IOP Institute of Physics

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Postgraduate

Studying for another qualification once you graduate from university might seem like the last thing you want to do after years of hard work. However, having a postgraduate qualification can open significant doors on your way up the career ladder, setting you apart from your competition.

Modern physics research covers an enormous range of topics and disciplines. The different types of qualifications available to those with an undergraduate degree are listed below. You can also find details of the physics research going on nationwide in the Current Research in Britain guide and the IOP's own research guide.

Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)/Post Graduate Diploma in Education
The PGCE/PGDE is the common qualification taken by those entering primary or secondary teaching. A one-year course, it is often based at a university and includes at least 20 weeks of teaching practice in a school. You can search and apply for most courses via theĀ Graduate Teacher Training Registry. For some courses you will have to apply directly to the university.

To find out if you are eligible for funding visit the Training and Development Agency (TDA) website. The TDA also provides information on alternative teacher training routes.

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Master of Science, MSc
These are taught postgraduate courses that specialise in a particular area. They usually last one year full-time or two year part-time and in most cases a minimum of a 2:2 honours degree is expected. There are usually a limited number of bursaries available for MSc courses and you should contact the relevant department in the university for more information.

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Master of Philosophy, MPhil
These are degrees awarded for the successful completion of a period of research training, normally 2 years. Most doctoral students register for a Master of Philosophy, then transfer to a PhD after successfully completing approximately one year of research. The majority of students are supported by research grants, however in some universities Teaching Assistant posts are available and sometimes it is possible for holders of these posts to register for a higher degree such as an MPhil.

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Doctor of Philosophy, DPhil or PhD
Doctoral degrees are awarded for the completion of a successful piece of original research. This research can be quite specific or cross- disciplinary. The supervisor usually defines research areas. On some projects you may be collaborating with others on part of a much larger area of work, while for other projects you may be working individually on a particular role. Whilst the prime purpose of a PhD is to provide training in research, candidates are expected also to develop an awareness of advances in all aspects of their subject. This awareness will be gained from taught courses as well as departmental seminars. The specific requirements vary from institution to institution. Students should also acquire professional skills such as communication skills, and personal skills such as self-management and time-management.

Doctoral degrees are awarded on the basis of a written thesis and an oral examination. There are usually at least two examiners attending the oral examination. Normally, one of these examiners is identified on the grounds of expertise in the specific field, and from a different university; the second will be internal to the candidate's university. Some students are offered jobs before they have submitted their PhD thesis. It is possible to write up your thesis while in employment, however it is more difficult as your time is devoted to your new job. As priorities change and it is difficult to remain motivated to writing your thesis, it is advisable to submit your thesis before you start a job.

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Where to study?

You can undertake postgraduate studies in most universities. Postgraduate studies may be an opportunity for you to move to another institution. You may decide to go somewhere that specialises in a particular subject area in which you are interested.

While some institutions encourage their graduates to move on to other institutions for their postgraduate studies, many are keen to hold on to their best students to support their own research interests. This, combined with difficulties in securing grants in other institutions, means that for many the easier option is not to move. If you decide to move you should plan early. Decide where you would like to go or with whom you would like to work. Find out about the new institution: the courses they offer and the availability of grants. More likely than not, you will be aiming to go to an institution which best caters for your choice of studies, or focuses on research in which you are interested.

If you are moving to undertake research training in a particular field of the physical sciences, find out who are the most active researchers in that field. This information may point you in a particular direction, or to a particular institution. It may be that the supervisor you wish to work with is based overseas, in which case you will have to consider whether you want to spend a period of time abroad and how you will fund this. Read our tips on studying abroad. For all potential supervisors, whether in your current institution or another, find out as much as possible about their work.

Consult the latest research journals and professional magazines (e.g. Physics World and our online journals) to find out what their current research interests are and, if possible, talk to their current research students. Undergraduate project supervisors can be useful contacts for potential postgraduates. Current Research in Britain is a useful guide - it gives details of the research being done in all UK physics departments, on a subject by subject basis.

If you are thinking of moving, find out what the new institution and its research facilities are like. Ask for a postgraduate prospectus and visit the institution. The Internet contains information on current research in universities worldwide. When you have narrowed down your choice, contact the potential supervisor and ask if any research opportunities will be available when you graduate.

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Which grant?

The research councils fund the majority of grants for postgraduate research. Postgraduate studentships are regularly advertised in Physics World and New Scientist. Most students need a first or an upper second class MPhys/MSci or honours degree to obtain a grant, as these are usually awarded on a competitive basis. The majority of students are supported by research grants in one form or another. A significant number of Cooperative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE) are available. These awards bring together industry and academia to focus on a research project of industrial interest. The awards are allocated to the supervisor who is collaborating with the industrial company. Students who are funded by such grants are usually required to spend some time working in the sponsoring company's laboratories. This arrangement can be of great benefit to a student because it allows access to the resources of the company concerned.

Each research council produces a guide to the grants and studentships it awards. This is essential reading if you are considering applying for a grant. Research councils allocate grants to departments of the physical sciences and, in turn, the department nominates students for each grant.

A small number of grants are funded by charities and by companies. These are usually for research into a specific area of interest to the charity or the company concerned, e.g. the Cancer Research Campaign supports research aimed at finding a cure for cancer. However, there are other less well known, but equally valuable causes. These grants are usually allocated to the supervisor who has links with the organisations concerned. Some institutions have university awards for postgraduate studies, and further information about these can be obtained from the relevant university department.

The Postgraduate Funding Guide, produced by Prospects, provides useful information and addresses regarding funding postgraduate study. Some students can supplement their grants by acting as demonstrators in undergraduate laboratory classes, or by undertaking other teaching roles.

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Postdoctoral research

Some doctoral students move on after their postgraduate studies to work with a new supervisor in a postdoctoral post, some stay with their postgraduate supervisor. This is an opportunity to gain extra experience in a research-based environment. The foremost researchers tend to have large research groups with many postdoctoral workers. If you are thinking of doing this, you should talk to your postgraduate supervisor who will have relevant contacts and can offer advice. It may be that the supervisor with whom you wish to work is based overseas, in which case you will have to consider whether you want to spend a period of time abroad.

Postdoctoral research awards or fellowships offer more money than postgraduate awards. While many supervisors may welcome postdoctoral researchers, you will often be required to find your own funding. The Royal Society also offers a limited number of postdoctoral research fellowships for UK institutions. Some charities also provide funding for postdoctoral research.

last edited: September 24, 2014