Levelling up: What you need to know about postgrad study

The uni rollercoaster is approaching that final, screaming, downhill flail before the end of the year. While many of us are simply looking forward to a break, there are an awful lot of you white-knuckling it through your last semester, and weighing up your post-graduation options.

If you’re addicted to the uni lifestyle, avoiding the reality of workforce participation, or maybe fancy a couple more letters after your name, you may have entertained adding a Masters degree or Honours program to your to-do-list.

But what exactly does this entail?

UON offers over 80 postgrad degrees, from Masters programs where you can hone and focus your skills, to Honours degrees where you will create your own research project, and with the help of an academic supervisor or two, research and write a thesis.

“Typically, a Masters tends to be coursework based, while Honours is more about the research,” explains Master of Marketing student, Rowena Grant. “I was at a point where I wanted to take my career further, and a Masters was the right move for me. Masters really expands your knowledge base and employability.”

“A Masters degree is perfect for anyone who knows what their chosen field is going to be. It’s really focussed on a particular area of study,” adds Associate Professor, Jenny Cameron, “While Honours is less about the actual content and more about the process.”

UTS and UNSW academic, Dr. Stephen Owen, who completed his undergraduate, Honours and PhD at UON, was fascinated with the Honours concept from his first year. “I thought that the opportunity to do my own research project, with a deep dive into whatever I would eventually decide to focus on, was appealing to me. Developing a good rapport with some great lecturers and tutors helped me to continue to think about doing Honours as time went by.”

Jenny reiterates this rapport as the key to the Honours pathway. “While you’re doing Honours, you develop a one-on-one academic relationship with your supervisor. It’s a really different relationship to the linear undergraduate model, which is ‘research, write, submit and receive feedback. During Honours, you are constantly refining a single project, while your supervisor provides feedback and support.”

“Honours students build very strong friendships and support networks with their fellow students and academics. It’s hard work, but it’s actually a lot of fun.”

This is echoed by Stephen, “It was a great experience studying with a very small group of students who were also quite focused on their studies. I made some great friendships, and am still good friends with most of the people in my Honours cohort. It was also great to get to spend time participating in the life of the faculty, which was quite eye-opening at times, as we were able to see what research faculty members were pursuing and just generally getting to know them as people.”

So, in a world where everyone hassles you about the employability prospects of your degree, and it seems like everyone you meet wants you to justify your education, what are the advantages of a postgraduate degree?

Postgraduate work is a massive financial, temporal and mental undertaking. How do you justify it to all those people who constantly bug you about your employability and future prospects (I may be projecting here)?

“Your university qualifications are substantially strengthened,” explains Jenny.

“Honours is good for your employment and further education prospects, it’s an incredibly flexible and transferable credential. You will prove that you can take on and manage a substantial project on your own, that you can provide results within a short time frame, that you can work with others, think critically, analyse documents and field notes and you can communicate all these findings.  It makes a great educational passport.”

“The Honours year really helped with my confidence in terms of the value of the work I was doing and my own independent ideas,” continues Stephen. “The ability to discuss and present my own research ideas, plans, projects and such in front of peers and members of faculty, and to then get very thoughtful feedback on it all, ultimately helped me to feel confident in being part of academic life more broadly”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a postgrad degree is a cool way just to hang around and avoid getting a job for a little bit longer, however.

“You really need a sincere motivation,” says Rowena, “I started my Masters with the wrong mind-set, and had to take a year off to recalibrate. I came back with good motivation and goals and that’s made all the difference. It’s a completely different uni experience. I started my undergrad straight out of high school, moving from full-time study to another form of full-time study. With Masters I’m more aware of what I’m putting in and what I’m getting out, the responsibility, the sacrifice and the rewards.”

“The reality was great. It was of course quite hard at times, as it should be,” affirms Stephen. “In many ways, Honours is the hardest year of study. There’s a real transition from being an undergraduate to being inculcated into the norms of the academic discipline and the general culture of the faculty. Spending a lot of time on my own research project was really rewarding as it allowed me to investigate some things in depth which later became the foundations of my PhD research.”

Associate Professor Kathy Mee describes postgrad as, “more work than you’ve ever done before as a student.” However, “your skills will develop in different ways to your undergraduate experience and there’s nothing like that buzz you get from piloting your own project. It’s the perfect way to see if you have that taste for research.”

Honours programs can be ‘embedded’, and be part of your undergraduate degree, or ‘end-on’, a separate year of additional study following the completion of your undergrad.

To qualify for postgrad you need a decent GPA, usually a credit average, or above. Some programs require you to submit a portfolio. Make sure you check the appropriate guide.

You also need the right motivation. You might feel like you just want to hang around campus, or postpone the inevitable job search for a year, but, as Rowena advises, “You really need to be doing it for the right reasons. There’s a lot of work, energy and sacrifice involved.”

If you’re interested in postgrad work, weigh up your options, pay a visit to a Program Advisor, or contact your favourite academic for some advice and get prepared to commit to a hefty workload.

And if you see someone stumbling around campus with sunken eyes, hollow cheeks and a possible vitamin deficiency, that’s a postgrad. Buy them a coffee.