niche studies such as Biotechnologies (Scandinavian countries), and Rocket Science (Russia).
Finally, there is the cost of education – the second and equally important part of the “value for money” equation. It is a strictly personal factor, but it can be offset by financial aid, family support, loans, and ROI. Generally speaking, higher education pays for itself in the long run, if all the other boxes in the “career goals” and “value of university” categories are ticked. However, the rule “do not bet more than you can afford to lose” applies in full force to postgraduate education as well. It is the very essence of the “value for money” paradigm and the reason why it is so powerful in negating any possible regret or unmet expectations stemming from the choice of university.
All of these aspects are critical to the choice of a Masters programme and university. Yet, what makes them even more important in the long term is that by answering the corresponding questions ahead of time, it is possible to plan the early stages of your career.
That should provide solace to anyone worrying about what happens after university.
After all, “if you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2018-2019 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Plan Ahead or Regret Later”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.