Many areas of physics will be easier to enter with additional qualifications.
Alternatively, you may have a personal interest in a particular topic and be keen to learn more about it before entering the world of work. Whatever your motivation for considering further study, the range of Master's and PhD programmes available is almost as mind-boggling as the range of jobs.
That said, the basic distinctions between post-graduate degrees aren’t complex. Master of Science (MSc) courses generally last one year full-time. A minimum 2:2 honours degree is usually required, and a limited number of bursaries are available. Master of Philosophy, (MPhil) degrees normally take two years, are supported by research grants, and are often a stepping stone to a full PhD, which requires a successful piece of original research and published on completion.
One other postgraduate qualification is worth mentioning: the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) - a must for would-be teachers. The PGCE is a one-year course based at a university and includes at least 20 weeks of teaching practice in a school. Most courses are listed on the Graduate Teacher Training Registry. You may well be eligible for funding – check the Training and Development Agency website.
If you’re wondering which postgraduate course is going to be right for you, here are some tips and websites to help you to find the right one.
Find a good website to search for courses. To help you in your search, the IOP has produced a booklet listing Master Degrees in Physics and Related Areas or try Prospects and Find A Masters. These sites have a large database of higher degree opportunities. You're likely to find dozens, even hundreds, of possibilities. To narrow the field, talk to your academic tutor or a lecturer who specialises in the area of physics that you are interested in and ask for their opinion on the institutions and courses. And wherever you decide to study, find out all you can about potential supervisors. Current Research in Britain, Physics World and our online journals are good sources.
Remember that if you want to improve your career prospects in a specific area (such as nanotechnology or space exploration), you will want to be certain that a course will improve your employability, not just be an expensive indulgence.
Find out if the industry sector has a preferred course. Look at the professional body's site, if there is one, or talk to someone in recruitment at a company that you want to approach. Remember that many companies will visit careers fairs. Look for events at your institution and talk to your careers service. Try to talk to someone in a technical role - human resources may not know about technical qualifications. Alternatively, look at the case-studies and profiles on company and careers websites. Are there any specific courses that seem to be favoured?
Ask where graduates find work when they've completed the courses that you are considering. All universities have to collect destination information from all Master's and PhD programmes (although they may not have data about international students, which could reduce the amount of information available), so they should be able to tell you where their graduates are working and what they are doing.
Find out about funding for courses. Visit the funding section, or look at the Postgraduate Funding Guide, produced by Prospects. Most financial support for postgraduate study comes from the research councils and is allocated to a university department and then passed on to students. Studentships are regularly advertised in Physics World and New Scientist. You might also get funding through the Cooperative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE), which brings together industry and academics to focus on a research project of industrial interest. If so, you’ll probably be required to spend some time working in the sponsoring company's laboratories. Some charities, such as Cancer Research, support research in their field of interest. Finally, some universities have their own awards for postgraduate studies.
Look for measures of the quality of the department. For research degrees (MPhil, MRes, PhD, DPhil, EngD) you should ask about the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) score. For more information and the latest results click here www.rae.ac.uk/. This will affect the funding that the department receives and might have an effect on the availability of equipment or the size of the research community.
Talk to students on the course and recent graduates, if possible. Ask what impact the course had on their career prospects and what advice they have.
last edited: September 26, 2014